Saturday05 September 2015

The Palestra and the pod

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Palestra’s pod is the inviting gateway to Will Alsop’s architecture and ID:SR’s interiors, a happy combination of styles that blend practicality and whimsy

Will Alsop’s pods invite metaphors, it’s what they’re there for. Irregular interruptions into regular worlds, they reach out to our imagination and form an emotional bridge to the building. Palestra, SMC Alsop’s new spec-built office development in an up-and-coming corner of Southwark, has hatched a fine example. It’s cute and curvy, nestling beneath the cantilevered upper floors. Could it be a secret grotto? A shelter for travelling Clangers? The business end of a Teletubbies vacuum cleaner?

But to the building’s new tenants, the metaphors are clear enough. The London Development Agency has signed up for two floors of Palestra, and also taken the pod and half the ground floor space. Its brief to the interior design team from Sheppard Robson was to transform the pod into reception-cum-exhibition space: the finished pod not only invites Londoners’ curiosity, but invites them inside.

Drop-in visitors can use the touch screen displays about developments in London and the plans for the 2012 Olympics, or take away brochures. Visitors with an appointment are greeted by a sleek white and glass reception desk, then guided through to the lift cores or the ground floor conference rooms by a curving GRP wall shaped like the crest of a breaking wave. Deceptively spacious, the pod can welcome 70 guests at evening events.

So the pod is a squashed TV screen displaying what’s going on inside, a gramophone horn amplifying its message, the public friendly face of a faceless government agency. In fact, pod and tenant are a pretty good fit. When you consider that the pod was originally conceived by the architect and developer as retail space — selling Kit Kats and sandwiches? laptops and light fittings? — you realise just how good.

Palestra’s pod and architecture were about reconciling the developer’s need to risk-proof its £160 million investment with a bold design that would awaken the commercial potential of an untested location. “It’s about the intersection of various bland corporate issues about property development and the Alsop approach to life,” says Neil Grey, who headed the team at project manager CB Richard Ellis. “The client [Mallory Clifford of Blackfriars Investments] has always been attracted to working with people like Will. But the ground rules of this industry are about risk. So we had to ask ourselves, would lawyers be happy here? Would accountants?”

The pod is a squashed TV screen displaying what’s going on inside, the public friendly face of a faceless agency


To the world at large, Palestra is a triple-decker sandwich gone slightly askew, held together by some cocktail-stick pilotti. Its cellophane wrapper is a Permastaleese curtain-walling system with fritted panels in grey and black, and acid yellow panels in the slab edges. But internally, it’s built to a standard developers’ spec, with rectilinear floorplates around three cores. The most surprising thing about the empty floor plates is how unsurprising they are, that the building’s playful geometries aren’t in some way carried inside.

So, after winning the commission to fit out the fifth and sixth floors for the LDA in a competitive interview, ID:SR wanted a design that amplified the playful aspects of the building’s character, while also playing to the LDA’s own identity. At the same time, it had to obey the conventions of office fit-outs and use suppliers approved by the Office of Government Commerce. “We wanted to make it feel as if the interior is actually part of the building, that they flow and work together,” says Jo Walker, the LDA project designer at ID:SR. “What we developed had to be in line with what they do, and express the feel of the LDA as an organisation.”

The general layout arranges work stations around the edges of the floorplate to take advantage of daylighting, with the areas next to the central cores reserved for the functional side of office life: kitchens, filing, photocopying and cloakrooms. Meeting rooms and waiting areas are grouped close to the three lift cores, for the convenience of the many visitors who will arrive to discuss projects at the LDA.

But then there are the open-topped mini pods for meetings, taking Alsop’s curves directly into the LDA’s working life. The interior also picks up the fresh yellow of the exterior and adds more shots of colour — muted pink, deep blue and vibrant red — to the side panels of the cupboards and cabinets to identify their function and minimise signage. The Milliken carpet is in five shades of green, evoking a summer park but sensibly avoiding the grassy tones that would have turned the 88m-long floorplate into a football pitch.

The fit-out also amplified the LDA’s own branding and imagery. Its corporate ident is a graphic of the Thames, wiggling its way over everything from headed notepaper to website. So the capital’s meandering river also flows through the Palestra floorplan, taking the form of a wavy glass wall with abstracted images of flowing water transferred to the surface. Pass it on the way to the lifts or meeting rooms, and the surface of the glass really does shimmer and shift.

In a regeneration area, you can do the lowest common denominator design, or something enormously eye-catching


The park theme is brought to vivid life in the “Parklife” break out areas at the eastern end of the floorplates, where staff can have informal meetings, coffee and a quick confab, or the British office worker’s 21-minute lunch hour. ID:SR has designed bespoke curving green benches to complement the chairs by OGC supplier Senator International. The area is divided from neighbouring workstations by an Optima glass screen with photographs taken in London parks applied as translucent transfers.

