December 9, 2010 11:01 pm

Railways’ legacy allows Broadgate a continental feel

Broadgate is among London’s most mongrel districts: an urban cocktail of ambitious Victorian and 20th-century engineering, US-style corporate modernism, postmodernism and the fragments of a Roman-inspired, brick-built 19th-century city.

When the Victorians smashed through it to create the railway station and goods yards they inadvertently left a legacy of generous space that makes it radically different to the neighbouring City of London, with its tight medieval street plan. The new proposals for 5 Broadgate by Make and British Land take full advantage of this unique City situation.

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Edwin Heathcote

If the local architectural language sits somewhere between Victoriana, corporate Chicago and Docklands, this new proposal is more continental.

Like the monumental blocks of Parisian boulevards or Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the architecture resembles a chunk of sculptural material that has been carved into – rather than the more familiar corporate glass block surrounding a barely visible structural skeleton.

Here, the building has been supersized and made to appear not as if it were hewn from stone but milled from metal.

In its patterns of slots and deep recesses the architects have attempted to express the action inside.

Usually this is achieved either through the overwhelming use of glass or through a process in which services, structure, functions and machinery are exposed, as Richard Rogers did at the Lloyd’s Building.

Here, the stairs are expressed as diagonal slashes, the vast trading floors as attenuated ribbon windows, while terraces and more conventional offices are excavated deep into the facades.

This kind of “groundscraper” could, in effect, exist only here – nowhere else in the City allows this scale of square footage.

Despite its huge mass, and the fact that it blocks an existing north-south route through the site, this is a building that grows from the exigencies of its location.

It also suggests that, after a period defined by the construction of self-consciously sculptural towers, appetites are slowly shifting back to a middle ground defined by the mid-rise commercial architecture that still provides the bulk of the City’s accommodation.

Finally, in its veering away from the glass curtain wall, it also presages a new era that acknowledges energy use in which the City may well return to solid walls and windows.

A big step forward to get back to where we once were.

But much bigger. And shinier too.

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