Pinky & Perky: Duggan Morris’s new offices in King’s Cross
Text: Rob Wilson
Coming up rose: Duggan Morris’s distinctively coloured King’s Cross office building marks a step-up in scale and ambition for the practice.
R7 is a flexible mixed-use office building in the heart of Argent’s King’s Cross development. The design attempts to create a building of character and originality, with a sculptural form. This has been done through the use of colour, working within the constraints of daylight. The building has a stepped massing form with set-backs, taking advantage of the expansive views across London while creating valuable external amenity space. It aims to provide both a welcoming environment with a variety of supporting spaces such as a restaurant, cinema, terraces and balconies. Words Rob Wilson Photography Jack Hobhouse Even as you exit King’s Cross station heading north along King’s Boulevard, your eye is drawn to the striking pink silhouette of this new mixed-use scheme, 10 minutes‘ walk away. It grabs your attention despite the visual distraction of the ranks of black columns cloaking David Chipperfield’s One Pancras Square to the left and the super-graphics on the hoarding that shrouds the site of Google’s future landscraper HQ by BIG and Heatherwick Studio to the right. ’Part of our brief was to make it eye-catching,‘ says Joe Morris of Duggan Morris Architects. ’It’s a kind of marker to engage your interest and draw traffic up though the site.' The site in question is the massive King’s Cross regeneration scheme by developer Argent, north of the station on 27ha of what were once marshalling yards and goods tracks. Since 2006, a masterplan by Allies and Morrison and Porphyrios Associates has been taking shape, centred around the brick-bulk of the Granary Building, an old warehouse that is one of the few original buildings left on the site. This was converted by Stanton Williams as a new home for Central Saint Martins, which gave the area’s redevelopment instant creative quarter credentials when it opened in 2011.
Despite being in the relatively cheap seats north of the Granary Building, the R7 building’s distinctive colour helps it punch above its weight in terms of recognition-something that could also be said of Duggan Morris as a practice over the past few years. The building is a step up in scale and ambition for the firm in a year that has seen big changes, with co-founder Mary Duggan leaving to set up on her own. Its 10 storeys of offices mix it up on the ground floor, mezzanine and semi-basement floors with a restaurant space, spin studio and an Everyman cinema -the latter a key factor in giving the building a more public edge, one that Duggan Morris clearly relished working with, taking it a step beyond just a straight office with shops.
So a major organising design move has been to make the entrance lobby into an internal ‘forum’ or ‘street’, as practice co-founder Joe Morris variously describes it. The stately 7m-tall space cuts up through the centre of the building, its concrete floor picking up the external pink. The space will be open to the public and is spacious enough to display art or even hold small events. It runs between the main south entrance and a secondary one in the north, which aligns with a pedestrianised fissure cutting through Piercy & Cos primary residential plot behind and connects diagonally with the new Lewis Cubitt Park to the north-west. To the left of this internal ‘forum’, a half-level drops down to a sunken restaurant space at the front, which sits under the hanging concrete bulk of a cinema auditorium, left expressed and visible from the street, shrouded in hanging folds of acoustic grey felt. The cinema is accessed at mezzanine level and served by an upper lobby/bar area, further animating the space. The south-east corner accommodates a dedicated lobby with separate entrance for the main office tenant, New Look, which has taken most of the building. In between is the main lift core, separated from the forum by security barriers-slightly fey sets of railings. Their gently canted struts provide a repeated filigree rhythm, picked up outside in the balcony railings on the facade, reading as decorative accents by providing almost the only non-orthogonal line in the whole building.
This idea of an internal street also responds to the masterplan, which encouraged pedestrianised permeability south to north through he site. East-west routes on the other hand are intended as more formal streets, allowing access for vehicular through traffic. In line with this, the building makes a strong urban statement on Handyside Street, sitting hard up to the pavement. It reads as two buildings. With the taller right hand portion-the in your face Germolene pink block, joined to its left by a more bubble-gum coloured slightly lower block. Curiously, making the building two-tone in colour serves to underline the random nature of the choice. When asked about these specific colours, Morris is slightly coy, saying the tones started out as usefully indicative shades to try out different treatments for the massing and alternative materials on models (still seen stacked in Duggan Morris‘ office). But then, having tried out other colours, the pinks were felt to be ’more playful' and so stuck. Ultimately, they seem to be the practice’s act of resistance against doing a standard corporate office block; a gesture making a bit of noise, though ultimately in a pretty, tasteful, if slightly off-key way. The facade is made of powder-coated aluminium, with delicate protruding vertical fins for sun protection. Because of the set-backs to the sides, some of the concrete structural columns inside block the glazing, underlining its separation as a prefabricated shell. Certainly, its pearlescent finish gives the building a slightly unreal, scale less quality, its surface not viscerally material even close up. Overall, the facade is modelled through a series of set-backs that create terraces and balcony spaces for each of the office floors, dictated by the need to maintain a prescribed cone of skylight down to street level. Thus the right-hand block is able to be taller than the left, as it faces the lower roof of an old transit shed, now with a Wait rose store nestled under its wing. A simple, slightly severe, cast concrete colonnade accents the main entrance, just one example of the distinctive, gently formal, sit-up-and-beg aesthetic evident throughout the building, with its detailing and proportions always on the vertical tip. With its set-backs and metallic skin-like prefabricated facade, it is reminiscent of early-modern buildings in the USA, with its high cornice, shielding plant, wrapped in the same repeated cross hair design as the railings, akin to the cornice of a Louis Sullivan building.
