Architecture today R7 in the pink

Architecture Today

In the Pink
17/11/17

Text: Adam Nathaniel Furman

I am standing on a terrace seven floors above London’s Kings Cross development, and everything is pink - a deep, intensely saturated, rich, reddish pink. The concrete paving on which I am standing is pink, the balustrades and handrail are pink, as are the four storeys of facade rising up above me. Even the glass reflects the meaty hues of the building’s fins and is a shiny metallic version of the same pink.

The effect is hallucinatory, thrilling and - set against the greys and blues of the London sky - intensely picturesque and painterly. Though set to become the headquarters of a fashion company, the building currently is empty; external works are complete but the tenant’s fit-out is just beginning. So the total envelopment in colour that I am experiencing is a momentary state; the terrace will be filled with furniture, and be busy with variegated employees, as will the two equally pigmented outdoor loggias on every floor.

Rather than attempting to provide a ‘neutral backdrop’, as most office buildings tend to do, here all the various activities will be situated within - and contrasted against - a refreshingly confident and virtuoso act of aesthetic place-making through colour. It is one which will easily accommodate the richness and variety of daily life, while maintaining a powerful and distinct sense of singularity.
‘R7’, as the building is known, was the first large-scale commercial commission for Duggan Morris Architects, which makes it all the more astonishing that such a virtuoso, inventive, and yet highly poised piece of urban and architectural design has been produced.

The building was designed as a speculative development, but the architect managed to work with the client to come up with a scheme that takes a lot of risks – aesthetic and programmatic - all of which seem to have paid off handsomely, with the building now almost fully let.

The ground level is an ingenious balance of different programmes, levels, and of interconnected public and private spaces. An arcade runs across the front of the building, leading visitors to a large, publicly accessible street that runs right through its heart, ending at a future row of start-up spaces in the plot to the rear. Made possible by a split core, this grand and spatially complex room incorporates fob-controlled access to the office elevator bank just to one side, visually open to the public save for a low level, unobtrusive barrier which architect Joe Morris says could be removed, if that was judged beneficial after operational review.

It also gives access to, and full views into a restaurant, a three-screen cinema - the angled concrete underside of which is used to delightful architectural effect - and a spin studio, all of which have the potential to spill out into the shared space in some way.

The mix of programmes sharing a common volume, as well as the nuanced relationship with the surrounding streets, means that R7 will be used from morning to night, every clay of the week, bringing varied activities to this part of the King’s Cross masterplan. It also contributes buckets of character to an otherwise overly restrained development. It is not only in the loggias, and on the terraces, that one experiences a fleshy rush of racy hues. Walking up the main street towards Granary Square from King’s Cross Station, R7 happily peeks out from above the drab, dark brown utilitarian shed of Central Saint Martins, appearing to constantly, albeit slightly, change hue in the capricious London light, thanks to a mix of metallic paint that was developed especially for the powder coating of the aluminium facade elements.

Morris explains that the building’s colour came about almost by mistake, through the process of physically modelling the various iterations of the project, in which massing options were colour coded, pink being the colour of the massing that was settled upon, by which point the design team had become quite attached to their accidentally adopted hue. Contextual reasons also helped to justify the colour choice, with the red brick of St Pancras Station being a handy reference, but these seem beside the point: the project is thrillingly different precisely because its sense of context is less obvious than the standard adoption of brick, or the faux-industrial (albeit exquisite) reds of Corten steel.

Pink is intensely British; one could almost say it is as much a colour of London’s history as the murky yellow of London stock brick. Pink is the colour of Empire; it was the standard mode of representing the geographic spread of Britain’s colonies across the map of the world. Pink was the colour of the City trader and banker, his breastplate, the chummy indicator of insider-hood in the capital’s vast machine of capitalism. Pink is the very colour of money, it is the most defining characteristic of the Financial Times. the bible of Britain’s, and indeed the world’s upper economic class.

Over recent decades pink has also come to embody other qualities and groups, from the development of a strange, problematic link between the gender identification of young girls and the colour, to the adoption of the hue by the LGBT community, to its recent emergence as the colour that defines a generation. with a particularly light tone of it being called ‘Millennial Pink’, and showing up in everything from graphic and product design to fashion and music videos, architectural student visualisations, and now a very large building in King’s Cross.

Apart from being tempered by set-backs, the building’s mass is further broken up by being divided into two blocks, each coloured in a different shade of pink, one light. Like the Financial Times, Millennia! Pink or pale skin, and the other a deep, almost red pink, like the warm colour of the flesh under the skin, or inside the body, closer to the hyper saturated pink used in supermarket-stocked princess dresses. These associations and more are projected over the neighbourhood by this intriguing newcomer.

There is a long history of Modernist architecture that exults in the sensual and associative effects of colour, a history that has seen far too few recent offspring. There has also recently been a preponderance of architects in the UK who are only able to generate facades directly justified by their immediate material context, rather than attempting new aesthetic experiments, or orchestrating their tectonics through the referencing of broader cultural contexts. Duggan Morris' R7 building picks up where the late Modernists left off, subtly, brilliantly, and with style. It brings – even if accidentally - an incredibly rich world of references and association to life in a building that itself, through its clever layout, will bring much actual as well as aesthetic life to its lucky context.

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