Office block, bank, residential block and linking podium, 1960-64 by Alison and Peter Smithson for the Economist magazine.
Reasons for Designation
The Economist group, of 1960-64 by Alison and Peter Smithson, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural interest: the masterpiece of two of post-war Britain's most radical and influential architects, expressing a remarkable fusion of Brutalist starkness and rigour with a contextualist awareness of history and place;
* Townscape interest: a planning achievement of the highest order and one of London's most memorable modern spaces, offering subtle intimations of the Greek agora, the Italian piazza and the alleys and courts of Georgian London.
The pre-war premises of the Economist, an influential current affairs bulletin published in London since 1843, had been bombed during the Blitz, and in the late 1950s the magazine, under chairman Sir Geoffrey Crowther and joint manager Robert Dallas-Smith, sought to consolidate its scattered offices in St James’s on a single site. The aspiration was for a tower of at least ten storeys with a penthouse flat for Sir Geoffrey at the top, which, thanks to the 1:5 plot ratio laid down by the London County Council, meant the acquisition of a large amount of land. Working closely with the Crown Estate, Dallas-Smith gradually built up a half-acre site adjoining the long-established Boodle’s club, which agreed to surrender its residential annexe on Bury Street in exchange for space in the new development, allowing the latter to run the full depth of the block.
The magazine summed up its basic requirements as follows: ‘to provide the Economist itself with efficient new offices, to make use of the site to good economic advantage and, finally, to make a worthy and novel contribution to the civic architecture of London and the town landscape of St James’s.' Being in keeping with the latter’s urban C18 and C19 street architecture was a key requirement, although ‘fake antiquarianism’ was ruled out on principle. Seeking architects who would produce ‘a building thought out afresh from first principles’, the clients bypassed the large established firms of the day in favour of smaller and more creative practices. The recent competition for Churchill College, Cambridge had drawn entries from many such, and in late 1959 Dallas-Smith interviewed some dozen candidates before inviting two practices, the little-known George Trew and Dunn and the arch-radicals Alison and Peter Smithson, to prepare outline schemes, in a two-way competition overseen by Leslie Martin. Trew and Dunn proposed a fairly conventional slab-and-podium development on the model of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM)’s Lever House in New York (1952), while the Smithsons – following a suggestion from Maurice Bebb, in-house architect to the client’s contractors Robert McAlpine and Sons – produced a more radical scheme involving three separate buildings (office tower, residential block and bank) grouped around a small raised piazza with car parking beneath. Although it was recognised not to be the most economical use of the site, the spatial and urbanistic qualities of the latter proposal won out, and in May 1960 the Smithsons were awarded the commission.
Detailed research and design work, carried out in collaboration with Bebb, occupied the next eighteen months. The layout of the interiors was determined during this period; the floor plans of the tower were based on a standard two-man office 10ft 6in in width, a figure arrived at after extensive studies (including the construction of a full-size mock-up), and which in turn determined the standard module used throughout the development. Boodle’s acted in effect as a second client, taking the bottom four floors of the residential block to replace their lost chambers building, as well as part of the sub-podium area for a women’s annexe; the scheme also included the refurbishment of the clubhouse and the addition of a bay window to its newly-exposed side wall.
Construction, carried out by McAlpine’s, took place between mid 1962 and late 1964. The development was widely admired at the time: Vincent Scully hailed it as ‘one of the most successful examples of urban design to be seen anywhere…[and] among the most important buildings of the decade’, while even Gordon Cullen, whose views on architecture were antithetical to the Smithsons’ own, praised the three buildings’ sense of ‘internal family life’ and the way the ‘effect of space…flows and develops calmly and lucidly’ – although the Smithsons’ one-time champion Reyner Banham balked at what he saw as the scheme’s deference, in its acropolis-like layout and quasi-Classical proportions, to ‘a West End where you have to go Greek to keep up with the 20th century’. In 1990 the complex was refurbished by SOM, who (among other works) realigned the steps up to the podium from Bury Street, and remodelled and enlarged the lobby to the office tower.
Alison and Peter Smithson (1928-1993 and 1923-2003) were perhaps the most radical of the generation of architects who trained in the years immediately after WWII - they met whilst studying at Durham University in the late 1940s - and played a leading role in the Team X/'New Brutalist' rebellion against orthodox British Modernism in the 1950s and 60s. They were noted for their well-publicised unbuilt schemes and theoretical writings as much as for their relatively small number of executed projects; the latter included Hunstanton School in Norfolk (Grade II*, 1950-4), the Garden Building at St Hilda's College, Oxford (Grade II, 1968-70) and the Robin Hood Gardens estate in Poplar, east London (unlisted, 1969-72).
MATERIALS: Aluminium-clad reinforced concrete frame with roachbed Portland stone facings. Windows have anodised aluminium frames.
