While in London recently, Paul Schütze directed me towards this recent job by Amanda Levete Architects, just off Oxford Street. It’s a lovely piece of work, home to the London HQ of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu (and local firm Attik). Essentially an opaque façade, it's literally metres from another façade-led project on Oxford Street by Future Systems, Levete’s previous practice with the late Jan Kaplicky. Although quite different in form, it's every bit as good as the 367 Oxford Street façade is (pictured below, from last year's trip, and from this year, looking back up towards Oxford Street). They are a complementary pair of jewels.
This new façade on Hills Place is beautifully finished, with a chain-mail mesh in the ground floor window and some gills sliced and eased open further up.
For some reason, both facades remind me of Gaudi. Unlikely, I know. It’s something to do with the way that they’re experiences ‘poured’ and moulded out of these continuous strips of street, suddenly flamboyant flourishes in otherwise conservative blocks, as per Casa Batlló, La Pedrera et al.
These slices off Oxford Street aren’t exactly terraces, at least in the sense that Nash’s nearby Regent Street is, and certainly not Eixample-style courtyard blocks but instead they’re welcome retrofits of an otherwise dreary bit of urban fabric. And materially, what was just about possible in stone in the highly-talented hands of Gaudi and his cohorts, is now possible in all manner of material, such that the effect here is a poured meta-material composite of glass and silvery aluminium, with a fine, ribbed grain to it.
This kind of architectural strategy is incredibly important to the city — taking an unpromising, small, neglected and nondescript tight urban space, and injecting care, flamboyance, intellect and activity into it. The vernacular version of this has been best catalogued by Atelier Bow Wow in their Pet Architecture series. But it's also akin to a few projects I've written about before e.g. Monaco House in Melbourne by McBride Charles Ryan, and apparently thousands of high-quality acupunctures by Japanese architects (keep an eye on the great blog What We Do Is Secret for regular examples of the latter.)
All that's missing here is a civic aspect. This gives nothing back to the street—not that we can really call it a street—other than a shimmering material effect of aluminium and glass and a seductive form. It would've been nice to see some sense of the activity within. In what is still the epicentre of London's consumption, making a bit of daily production visible would've been a subtle change of emphasis. Although without a 'new smokestacks' strategy, 'production' here would no doubt look like the back of Apple Cinema Displays and boxes and arrows scribbled by marker pens on glass walls.
However, on a bright sunshiney day, the polished finish melts into the sky and reflections of the buildings around it, The narrow confines of the humble cut-through exaggerate this effect, and transient junkspace becomes a destination, even.
One corner looked incomplete, with wires hanging out, underneath the apron of the poured facade — a most un-Japanese touch, though the build quality elsewhere looks wonderful and you wonder about the provenance of the contractors involved. Schütze pointed out a slightly awkward kink in the curve of the roof, but otherwise, it’s a ravishing piece of work.
Oxford Street has been a state for decades, and despite the vast sums spent on improving it recently, it's still distinctly unpleasant. This particular cut-through is well-used by locals, but previously had nothing to recommend it other than limiting the time spent on Oxford Street. Now, Levete appears to be hell-bent on improving the quality of architecture in the area, step by step. It'd be interesting to see what transformations could be achieved if such quality and creativity was applied beyond the façades of these spaces, and in an architecture beyond building.
10 Hills Place, by Amanda Levete Architects, London