The lighting works hard to delineate the area as different from the rest of the offices. There are thickets of sapling-sized Podlights designed by Ross Lovegrove, chosen for the rugged styling that make them equally suitable for — and suggestive of — indoor and outdoor space. The overhead pendants were supplied by Norlight. “They give the area quite a lounge-y feel. And we liked the way it was available in different sizes, and it ties in with the circular features in the entrance,” says Walker.

At the southern end of each floor, the park theme reappears in the live hedges placed on every third filing cabinet, and more botanically inspired pendant lamps by Ross Lovegrove. These are next to a bank of quiet rooms that staff can book for solo work, made homely with screen-printed fabric panels by Kvadrat.

Parklife’s corner position also gives staff fantastic views, which are a key part of the building’s appeal. To the south, each floor is eye-to-eye with an eight-storey council housing block across the road, subjecting LDA staff to an extra layer of taxpayer scrutiny. Palestra also overlooks three railway lines, putting it and the LDA staff at the heart of London’s sustainable transport strategy. Its long axis aligns with The Cut, a multi-use mish-mash of cafes, shops, housing and two theatres.

The fact that Palestra was built in an untested office location was a key drivers in the design. “If you have a building in a marginal location, a regeneration area, and you’re trying to attract tenants to spec space, you’re at a crossroads – you can do the lowest common denominator design, or something enormously eye-catching to draw attention to itself,” says Grey. “If someone is going to invest substantially and bring a Will Alsop building to the borough, the planners weren’t going to say no.”

By choosing Palestra as its headquarters, the LDA has make a commitment to regeneration, and given staff a sense of connection with the city they’re safeguarding. By adopting Alsop and Blackfriars adventurism as part of its identity, it’s branded itself as forward looking and ready to take calculated risks. And by working against a backdrop of ID:SR’s quirky, colourful but practical interiors, LDA staff may well be that bit more open to adapting edgier design as part of London’s exciting future.

‘As architects, we want to explore boundaries’

Duncan Macaulay, SMC Alsop director of architecture, on uniting Palestra’s commercial potential with its bold design.

We wanted to do something that would appeal to the letting market but also stand out so that it gives the building a visual identity. Often the commercial developer’s instinct is to maximise the lettable space, so the architecture becomes a very thin skin that’s wrapped around it. But Neil Grey at CB Richard Ellis was one of the driving forces in saying [to the agents and funders] “listen to these guys.”

After we got planning permission, the letting agents became involved, and we had to revisit the interior. Agents tend to want more of what has worked before, while as architects we want to explore the boundaries. But we added a third core, moved the retail space from the side elevation to the front by creating the pod, changed the shape of the entrance and the façade.

The black and grey fritting takes up no more than a third of every glazing panel so that it’s not too noticeable inside, then we created a random pattern with the yellow in the slab edges.

The covered courtyard next to the pod is highly visible and will have a public use, so were keen to jazz it up with the coloured circular insets in the soffit.

Because we’ll have just two tenants, the LDA and Transport for London, there will be consistency in the choice of lights and blinds. The lease requires that everyone chooses the same roller blinds. If they’re all pulled down, or partially down, it will add to the patterning of the building.

The client had to walk a narrow line on providing a building that suits modern office requirements and sustainability issues. It is a fully air- conditioned, sealed glass envelope that couldn’t be designed today. But the client took the decision to meet Part L 2002, even though it wasn’t in force at the time. It didn’t want to have the last building on the block that didn’t comply.

When agents and people in the property industry have been inside, they say “it works, it’s sensible”. And I say, what
did you expect?

Carpet magic

Jo Walker, ID:SR senior designer, on the distinctive carpet design

The carpet in the main office floors is one of Milliken’s standard products, but we worked with them quite carefully to develop the right colours for the speckled “Staccato” overprint. We could have used a standard combination of carpet and overprint, but as we were working with five different shades, we wanted to make sure we had the right depth of colour and that everything was visually balanced.

The basic carpet is used in five different shades – grey, yellow, aqua and two shades of watery green – then the overlays are in shades of grey, green and blue. We worked with Milliken to get exactly the right colour for the overprint for each shade, to get the right tonal colour levels so that the pattern wasn’t too dark and wasn’t too light. We had to make it work so that when all five shades of carpet sit together, the colours look balanced and work well together.

Milliken made up samples, then we checked how well they looked together, and if we had to darken or lighten the overprint. There was a lot of going back and forth, but there was no extra cost involved and it was worth it to get the carpet looking its best.

Suppliers’ details

  • Graphics designed by ID:SR and Artsource
  • Carpet by Milliken
  • Senator International on work-stations on government framework
  • Optima partitioning
  • Breakout chairs by Senator International
  • Resin floors in pod by Ryebrook Resin Ltd; reception desk by Design & Display


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