Fruit of the Loom
Text: Jay Merrick
Duggan Morris have replaced grim PoMo added to this Victorian warehouse in London’s Whitechapel with a refined palette of materials for the new offices, writes Jay Merrick
In the early 1900s, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch were among the places on the edge of the City of London that became fashionably funky, and there, until the early noughties, the conversion of Victorian and Edwardian industrial premises into offices or apartments produced relatively affordable rents or freeholds and generated a diffuse start-up/ creative/faux-edgy lifestyle vibe. The shock wave of rising property values in central London has overwhelmed that condition, forcing the production of housing and commercial buildings outwards into what were previously untrendy sections of the East End. One example, just south of Commercial Road, is the almost completed seven-acre Goodman’s Fields tableau of housing blocks, towers and retail. The scheme, designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, will deliver 920 private and affordable apartments, 617 student units and a 250-room hotel.
Fifty metres away from these glinting facades and balconies, on the other side of Gower’s Walk, is a five-storey, late-19th-century brick edifice, originally the Brown & Eagle Ltd wool storage warehouse. It was bought by the developers, Helical, in 2013, when rents and freeholds in Clerkenwell et al had become too hot for many tenants to handle. Gower’s Walk is pincered between the designated Aldgate and Whitechapel development areas that lie immediately to the west and north-east. Helical’s Tom Anderson explained that The Loom had existing leasehold office tenants, which provided an income stream for the project but meant interventions had to be carried out without excessive disruption to them. To create new configurations of office space was, as Anderson put it, ‘a huge, huge challenge. But we bought the building because it had been badly managed, which meant we could add value to it, and because it had an interesting raw aesthetic’. Duggan Morris were perhaps best known, initially, for producing decisively ordered Modernist architecture, the arch example being the Ortus building in south London, which recalls Giuseppe Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascio. The practice’s design approaches have evolved, most recently with the pink aluminium facade of the R7 Building at King’s Cross, and the proposed Aylesbury Health Centre, which will bring more than a hint of Rafael Moneo’s Murcia Town Hall to Southwark.
There is growing evidence of crafted, expressive details in the practice’s work, and this is most obvious in Gower’s walk, where weaving is the guiding metaphor for the most significant external and internal details - an intelligent, well-crafted, visually effective contextual branding. The 12-metre wide new entrance, previously a loading bay, carries a fixed frieze of woven mild steel formed to resemble the reed-frame of a historic loom; below the frieze are two matching metal reed-frames on rollers. The warp and weft effect and the variations in metal tone and shadow are elegantly post-industrial; so too is the inverted dog-tooth brickwork covering the steel lintel which holds up the two tonnes of sliding screens; the brickwork’s modelled patterning dovetails with the geometry of the metal reed-frames.
Internally, the same reed-frames are used for the atrium’s balcony-edge railings. This time, the effect of the dark, jinking reed-balusters is terrifically graphic, and the edge details of the soffits are razor-sharp. The specialist fabricator, Excel Architectural Engineering, also produced the rolled mild steel interior wall panels, to 2mm joint tolerances, which line the walls of the reception area; other bespoke metal elements included box-sectioned entrance door frames, laser-cut handles, lintels, and plated steel wraps around new structural columns. The quality and precise installation of the metalwork is, without doubt, exceptional, and highlights Helical’s willingness to support the extra cost of this degree of material refinement. The architect convinced Helical to pay for an early sample of the metal entrance screen, which was shrewd: it removed any possibility of the contractor assuming control of any of the key metalwork features.
‘Design is key to us’, said Anderson. ‘We want to create and own buildings that we would want to work in ourselves. And that’s why we are prepared to spend greater sums of money on higher quality finishes.’ From Gower’s ·walk, the wide entrance and metalwork screen clearly signal that The Loom is not a Usual Suspect commercial warehouse makeover (one of which can be seen just around the corner in an otherwise virtually identical Victorian building). From the Gower Street pavement, you can see right through the midsection of The Loom to the Dog & Truck pub in Back Church Lane.
