Last October Zaha Hadid finally got what was coming to her: The Stirling Prize. After many years slaving over gravity-defying compositions and dreaming up concepts that are almost inconceivable to the rest of us, the world rejoiced with Hadid as she was presented with what seemed like the only architectural prize she was yet to receive. And a deserved win it truly was. The MAXXI in Rome is an exceptional feat of design and engineering, rising in sculptural concrete swathes across the landscape.
The Stirling Prize is one of the most hotly contested gongs in the industry and is awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects each year to an outstanding completed project which has either been designed or constructed within Britain. Vying for the title this year are the Velodrome by Hopkins Architects, An Gaelaras by O’Donnell and Tuomey, the Evelyn Grace Academy by Zaha Hadid, the Folkwang Museum by David Chipperfield, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre by Bennetts Associates, and the Angel Building by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM).
On Tuesday, WAN was privy to a complete tour of the Angel Building in London by Simon Allford of AHMM and David Thurston from developers Derwent London. The pairing is obviously a lucrative one as AHMM and Derwent are now embarking on their fifth and six schemes together, adding to a successful portfolio that includes the enlivened Tea Building and high-end Horseferry House projects.
A large proportion of the duo’s schemes involve reimagining existing commercial facilities with sustainable alternatives and state-of-the-art technology, thinking outside the box to offer luxury office blocks to a top-end clientele. As a result, the Angel Building is a sleek, reflective crescent located across the road from Angel underground station, reflecting the curve of the road and set back from the public thoroughfare by a narrow landscaped plaza. With a façade inspired by the Manufacturers Hanover Trust by Bunshaft/SOM and Crown Hall by Mies van der Rohe, the subtle integration of the building into its urban surroundings means that what could easily be an architecturally overpowering structure makes a quiet yet confident statement in this built up area. Taking this original inspiration one stage further, the strong horizontal expression of the Angel Building is visibly extended through 3m wide window panels as opposed to the 1.5m panes so commonly found in commercial building design. This generous approach not only provides uninterrupted views for the workers within the structure but enables a greater volume of natural light to enter the interior spaces.
Allford explains: “This is a new building and we actually went all over the world looking at various projects for research; the idea of it being a dark building is that it’s strong sculptural form is actually an addition to the area, not an aping of what was around but a new piece. But it resolves what was a complete mess as an urban area, so it’s really an urban resolution by inserting a new piece.” Quite a challenge for a private commercial facility to act as a ‘resolution’ for a sizeable urban area. Admittedly the area lacks architectural continuity however it retains a quirky character and friendly feel despite the heavy traffic that passes almost continuously. AHMM have taken what was once a lifeless brown shell and encased it in a glossy new envelope, reigniting interest in the existing 1970s Angel Centre and adding an aesthically pleasing frontage to St John’s Street.
Sitting inside one of the discrete café areas that flank a soaring internal atrium, one soon becomes aware of how alive the building has become in such a short space of time. The final touches to construction were only completed a matter of months ago and already approximately 95% of the complex is occupied. It is not the sheer number of workers that give the building that buzz however, but the intelligent design work from AHMM. Where an open-air courtyard once stood, underutilised and undervalued, the design studio has created a light-filled internal core off which spring individual offices viewable through partially-frosted glass panels. Starkly contrasted again a thick concrete grid are these uniform glass boxes which slip quietly into their designated slots, incorporating balconies, informal meeting spaces and break-out areas for quiet contemplation or social interaction.
Dotted across the walls are abstract artistic pieces by emerging London artists. These will be replaced by alternative artworks throughout the years however a single sculpture by established artist Ian McChesney is a permanent addition to the building’s five storey atrium. Inspired by the fluidity of dripping treacle, this elegant string of black carbon fibre culminates in a leather-coated seat at its base upon which numerous people stop to perch during our tour.
There are many factors that decipher whether or not a building’s design is fit for purpose, some measured by stats, others by more intangible methods. The Angel Building certainly seems effective and whilst neither architect nor developer could produce any solid data to prove the success of their building’s design, from an observer’s position the interactions between workers from different departments and companies as they passed one another in communal spaces or conversed jovially over a latte in the softly lit café bays suggested that both AHMM and Derwent have achieved what has recently been noted as near impossible by numerous architecture critics (and spearheaded by Tom Dyckhoff): an effective office building at the hand of a UK architect.
The question remains: does the Angel Building have the Stirling factor? Potentially. It is the only commercial project on the shortlist but Hopkins’ Velodrome remains the solid bookies’ favourite and with less than a year remaining until the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the excitement is palpable and many are already hedging their bets in favour of the tiered timber structure. It’s beautifully buffed cedar-wood bands are a marked contrast to the Angel Building’s polished black glass façade and yet the raw concrete interiors of AHMM’s masterpiece bear more than a little resemblance to last year’s victorious scheme in Rome. It would be a delight to see the Angel Building take the crown and if another contender is to steal the limelight from the Velodrome this may well be it, but this year competition for the Stirling Prize is high and the Angel may be sorely out of luck.