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Watermark Place: review for Architecture Today

Richard Saxon*

Professor Jeremy Till, in his recent book ‘Architecture Depends’ (1) attacks the myth that architects can determine form themselves and freeze it for time to come. Other forces drive most of what can happen in any development and changes continue as buildings learn (2) to suit their occupants. Till proposes that architects act as interpreters of circumstances, making sense of them and exploiting contingencies. In Watermark Place we have a building which might be a case study of that approach.

The north bank of the Thames where the City of London meets the river has not been blessed with many fine post-war buildings. Now the stretch between Cannon Street Station and London Bridge is being rebuilt and one of the buildings, Watermark Place, is likely to please many. It appears to be a cluster of buildings, with unusual low pavilions to the riverfront featuring timber, a material not associated with the sleek glass and granite image of the financial centre. The name chosen for the development gives a Freudian hint of wishing to remain invisible and avoid the opprobrium heaped on its predecessor, Mondial House. That ‘futuristic’, white telephone exchange was dubbed ‘a giant word- processor’ (whatever that is) by Prince Charles. The bulk of the half-million net square foot building is indeed near invisible. The eleven storey background mass is wrapped in sheer glass planks by Gartner, animated by a dappled colour pallet taken from photographs of light playing on the river. The dot-screened colours provide the shade factor needed and are barely perceived from inside. The eye is however drawn to the two riverside pavilions of four and five storeys with their curved forms, timber sunshades and roof gardens. They result from the ‘St Paul’s heights’ regime, protecting views of the cathedral from London Bridge and beyond. They are not separate but are articulated to appear so. The main mass also steps boldly to seem like two blocks, again following the sight angle to St Paul’s.

Fletcher Priest has exploited the site and all its contingencies and associations to provide character and conserve resources. The riverside massing is one aspect, with the massive timber sunshade structure of the western pavilion alluding to the ancient timber pilings of the Roman and Hanseatic docks on this site. On the Upper Thames Street side they had to retain the last fire station in the City, part of Mondial House. They did more than retain the minimum: the north-west segment of the complex is a slice of Mondial House, re-clad above the fire station. Indeed the massive basements of the ‘word processor’ are all retained and the new metric columns use the huge load potential of the old imperial foundations, jinking at angles to land on them. This is no Alsopian whimsy.

Entrance is compromised by circumstances too. Upper Thames Street is a near expressway and arrival by taxi or car can only be via Angel Lane, a narrow cleft to the river which has been paved over for mixed pedestrian and vehicular use. Angel Lane opens out into a small but sunny riverside plaza around the pavilions, the most delightful public feature of the scheme. Most pedestrians will arrive from Cannon Street at the next level up, via an existing bridge across the traffic which has been restyled by timber additions. The resulting split level reception is inevitably complex. Ground level inside follows the sloping ground outside so that further, barrier-free entrances can be made for future shops or restaurants. Contingency is enlisted as a design tool.

Inside the complex, order is provided by a minimalist, linear atrium pointed at the river with 18 meter deep space both sides, animated by bridges and glass elevators. The standing-height coffee table drums on its floor turn out to be displacement air inputs. The predominant lobby and atrium materials are dark stones and glasses, with timber accents. The wall ‘granite’ is in fact sandblasted GRC in massive planks, creating with the timber beam ceiling and sculptural reception desk a Japanese flavour. That character, coupled with the joys of the roof gardens and riverside views, may have been influential in the successful letting of the whole building to Nomura who are about to fit out the interiors. They will base 6000 people there, modifying the building in small and large ways, unleashing a round of further contingent events which will determine the state of the artefact at any given moment in time.

The signature of Fletcher Priest is perhaps that they have an attitude rather than a house style. The emphasis on conservation of resources and re-use is common to many recent projects. Energy awareness is central too. Within the limits of City practice Watermark Place uses less energy than most and provides a slice of ‘carbon-neutral’ space in the southeast riverside pavilion. It has mixed mode ventilation through a double glass wall with rotating timber sunscreens in the cavity. Daylight levels are high. PV cells on the main building roof deliver the renewables component and feed it largely to this pavilion area. The green roofs and green oak sunbreakers of the whole complex raise the BREEAM rating and support visible biodiversity. The pity is that Nomura’s plug load, the power they will use for their work, dwarfs the building’s usage. They are also likely to junk the category A fitout provided, a wasteful practice that still continues in the City where bare shell space is not seen to be appealing or comprehensible to agents or tenants.

The architecture isn’t all rationality however: signs of mannerism can be found. The sunbreaker timber and steel work is comically exaggerated and curved into expressive points at the ends. Where the neutral glass screen is sliced back for any reason it turns amber, like the timber. The supposedly massive GRC ‘stone’ interior is subverted in the dramatic elevator cars by insetting the lift controls and lighting in ways which show how thin the material is. The reception desk front and lobby floor undulate sculpturally.

People are also going to enjoy Watermark Place who never set foot inside it. The riverside walkway is added to, with fine views, sunny sitting out space and potentially a better site for the riverboat pier than at tatty Swan Lane just down the block. The narrow canyon between Cannon Street Station and Watermark Place is intriguing, with its sudden release at the river where the Victorian turrets contrast with Watermark Place’s giant sunshade. New Angel Lane will offer a civilised slot between mirror-faced behemoths. Fletcher Priest has made admirable sense of the circumstances they found and the market into which the building is launched.

*Richard Saxon CBE is chairman of the City Architecture Forum and a client Adviser. He is a former chair of BDP, vice president of RIBA and president of the British Council for Offices.

(1)  Till, Jeremy. (2009) ‘Architecture Depends’, MIT

(2)  Brand, Stewart. (1994) ‘How Buildings Learn; what happens to them after they’re built’. Penguin.

RGS 22.08.09.

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