The three corners of the former Regent Palace Hotel have been retained as pavilions. This corner houses apartments.
Dixon Jones’s reinvention of the 1915 Regent Palace Hotel as offices and retail presents its past glories to their best advantage
’It is with the deepest regret that I hear of the proposed mutilation of my design for rebuilding the Quadrant,” wrote the 81 year-old Norman Shaw to his client, the predecessor of the Crown Estate, in 1912. “I am, I am afraid, getting somewhat indifferent to architectural matters, but I have not yet arrived at the stage of absolute indifference, and to see a design with which I took so much pains thus vulgarised, troubles me.”
He died eight months later, never to see his plans for the southern end of London’s Regent Street realised. The designs to which he so objected had been produced by Henry Tanner Junior, whose Regent Palace Hotel, a block to the north, was by then already well under construction, its steel frame looming over Nash’s curving street front. This vast cream cake was shoehorned into an awkward triangular plot — produced by Regent Street’s abrupt turn to line up with Carlton House Terrace — a white-faienced beacon, dropped at the collision of Mayfair’s dignified grid with the devious alleys of Soho.
“It was like a spaceship that came down from Mars,” says David Shaw, head of the Regent Street portfolio at the Crown Estate. “It plonked itself down and turned its back on everything else.” Like the rest of Regent Street, it acted as a bookend to “contain” the mischief of Soho, although, offering over 1,000 cheap bedrooms and a host of eating and drinking parlours, it was clearly complicit in its night-time economy.
When it opened in 1915 the Regent Palace was the largest hotel in Europe, providing a cheap and cheerful option to its grander sister establishment, the Strand Palace, with every room serviced by state-of-the-art technology. Concrete & Constructional Engineering magazine marvelled at its 300 miles of pipes, 15 miles of air ducts and 180 miles of cables — as well as 32 lifts — while the Architectural Review cooed at its “remarkable” sequence of “immense” public rooms. In 1935, not to be outdone by the newly aggrandised Regent Street fronts, the building was raised and extended, an extra 100 rooms wedged into its atrium, new lift overruns poking above the roofline, housed in a bulky stage-set pavilion.
While Norman Shaw no doubt spun in his grave, such mutilation and addition is characteristic of the way that this part of London has developed since Nash carved his grand axis from Regent’s Park to Carlton House. It is built on a sequence of architectural expedients, each gesture overwriting the next, constantly driven by the commercial demands of the day — and kept in check by the overarching vision of the Crown Estate and the long-termist view that comes with its 99-year leases.
How appropriate, then, that almost 99 years after the Regent Palace opened as a hotel, it has been thoroughly mutilated once again, entirely disembowelled in a compelling reinvention by Dixon Jones. In a process of deft open-heart surgery, the building’s innards have been scooped out and replaced with 18,500sq m of offices and 14,000sq m of retail space, its grade II listed restaurant interiors painstakingly removed and repositioned in one of the most extraordinary developments the West End has seen in recent years.
It is the largest project to date in the £1 billion, 20-year long Regent Street investment programme, begun in 2002, which has seen extensive restoration and refurbishment of many of the buildings as well as public realm improvements and pedestrianisation of several side streets — work on a scale only possible because of the Crown Estate’s benign monopoly on freeholds.
“Our work at the Quadrant is about turning backs into fronts,” says David Shaw, as we walk along the newly pedestrianised Glasshouse Street — formerly a backland world of service entrances, congested with vans by day and unappealing by night. As early as 1848, Nash’s own colonnades along the Quadrant had been demolished as a “haunt of vice and immorality”, and there remains a distinct desire to expunge any air of seediness. And the contemporary arsenal in the battle against vice? A 40m Whole Foods shop window — now lining the Glasshouse Street elevation, behind which 1,500sq m of organic produce will sprawl from next spring.
The most intelligent part of the strategy for civilising the Quadrant is actually invisible. The entire scheme — which includes a five-star hotel by David Chipperfield, currently under construction in the Café Royal block, closest to Piccadilly Circus, as well as further office and retail in the Quadrant Arcade block to the west, and a residential scheme to the north — will be powered and serviced by facilities buried deep within the bowels of the former Regent Palace. An energy centre, which includes the largest and most efficient hydrogen fuel cell in Europe, will provide 22% of the heat and power for the whole Quadrant, while a 1,000sq m service area on the ground floor, connected via a tunnel to the hotel, takes all delivery vans off the street.
