Lynch Architects

'New Bond Street by Eric Parry Architects' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

12 Dec 2009

Eric Parry graduated from the AA exactly 30 years ago. His diploma project was undertaken in Unit 1 then taught by Dalibor Vesely, Mohsen Mostavafi and Peter Carl. AA projects review 1978-9 presents an axonometric drawing of Parry’s “Forum Project”. The façade oscillates between figuration and fragmentation. Sculptural figures and classicised tectonic frames coalesce around broken arches. A clear sense of orchestrated movement from street towards a deeply shaded background is depicted and evoked, a threshold between the theatricality of the city and the deep background beyond. Vesely declared then that “It is not always easy, but it is always revealing to discover that behind the directly visible order of the city and its conventional representations (morphology, typology, figure-ground plans, etc.), there is not a chaos but an order of a different kind, more profound and more permanent than the visible order itself.” The unit drew on the writings of Jean Genet on theatre, demanding that “architecture (city) and if necessary should look for support and enrichments of meaning in different territories of culture which happen to be in better shape or more meaningful”. Note the elision of architecture with city.

New Bond Street is a particularly rich vertical city. Viewing rooms of major international art galleries sit above couture shops in courtyards overlooked by Edwardian office buildings, Georgian houses, now mostly flats, and quite chi-chi and often rather bald modernist blocks. The tension between the elaborate and gentlemanly facades of Mayfair and its curiously libertine interior worlds is the perfect territory for what Dalibor Vesely called 30 years ago the “deeper order of the city”. The question is then, can a speculative office and retail development, even if for a venerable institution such as Scottish Widows, contribute to “the transformation of the urban space and restoration of its meaning”?

This client and architect have so far realised three of - if not the best - office buildings in London since the 1980s. No 1 Finsbury Square and Aldermanbury Square were both short listed for the Strirling Prize and it is easy to imagine, looking at Tim Soars sumptuous photographs of this homage to Robin Middleton’s snakeskin jacket, that this will be too. Commercial projects, unless they are by Foster or Rogers, don’t win big awards in this country, yet the majority of buildings in London and indeed most cities of the world are paid for by and house business activities. The Medici’s started off as pharmacists and commissioned both Brunelleschi and Michelangelo; Johnson Wax kept Frank Lloyd Wright engaged for 20 years. Architects have always negotiated the difficult task of representing both the needs and appetites of powerful institutions and attempted to ground these in either appropriate modesty (in Catholic countries) or appropriate generosity (in Protestant ones). For me the key moment in an architect’s commission is the point at which you ask yourself: what is my task here and what is important in what I am being asked to do, and is it appropriate here?

In his “Historical Study Report” of October 2003, historical planning expert Richard Coleman noted that the various buildings on the site had “been adapted to the changing needs of retailing” throughout the 20th century and had even had several new shop fronts added quite recently. A case was also made for the demolition of Michael Rosenauer’s building at 49-50 New Bond Street since only part of his original design had been built and it’s facade had been drastically altered. Rosenauer was Bauhaus-trained and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His celebrated Time Life International building (1953), also on New Bond Street famously accommodates a sculpted screen by Henry Moore. Despite the elegance of Time Life’s travertine facades, Rosenauer adopted sculpture as if it where a logo and trapped sculpture in a billboard.

Parry’s project replaces the weaker Rosenauer scheme on New Bond Street with a much deeper office building. He also refurbished the Georgian houses on Maddox Street creating bijou apartments. In order to make the scheme work financially, Parry had to persuade Westminster Council of the necessity of adding another storey along St Georges Street. Overall he has created three times as much office accommodation as before. The removal of a pretty naff façade by Tribich and Associates (1971) on Maddox Street enabled the architect to propose a new way to mend the broken Georgian street. A cantilevered black steel and glass block screen does this in an abstracted and inverted manner, suggesting the vertical character of the missing bit whilst opening up the pavement bellow.

Both new office buildings are mixed-mode and have open-able windows that are linked to a sophisticated building management system. You look out onto the neighbouring buildings through elegant larch fins that shroud escape stairs and walkways. It is like being in a Max Ernst collage, like being in a section drawing through a city. This incredibly complex topography is countered by a staggeringly clear parti. Parry’s architecture appears simple, allowing the city to appear complex.

The new west facing New Bond Street green façade looks solid when viewed askance but is almost all glass. When you step out into the projecting bay windows building you feel privileged to be part of London. Parry’s architecture recalls the sumptuous waistcoats of gentleman publishers and the cravats of patrician gallerists: silk linings glimpsed through tweed and grey flannel. I can’t help thinking of the clothes made in Mayfair and of the novels of Muriel Spark. Parry’s imagination encompasses the glamour of shoe shops and the fecundity of trade and art galleries, placing each into a physical, actual, implied, and potential dialogue. Gaudi, Horta and Terragni seem to meet on a London Street and master English and recover its eclectic roots. I would argue that it has taken 30 years for us to recover what the previous 50 years of destruction and bad faith obscured with its specious rhetoric of transparency. Parry’s recent projects redeem tradition and modernity without betraying either. Whilst St Martins in the Fields is so obviously richer in programmatic and topographic depth and fulfilled theatricality, Parry’s ‘business’ projects seem to set up urban drama. Sometimes you have to stand out from the crowd, but the trick is to avoid looking like a clown. Vesely declared in 1979 that the ‘city needs to point out itself, needs to make its presence felt’. Parry points us to what is not lost, and in doing this he re-creates the context in which my generation and the next will work.