With its eye-catching R7 building at King’s Cross, Joe Morris’s practice has realised its corporate potential without losing its youthful chutzpah
Text: Adam Branson Portraits by Phil Sharp
When fashion retailer New Look moves into its new headquarters next year, its staff are in for a treat. The views from the upper floors of the R7 building in King’s Cross are, quite simply, breathtaking, with pretty much all of London’s major landmarks visible. Designed by Duggan Morris Architects on behalf of development manager Argent, R7 sits to the north of the low-rise University of the Arts campus, meaning that you don’t have to get too far off the ground before the vista opens up. What’s more, those views can be enjoyed from generous terracing- terracing that didn’t take away from Argent’s requirement that the building should contain a minimum of 13,000sq m (140,000sq ft) of offices. “You get the most stunning views over London and from a developer’s perspective you could generate more rent by filling those in,” says Joe Morris, who co-founded Duggan Morris in 2004 with Mary Duggan, now working with Mary Duggan Architects.
“The brief was for 140,000sq ft of space and we’ve delivered 157,000sq ft and the outside space is really important. It’s the thing that catches your breath and draws people in. I’d suggest that New Look saw that and saw the opportunity to create inspiring working space for all its employees.” Now that Duggan Morris’s work on the building is coming to an end, Morris can justifiably take pride in what he and his team have played a key part in delivering. Getting to this point, however, has been a long time coming - and, like so many things in today’s London property market, it can be traced back to a bike ride.
The ride in question wasn’t a Sunday jaunt in the Surrey Hills, although goodness knows enough property types can be spotted sweating up Box Hill on a weekend. Rather, it was the legendary Cycle to Mipim event that sees developers, contractors and architects alike travel the 1,500km from London to Cannes ahead of the annual property jamboree.
“For the last 12 years I’ve been cycling from London to Cannes as part of the Cycle to Mipim ride,” explains Morris. “One of the teams happened to be sponsored by Argent. In 2014 Nick Searl was on it and I was waxing lyrical about how we were a young practice but we were able to build large office buildings.”
At the time, Duggan Morris had just completed an office development in Camberwell, south London, designed with SMEs in mind. As it happened, Argent had a need to bring forward an affordable workspace at King’s Cross as part of its sl06 requirements. The meeting of minds was fortuitous to say the least.
The irony is that the building Morris ended up designing has become a corporate HQ, with the original site divided up and the affordable workspace now under construction immediately to the north of the R7 building. “I worked hand in hand with Nick and his team developing a series of options over time,” says Morris. “Eventually we said that the 30,000sq ft [of affordable space] would migrate into the back site. We ended up with a possibility for an HQ building and the brief evolved from that.”
The result is that R7 represents a transition from the sort of office space already delivered to the south of the site and that is currently under construction to the north. In contrast to some of the office buildings to the south, the idea was that R7 would attract less corporately minded businesses that would regard high-end finishes as a turn-off. “We’re still getting really good rents up here, but it’s a different type of user,” says Morris. “Some of the buildings on the south section of the site have got marble and leather and those kind of details, but it would have been a waste on our site.”
While its exterior is finished in two shades of vibrant pink, the interiors of R7 are currently utilitarian in the extreme, with exposed utilities and brushed concrete the dominant features. In part that is down to New Look’s ambitions for the space, but it was also always the intention. “We never thought that the building would be overly specified or detailed,” says Morris. “There was never an intention to do that. Again, working with Argent, we adopted a very lean approach.”
That lo-fi approach to specification was also intended to make the space as adaptable as possible, so that Argent didn’t need to secure a major anchor tenant in order to fill the space. Rather, it could be divided and specified bespoke to potential occupiers' needs. “New Look came on board, but in a sense it’s an irrelevance - it could have been anyone,” says Morris. “A fundamental part of the brief was to ensure that there were options in terms of how it could be sublet or let in one go.”
The approach also ensures that R7 should remain adaptable over time. “You can’t over-specify how people use spaces, otherwise they aren’t interested,” says Morris. “You put your stuff in and then pack it up and take it away with you - and the building has to be able to accommodate that. It has to be robust enough to take a real beating over time.”
However, the fact that New Look has been secured as anchor tenant has ensured that one aspect of the interior design could proceed according to Morris' aspirations for the space. At the centre of the building, asymmetrical voids have been cut into the floorplates, providing beguiling views between levels. Had the floors been taken by multiple occupiers, those views could well have been compromised.
“We wanted the spaces to connect to one another,” says Morris. “We produced a series of visuals that showed how people could flow down and through the heart of the building, rather than be separated from each other. We were constantly looking at ways to make that happen. It’s happening and one of the most exciting things was a company like New Look coming and saying ‘we understand the value of that and we’re going to celebrate it’.”
The design of R 7 isn’t just about encouraging movement between the office floors. The double-height ground level was also conceived to act as a conduit between the commercial and university dominated southern section of the King’s Cross site and its residential-focused northern end. The idea was that R 7 essentially acts an enclosed boulevard between the two. How exactly that boulevard would be animated remained an open question until a relatively late stage in R7's development.
As a result, the space had to be as adaptable as the upper storeys. “Through the feasibility studies we demonstrated that as long we got it right in terms of being flexible and open plan then you could plug a whole load of different uses in there,” says Morris. “It could be coffee shops, meeting rooms, retail... whatever.” Ultimately, the flexibility of the space was proven in extremis when the Everyman cinema group opted to take a substantial chunk alongside a food and beverage offering. With the residential population to the north and office workers and students to the south, it was a perfect solution. “It was a real coup,” says Morris. “To my mind it goes to show just how ambitious some of the people at Argent were.” Works on R7 are ongoing, but when the building is occupied it will take its place as yet another piece in the glorious tapestry that the King’s Cross development is becoming. The use of the project as a case study example of mixed-use development is fast becoming a cliche- but it is with good reason.