It is a strategy that the Crown Estate has already employed with great success on the western side of Regent Street — with a centralised distribution point at the north and a waste centre to the south — applying the logic of centralised service infrastructure, learned from the shopping mall, to the urban fabric, without compromising the experience of the street. Mindful of Westfield’s east-west pincer movement, which threatens to suck the retail lifeblood out of the West End, the Crown Estate has also pursued the creation of larger units to attract flagship stores, knocking down walls behind retained facades in a progressive coarsening of the street’s grain. It is a strategy that will see the reduction in shop numbers from around 150 to 100 over the next four years, potentially leading towards the “mallification” of this historic shopping district. Though since the grand 1920s rebuilding replaced Nash’s pokey, outdated terraces, history is only repeating itself.
In the present context, however, such alterations tend to be more respectful, confined to behind the historic facade. But how does a mixed-use mega-block of offices, shops and restaurants squeeze into the skin of a 1915 hotel?
“We hit on the architectural strategy very quickly, after walking around the site with English Heritage,” explains Jeremy Dixon, describing how his practice was brought in after an earlier Allies & Morrison scheme for complete demolition met with strong opposition from the heritage lobby — and prompted grade II listing in 2004.
“It became clear that the key views of the building are always of its corners, whether seen from Piccadilly Circus, or from the streets of Soho,” says Dixon. The three key corners are therefore retained, amputated from the greater bulk of the building and expressed as freestanding pavilions. The former stretches of facade in between comprised repetitive expanses of small windows and, as the Survey of London of 1963 remarks, the “little external expression” of the “great bulk” of the building was confined to the “somewhat congested exterior ornament… of giant pilaster-strips and great cartouches” — clearly not deemed worthy of saving.
Its grade II listed restaurant interiors were painstakingly repositioned
Between these freestanding white pavilions — now illuminated like ghostly bookends at night — Dixon Jones has inserted facades that are both sympathetic to the elevational rhythm established by Tanner’s pilasters, and something decidedly other. Large expanses of glazing are aligned with the building’s outermost face, from which the bays are cut back - a means of articulation inspired by Peter Ellis’s 1864 Oriel Chambers in Liverpool.
“It is something that most developers would not usually agree to, as it invades the precious floorplate,” says Dixon — who describes the Crown as a model client, its emphasis on quality bolstered by Westminster’s exacting standards.
Viewed from down the street, the large expanses of plate glass are modulated by vertical bands of subtly pitted faience, with which they are set flush. “I wanted to contrast the perfection of the glazing with the handmade finish of the terracotta,” says Dixon, excitedly recounting trips to source the ceramic tiles, in shades of cream, green and blue for each respective street, from the Lancashire workshops of Shaws of Darwen — supplier of the original Regent Palace facade.
Expansive shop windows, framed in bronze and set on a black granite plinth, extend around the ground floor, with a minor order of smaller premises lining the Brewer Street elevation — to encourage a finer grain of independent retailers. Five storeys of offices rise above to a colonnaded loggia level, in line with the existing building’s mansard roof, which serves to disguise two further storeys, slightly set back. These new facades are muted, unremarkable even, but executed with an attention to the detail of material junction that speaks of the crafted quality behind this £300 million project.
If the building seems difficult to decode from the outside, within it presents a Tardis-like spatial sequence that is even more surprising. “Dixon Jones’s achievement has been to create a series of completely distinct areas, each with its own entrance sequence,” says David Shaw. “In each place, it feels like being in a totally different building.”
It sounds like developer-speak, but his words are soon proved true, from the moment we enter the main lobby off Air Street, a simple space composed of two massive columns, a substantial reception desk and a deep, stepped portal leading towards the glowing, backlit lifts — discrete, weighty objects all expressed in black St Laurent marble. From this stripped, classical foyer,
you are whisked up to an ultra-bright atrium, flooded with an unreal wash of natural and artificial light, glossy white surfaces endlessly reflected around the polygonal space. Staggered bridges sweep up to a grid-shell roof — painted St Pancras train-shed blue — in a faceted kaleidoscope. It is a power-dressed corporate world, a brash contrast to other parts of the building — but clearly suited to its future clients.
