Friday01 August 2014

Cromwell Tower refurbishment by Witherford Watson Mann

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The practice has reworked the reception area and meeting room to incorporate original furniture and new finishes

The Barbican’s Cromwell Tower
Witherford Watson Mann
Beech Street, London EC2
December 2010

The 43-storey Cromwell Tower is one of three triangular planned towers that dominate the Chamberlin Powell & Bon-designed Barbican estate in the City of London.

Designed in the 1950s and completed in the early 1970s they were grade II listed and designated a site of special architectural interest in 2001, with the whole Barbican complex.

All three towers follow the same template: their main structure is formed by a central lift shaft and stairwells with a peripheral framework of beams and split piers rising from exposed columns.

Most of the original features of Cromwell Tower’s communal areas had survived a large-scale alteration in the 1980s, including an intercom board, the brick furniture and the moulded fibre glass panelling. However, significant elements had gone – such as the original reception desk, which was replaced with an ill-fitting alternative when the main entrance moved from podium to street level – and original finishes were covered by layers of inappropriately coloured carpet and paint.

The design-literate Cromwell Tower residents agreed there was a need to refurbish the communal areas and ran an invited competition won by Witherford Watson Mann, which was appointed in July 2006.

“Our design responds to the robust materiality of the original structure, and draws inspiration from the ideas which informed
the initial design,” says the practice’s associate director Freddie Phillipson.

“The ground floor now serves as the main entrance and reception area, and our brief was to make the first floor room more congenial for shared sociable use.”

It took four years for the proposals to be approved, but the work itself took a mere five months, at a cost of £185,000.

Reception area detail


1 Entrance door relocated
2 Original tiles uncovered: carpet and glue removed
3 Original brick furniture
4 Original granite table top
5 New brick desk with Ketley Brown Brindle base
6 Original granite desk top reclaimed from podium tables
7 Original bust of Oliver Cromwell from lift lobby
8 Original brushed stainless steel intercom tower
9 Original moulded fibreglass panelling
10 New earth coloured carpet
11 Stairwell
12 Podium level

Reception desk

The most significant intervention made to Cromwell Tower’s ground-floor reception is the addition of a brick reception desk designed by Witherford Watson Mann.

The architect’s only points of reference were an early perspective drawing of the podium level, and the existence of the original brick furniture on the ground floor – a black leather sofa and low table with a granite top, and two sofas and a low table using the same materials at podium level.

The original 20mm-thick black granite that once topped the original desk had been reused on two tabletops and the replacement reception desk. It was removed and recut to fit the dimensions of the new desk.

However the planners objected to the new desk resembling the original too closely, saying it would undermine its integrity. They accepted the architect’s proposal that the desk become part of the family of brick furniture that grows out of the brick tiled floor. As a compromise, it was agreed that the bottom two courses of the desk would be Ketley’s Brown Brindle to match the original floor while the brick above would be Ketley’s Staffordshire Blue.

The 6m-long desk was largely built on site. Timber shelving was fitted inside, and a plywood panel lain across the top on to which the recut granite was glued. Along the exposed edges of the granite top, two layers of 20mm-thick granite strips were laminated to the underside to achieve a perceived thickness of 60mm.

The desk’s fragmented form changes in height from 720mm at one end to 970mm at the other, in order to accommodate the powerful vertical form of the original brushed stainless-steel intercom board. The variation in desk height was also necessary to conceal IT and security screens. A niche was created for wheelchair users, and a 1.65m-tall plinth rises up to display the bust of the revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, after whom the tower is named.

The result is restrained yet forceful and, as project architect Joerg Maier says, “It resembles a miniature cityscape and its eroded form responds to the existing characteristics of the Barbican estate.”

Also at ground level, the main entrance door has been relocated further along to enable the security guard a more direct view. At both ground and podium levels, the framing to the glazed facade has been painted green/grey.

Blue carpet dominated the reception area before refurbishment.

Source: David Grandorge

Blue carpet dominated the reception area before refurbishment.

Walls & ceilings

On the back walls at both ground and podium levels, the original moulded fibreglass panelling survived but it had been painted light grey.

The discovery of the surviving olive green paintwork on the inside of the panelled doors influenced the greenish colour scheme chosen. Artist Richard Clark devised a 10-toned green colour scheme that begins dark and gradually becomes lighter and is finished with a pearlescent lacquer.

At ground level, an acoustic ceiling has been inserted from which hangs suspended bronze anodised aluminium lights designed by the architect. The acoustic ceiling is a system called Baswaphon, which consists of mineral wool panels attached to the soffit and covered with layers of a proprietary porous render. The ceiling could not be painted as it would have compromised the acoustic properties. Instead, the render was coloured to match the Keim mineral wall paint, which itself matched the existing bush-hammered concrete.

At podium level, the ceiling has been painted a dark green with a satin finish.


The original brick tiled floor to both the ground and podium levels was concealed by blue carpet. This was removed to reveal the tiles and re-anchor the furniture to the floor.

The new carpet picks up the reddish tone of the brick floor and has been fitted to sections of the floor on the two levels and in the lift lobbies with a brick border around the edge.

Internal lift lobbies

Lift lobby before and after

Source: David Grandorge

Lift lobby before and after: Paint was removed from the walls using an organic solvent that uncovered the original bush-hammered concrete with its speckled granite aggregate.

Prior to the refurbishment, the three lift lobbies were depressing spaces. Walls and ceilings were painted white with antiquated spotlights fixed above and the floor had been covered in the same ubiquitous blue carpet.

The dramatic original ventilation shafts, two per lobby, were closed off with timber shutters and the R2D2-like stainless steel lift call units, a feat of industrial design, had been covered in white paint, diminishing their presence.

The architects’ proposal was to remove the layers and open up the lobbies. The same earth-coloured carpet was laid, the white paint removed from the walls, revealing again the original bush-hammered concrete, and the paint removed from the lift call
unit restoring its shiny metallic look.

The shutters to the ventilation shafts were removed drawing strips of daylight into the space and subtle halogen lights were installed, creating a stagey and dramatic presence.


Architect Witherford Watson Mann, Client City of London, Main contractor Standage & Co, Artist Richard Clark, Services engineer Michael Popper Associates, Quantity surveyor Rider Levett Bucknall UK, Concrete & tile cleaner Adept Restorative Cleaning, Reception desk Christian Marshall, Curtains Ken Creasy, Curtain fabric Hesse & Co, Lights Metro, Carpet Linney Cooper


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