PLAN: The Economist site occupies nearly half an acre, bounded by St James’s Street to the west, Ryder Street to the south and Bury Street to the east, with the 1770s building of Boodle’s club (Grade I) to the north. It comprises three main buildings - the Economist office tower, a residential block and a bank - plus a small extension to Boodle's, linked together by a raised podium element which forms in effect a small, irregularly-shaped piazza. Access to the podium, and to the office and residential blocks, is via steps and a ramp from St James's Street, and a further flight of steps (reconfigured in 1990) from Bury Street. Beneath the podium is a car park, entered from Ryder Street, and an annexe to the club. A short-lived staff restaurant originally occupied the eastern part of this space.
The plan of each building is based on a square with canted corners. The four-storey bank building stands at the south-west corner of the site. It is of an irregular shape, with its north-east corner sliced off to enlarge the circulation space on the podium; at street level are shops and the bank entrance foyer, from which escalators rise to the
banking hall (now a restaurant) on the first floor. The sixteen-storey office tower is the tallest of the three buildings and the largest on plan. It occupies the south-east corner of the site, with its main entrance from podium level to the north, where there is an expansive lobby area set behind a colonnade; at street level the former post room has been converted into shops. The standard office floor plate originally comprised a series of small two-person units at the periphery of the building, with a circulation corridor running around the square service core with its lifts, stairs and toilets. This arrangement has been retained in some areas, but other floors are now wholly open-plan. The top floor was originally a penthouse flat belonging to the chairman of the Economist group, but has now been converted to office use. The 8-storey residential block is at the north-east corner and can be entered from the south via the podium or via Boodle's to the north. The first four storeys contain chambers (i.e. sets of single bedrooms) used by members of Boodle's club. The next three are flats - one per floor, accessed directly from the lift and via a shared staircase - and the topmost floor is now an office.
EXTERIORS: The three buildings are given a uniform external treatment. The concrete frame is sheathed in grey enamelled metal, with narrow slabs of Portland roach attached to the mullion-columns and larger rectangular slabs in the storey panels. The gaps between the slabs are carefully emphasised, underlining their non-structural character. Atop each building is a set-back plant room, also clad in vertical stone strips.
The distinctions between the buildings are expressed primarily in scale and proportion, using variations on the standard 10ft 6in module. The bank is the smallest of the three, but also the most expansively proportioned, with undivided bays of 10ft 6in width. Facing St James's Street, its height and proportions are dictated by Boodle's and other neighbouring Georgian buildings; storey heights are doubled on the ground and first floors, giving the effect of a piano nobile. The tall office tower also has 10ft 6in bays, but with central window mullions that establish an intermediate scale. At podium level the entrance foyer is a glazed enclosure set behind the line of the columns, forming a peripheral colonnade - partly enclosed during the 1990 alterations when the foyer was enlarged and the current revolving doors and canopy inserted. The residential tower is in effect a scale model of the office building, with eight floors to the latter's sixteen, and with half-width bays of 5ft 3in containing vertically sliding sashes. This building too has a glazed foyer at podium level set within a colonnade.
To the north, a three-storey bay window protrudes into the podium area from the blank side wall of Boodle's. This feature, whose detail matches that of the three main buildings, was added at the same time and stands in effect as a fourth member of the group.
LANDSCAPING: The podium itself is surfaced in long slabs of Portland roach aggregate. Alongside Boodle's is a bench formed of a single large stone slab.
The approach from St James's Street is via steps and a ramp, divided by a chunky stone balustrade. The steps from Bury Street, originally two converging flights, were remodelled as a single flight in 1990. The outer walls of the podium are faced in large Portland roach slabs, with glazed shop-fronts in Ryder Street and Bury Street.
INTERIORS: These have been much altered. In the former bank building, the principal features are the twin escalators, which rise at an acute angle to one another from the entrance lobby to the former banking hall. This is a double-height space with a grey marble floor; its other fittings relate to the present restaurant use and are not of special interest. The entrance lobby to the office tower was enlarged and renewed in 1990; the Portland roach finishes used here by SOM, though they complement the exterior well, are not of special interest. On the office floors, the modular plasterboard partitions were intended to be flexible, and have in many areas been relocated, renewed or removed. The most important fixed feature is a continuous glazed box on the partition line between the offices and the circulation corridor. This was intended to serve a number of functions, allowing borrowed light into the corridor, providing artificial light (by means of concealed fluorescent tubes) to both corridors and offices, and forming part of the air filtration system. Office fittings, and those of the WCs in the central core, were renewed in 1990 and are generally not of special interest. The topmost floor, originally the director's flat, is taller than the others, with clerestorey lighting beneath the ceiling line; all the original domestic fittings and partitions have been removed. Fittings and finishes in the residential block have also been much renewed.