To achieve this, the hideous PoMo ceiling, walls and staircase of the original reception volume were removed to fully expose the atrium and create an open, light-filled promenade volume between Gower’s Walk and Back Church Lane. A witty mural commissioned by Duggan Morris rises up the west wall of the atrium, depicting Victorians and Merino sheep floating upwards on kite strings. The removal of a metre-thick fire-risk wall (and the concealed insertion of tripled steel lintels) opened a dog-leg space at the Back Church Lane end of reception now occupied by a Look Mum No Hands cafe. It’s flooded with natural light, and the combination of original fabric and the new steel wall surfaces in the cafe and reception area is nicely balanced. Joe Morris knew the founders of LMNH and invited them to rent the space, to add an open-to-the-public component to The Loom. Another community-connecting initiative by the practice was to produce display cabinets for artworks by students of the nearby Cass School. The Loom’s visible headline features belie its ‘grunt’ aspects. ‘It was a very complex project in terms of the client’s business strategy’, notes Morris. 'They couldn’t have space standing idle - the building was being beaten about while tenants were working, and the metrics were so tight.
We knew it was going to be a hard slog. But, actually, we had stumbled on a project that was quite amazing. It was always on a knife-edge - what would work, what wouldn’t work, at every stage.‘ The technical director of the practice, David Storring, added: ’Nothing was as per the survey. We had somebody on site pretty much the whole time. Getting access to the ground floor was the key to unlocking the construction logistics. It was a nightmare ~ it took two years to organise the tenants.‘ There was what he described as ’an M&E car park‘ on the roof while work proceeded. Three risk walls were removed on the ground floor, one on the lower ground floor to form a secure cycle store and showers, and one on the first floor. Four perimeter cross-walls were punched out to create three ’super-unit' offices. The building has a maximum occupancy of 500 people, and one of the most important interventions ·was to pipe fresh air into the offices. Potential spread of fire has been overcome with self-closing doors to two sets of escape stairs, venting to the top of the atrium, and metal shutters at key points.
One of the most notable aspects of the project is the quality and visual-tactile character of the spaces and surfaces - created at an overall £100 per square foot. The mild steel sheeting, for example, which the practice had never used before; the ‘Trainspotters industrial light fittings, salvaged from a Czech warehouse; the cheapest possible concrete mix for the floors, diamond-polished to produce what Morris described as ’working man’s terrazzo, the best concrete floor we’ve ever done'; the rugged cast-iron nosings on the stairs up to reception level; the liftable, steel-framed concrete slabs over the electricity substation under the entrance threshold; the service zone above removable wood-wool acoustic ceiling panels. The judgement of where to spend, and where not to, has been acute.
Does The Loom work, functionally? The one office I visited had certainly been able to make creative and atmospheric use of its space. As for the LMNH cafe, co-founder Lewin Chalkley explained that he rented the space because the early architectural renders ‘looked great’. The amount of natural light and raw brickwork, the stylish white oak and wool upholstered fit-out, designed by Duggan Morris, and the fact that the Goodman’s Fields development will eventually supply some 3,000 potential drop-in customers, were strategically convincing. ‘When the letting agents come in with potential tenants, they show the cafe to them’, he said. "They say it’s the beating heart of the building, and it’s definitely a selling point for them. But it’s too soon to say that we’ve succeeded here. There’s a pub across the road and the guys there say they’re in it for the long game. It’s t he same for us.'
The Loom has proved to be ‘a very profitable exercise for us’, said Helical’s Tom Anderson. ‘The rents have far exceeded our expectations. And the types of tenants are evolving from back-of-house financial to fashion, design, and creatives.’ The Loom seems to be a ground-breaking E1 equivalent of ground-projects such as the Manhatten Loft Company’s 1994 Summers Street development in Clerkenwell, or the slightly later Factory apartments in Shepherdess Walk, Shoreditch. It’s a neat coincidence that the latter is 80m away from Duggan Morris’s studio. What goes around, comes around - but in this case in an original way.