The bridges not only provide a theatrical entrance sequence, but allow the floor plates — which run in an 18m-deep doughnut around the atrium — to be divided into three separately lettable units. In section, four of the new 2.8m-high office floors interface with five of the original Regent Palace floors, a problem that has been solved in a different way at each corner. At the south-western corner, behind the main core, each floor has a rather awkward mezzanine level — a potential place for catering or gallery space, suggests Shaw — although it adds a bit of quirky character to the otherwise generic office floor plate. The entire northern corner, meanwhile, has been given over to nine luxury one-to-three bed apartments, accessed by its own core, with rents ranging from £800 to £1,400 a week.
Finally, the eastern corner — the “prow” — is conceived as a stack of boutique offices, each floor peppered by a forest of original structural columns, now overclad, making up for in character what they might lose in clear span. The prow is reached through its own slick, Loosian lobby, accessed off a new public arcade that cuts through the eastern corner of the block. It is an atmospheric passage, with an alluring saw-tooth mirrored ceiling, although a trick has been missed not to line it with little shops — instead it is “animated” by a backlit, gently throbbing art wall.
Back on Sherwood Street, an understated entrance leads down into the belly of the building and the final show-stopping surprise of the tour: a surreal sequence of set-piece period interiors, a physical catalogue of taste through the ages of the building.
The freestanding pavilions are now illuminated like ghostly pavilions at night
A sizable crystal chandelier hangs in the centre of a travertine-lined lobby that leads, in one direction, to a recreation of “Chez Cup,” one of Oliver Bernard’s modish art deco interiors. Hailed as “slick and smart and quite the last thing in interior decoration”, by Building magazine when it opened in 1935, it sported glossy black and white walls of “a new plastic material known as Formica — similar to Bakelite but in various colours”, and a floor inlaid with white beech and red jarrah — all meticulously recreated by conservation architect Donald Insall Associates. Next door lies the refurbished “Dick’s Bar”, thought to be the finest example of art deco in the country, with columns of banded birch veneer rising to capitals layered with cast glass.
But these are only preludes to what lies beyond: two gargantuan dining halls — the 1915 Atlantic bar and grill, a baroque feast of marble and gilding, and the 1935 Titanic restaurant. Bernard’s symphony in pistachio, this whole room was painstakingly removed from its original ground-floor location, restored, rotated and slotted into the corner of this basement level, its voluminous span made possible by a 2m-deep transfer structure, hidden above.
It is nothing short of miraculous that these interiors have been removed, rejuvenated and redeployed in this way, with the modern-day demands of servicing, fire regulation and circulation nimbly threaded through the building’s historic carcass. As Shaw comments: “It’s been like trying to work in a Swiss watch” — and a Swiss watch riddled with asbestos, which took eight months to remove.
The success of the project has already been verified by the kind of tenants queuing up to have a part in this extraordinary building: the former Atlantic and its deco bars have been handed over to Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, star restaurateurs behind the Ivy and the Wolseley. Meanwhile, the hi-tech sustainability credentials — cutting-edge technology that aptly echoes the ground-breaking heating and ventilation systems of Tanner’s original design — have wooed enviro-champion Al Gore into signing a 15-year lease for the top 2,000sq m office space for his company, Generation Investment Management.
As Ian Nairn wrote in 1966, the Quadrant is “a real layer-cake of sensations at every level”, and, while some may accuse Dixon Jones of eating the cake and leaving the icing, the architect has in fact extended the life of this rich concoction.
Architect Dixon Jones, Client Crown Estates Historic architect Donald Insall Associates, Residential designer Johnson Naylor, Structural engineer Waterman Structures,M&E consultant Aecom, Planning consultant CBRichard Ellis, Quantity surveyors Cyril Sweett, Davis Langdon & Everest
Curtain walling Felix UK, Precast concrete Decomo UK, Faience Shaws of Darwen, Grid shell roof Josef Gartner & Co UK, Faience restoration PAYE Stonework & Restoration, Brick and blockwork Lyons & Annoot, Architectural metalwork Handrail Design, New stonework Grants of Shoreditch, Residential fit out Ellmer Construction, Timber windows (facsimile) Ruddy Joinery
Pictures by Dan Dubowitz and Paul Riddell
17 April 2013
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7 November 2011
8 September 2011
29 June 2011