Economist Plaza to be reborn

The first phase of DSDHA’s redevelopment of the Smithsons’ Economist Plaza in London has started on site

by Nick Myall 28 November 2017

DSDHA have released a summary of their plans for the Grade II* listed brutalist landmark The Economist Plaza in central London. 

[From the architects]

The project for the icon’s conservation and sensitive modification was granted planning consent by the London Borough of Westminster in February 2017, with the support of the 20th Century Society and Historic England. Working with the owner, Tishman Speyer, a phased restoration strategy for the Plaza has been developed. The project is founded on the original qualities of the Smithsons’ design, on impact of incremental changes since its completion in 1964 as well as on the contemporary needs of occupiers. The Smithsons saw the Economist Plaza as an urban as well as an architectural project – a fragment of the mixed use city centre – and designed its three buildings as elements of townscape to be experienced kinetically, via the new raised public space accessible from both St James Street and Bury Street. The Smithsons' design intent was based on a careful choreography of movements and views towards and through the complex and its public space as well as from within and without each of the buildings. 

They predicted the Plaza to be “the first part of a more general system of pedestrian walkways at various levels which should be an essential part of London”.  Acknowledging these qualities along with the building’s historic significance, the proposals aim to update the building and reverse some of the changes that occurred over time: the Smithsons themselves carried out alterations to the project in the 1980s, prior to SOM Architects’ major reworking in 1990. In addition, attention has been paid to areas of such as Ryder St to the south where the street frontage is dominated by the carpark entrance and service areas. 

Strategic Aims

We have rethought the ‘urban choreography’ of the complex to encourage amenity and accessibility. In line with the Smithsons’ vision for the Plaza as ‘an enjoyable public space’ and ‘a rendezvous and tourist spot’, the aim is for the Plaza to embody this generosity. It is designed to be a place to meet, with new landscaping and additional seating, yet embodying quietude, raised above the traffic and fumes of St James’s Street, as well as a welcome short-cut through St James’s back streets. Once the home to Paolozzi’s acclaimed works and then the gallery space for The Architecture Foundation, the Economist Plaza has a long and established tradition as a prominent stage for London’s creative and artistic scene. This legacy has the potential to be rekindled, making room for new patterns of life and work within St James’s art district, in line with what the Smithsons had originally envisaged. 

Method of Research Analysis

Detailed interventions have been guided by a rigorous methodology, devised in conversation with distinguished scholars and experts and informed by extensive historical research and in-depth forensic investigations of the site and surrounding building’s fabric. Overall we have been guided by the Smithsons’ writings on the ever-changing nature of the city and how to approach change. “Better, then, that a wanted new use is found and that change of use is clearly signalled. A signal also announces that what is left is a scenographic shell, and that what is inside is now something different. […] if what is inside - the use - remains substantially the same, but circumstances require it to be signalled differently, the new signal should be in some way an extension of the old.” Peter Smithson, The Charged Void: Urbanism The Economist Plaza has been widely photographed since its completion. Cataloguing its key views, collecting and comparing the images that the Smithsons had commissioned has allowed us to analyse the angles from which the buildings have been consistently photographed over time. In so doing we identified and studied the changes that took place, many of which have had a negative impact on the character and setting of the Listed complex. Here, a spatial hierarchy within the ensemble was legible, distinguishing the most iconic areas and views – part of the building’s ‘collective memory’ – from the less recorded ones, to which one might conject that the Smithsons did not accord the same degree of significance. Building on this research, the detailed design aims to keep the Plaza’s original character, while sensitively intervening in strategic, and less successful, areas of the complex – for example at the carpark entrance level which was not presented in any of the Smithsons’ publications. In this way we have been able to preserve the original design whilst updating the whole complex to meet the demands of contemporary 21st century office and public space, adapting this brutalist icon to London’s changing urban realm.

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