From the first floor up, the office floors are Iaid out around a 6m structural grid and 1.5m planning grid and are ultraflexible. Structurally the only off-key note is struck by the doubling up of the weight of the set backs and the shifting line of the façade above, telling the lie to the spare, effortless, look-no-hands aesthetic elsewhere. While this building presents a very controlled aestheticized idea of what constitutes ‘public’ space, it undoubtedly has a welcome openness as you enter, yet also a strange quiet formality. Whether this will be drowned out or brought into focus by the branded fit-outs of New Look and Everyman cinemas remains to be seen.
Certainly to create a 7m-high lobby, thus losing a large chunk of lettable space, Duggan Morris must have argued the case strongly with the client, justifying what the building gains by this ‘public’ gesture, by stripping out all the extraneous. They’ve kept it lean environmentally too. It is expected to achieve a BREEAM outstanding rating.
It is as much an idea of a building as a structure, very elegantly done, and well-mannered, with hardly a rough edge. One feels the ambition of Duggan Morris keenly, eking out more wiggle room from the site and brief than was expected-and hungry to make a further transition to the public building commissions of the future.
The design represents a high-quality, mixed use development that makes a significant and positive contribution to the public realm in character, hierarchy and scale, while creating a harmonious whole between new and old. An understanding of the urban context and design framework strongly guided our thinking in developing the design. The ground floor spaces were designed specifically to engage and connect seamlessly with the surrounding buildings and public realm, rather than only serve corporate office space. Working with the site restraints prescribed within the masterplan and offering maximum flexibility with multiple-tenanted office layout presented us with a challenging brief. We overcame the challenges through continuous communication with the client, as well as a series of workshops with the design team. The final design has created a building of character and originality, with a sculptural form: a stepped massing with set-backs that take advantage of expansive views across London to the south and east, while creating valuable external amenity space. The project accommodates a number of occupants, all of whom have been involved in communication with the design team. We allowed good time to incorporate their specific requirements, satisfying their brief and, crucially, retaining the architectural integrity of the building. All features are designed to complement and work together. An optimal balance of glazing and solid panels within the facade minimises heat gain. A high level of control over solar gain is achieved through projecting fins on the facades. We are on track to achieve our target of a BREEAM outstanding rating.
Joe Morris, founding director; Duggan Morris
R7 was an opportunity to create the next generation of commercial space at King’s Cross and it was also important that the design contributed to the existing vibrant cultural mix. Duggan Morris’s response was an architecturally elegant building that provides a focal point for the area. The office space is highly flexible and can be arranged into smaller or larger areas. Each floor has at least one outdoor terrace and there is share space throughout.
It has proved popular with occupiers and R7 is already fully let. However, it is R7's permeability and supporting uses that will have the biggest impact. The 7m-high lobby makes an important contribution to the public realm. Through it, visitors can access a cinema, restaurants, retailers and art space at ground and mezzanine levels.
Sam Williams, project manager; Argent
The facade design is a product of R7's context, the desire for a highly flexible office floorplate, the expression of the building as two adjoining volumes for urban design reasons, and an aspiration to give the best possible environment for users, including control of solar gain, fresh air and daylight. The design is influenced by the Victorian industrial heritage in the surrounding area but specifically by the lightweight, highly efficient engineering of refined metal structures, evident in glazed roofs and gasholder columns. The lightweight aluminium facade of the building is arguably a contemporary equivalent of this industrial aesthetic, with thin, elegant profiles expressed where possible to accentuate a fine structure. The facade is expressed as an elegant and consistent grid at 1.5m vertical centres, allowing for a highly flexible subdivision of the internal space on a 1.5m internal planning module. The colour of the facade is different on each of the two volumes of the building in order to express and emphasise the shift in centre of the massing. The desire to achieve a homogeneous metallic finish that is both contextual and contemporary led to the selection of powder-coated aluminium. The finish is a high-quality, durable powder coating with a long life. It was selected with a metallic finish to form a protective layer, creating a lasting, soft sheen. This sheen offers a dynamic play of light on adjacent surfaces that will vary with changing light conditions throughout the day and across the different seasons of the year.
Joe Morris, founding director; Duggan Morris Architects.