The transfiguration of the Angel Building – an example of BREEAM  excellence

Text Stefania Kenley, photo Tim Soar

The rapid changes in our built environment seem to provoke a diversity of architectural responses, from elusive formal explorations to a “hands-on” engagement with the existing situation. We might still consider architectural practice as the direct result of individual thinking, yet, as it becomes ever more subject to international environmental debates, the personal approach has increasingly been submitted to objective evaluation based on national criteria. In UK the BREEAM rating is the Environmental Assessment Method (EAM) initiated by the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

This evaluation procedure of sustainable buildings can cause some unease to a guild still drifting in uncertainties enclosed in what Reyner Banham used to call “A Black Box, the Secret Profession of Architecture” . After at least fifty years of disputes around formal and spatial experimentations , we wonder if the architect’s “inspiration” is better prepared today to give priority to clearly documented environmental demands.

The example of a building completed recently in London demonstrates that allegiance to an international set of agreements is not necessarily inhibiting, but can provide us with reasons to integrate sustainability objectives in our practice and reach for a new cultural dimension in architecture. The Angel Building designed by the architects Allford, Hall, Monaghan, Morris, creates a bold presence from an existing office building near Angel tube station between Islington and the City of London.

The original late 1970s development by Elsom Pack Roberts Partnership, with Pell Fischmann as structural engineer, provided a symmetrical office layout around an open central courtyard. In 2006, after the main tenant‘s withdrawal, Derwent London developer and AHMM architects initiated a major redevelopment. As the concrete frame was still sound and with a good floor-to-ceiling height, the team proposed to recycle the existing structure, cover the courtyard and add a fifth floor recessed behind roof terrace. The plan was to increase the usable area in order to cover the costs of the new façade of energy-saving glazing.

The architectural decisions taken for this conversion may seem purely pragmatic, but after careful examination of the result, we are struck by an unexpected transfiguration of what before was just common place. If from the street, the first four floors of this sober façade now look like a post-miesean office building, as we approach the entrance, its solid presence opens into an atrium bathed in a surprising white light. This is the effect of a concrete roof frame covered simply by ETFE inflated pillows, allowing natural light to penetrate deeply into the atrium across five storeys of offices. On the atrium floor, at the mezzanine level and in the lift lobbies, the light is also reflected by the flooring made of pre-cast terrazzo tiles with white marble inserts. This interior reminds of the rear façade of Enso-Gutzeit office building realised by Alvar Aalto between 1959 and 1962, in the South Harbour of Helsinki. The floor insertions seems also to make reference to Aalto’s pattern present in the interior decoration (textile, ceramic, etc.), a subtle interpretation of the medieval brick fabric that inspired him in Siena.

The immaculate central space is pierced by the black spar of an art piece “Out of the strong Came Forth Sweetness” which ends at its base in a comfortable black leather seat.  Designed by Ian McChesney and upholstered by Bill Amberg, this Carbon Fibre catenary seems to have “come forth” like a spoonful of ever-pouring treacle. This oval base of the seating appearing as suspended from the atrium ceiling and hovering above the white flooring, reminds a series of sculptures called “Turning the world upside douwn”   realised by Anish Kapoor in 1995.

From the technical pack of the AHMM architects we learn that several design strategies allowed the Angel building to achieved an excellent BREEAM rating :
– passive building design, cooling and ventilation system, using renewable fuels, intelligent lighting, rainwater harvesting and recycling system, etc. This high environmental performance does not overrule the architectural elements of the building.

From outside, across the mature trees, we don’t see complicated sun shading devices on the façade, because the control of solar light and heat resides in the glass treatment with high performance coating. The curtain wall integrates large glass panels, but also horizontal narrow strips that can be easily opened to let fresh air inside. This new cladding was specially tailored for this façade and it had been tested ‘on full scale mock-up at the sub-contractor factory, the Scheldebouw in Holland’.

In the reception area there is on one side a low seating area with sofas and tables and on the other a café with an open bar, all of this under exposed concrete beams and reached by descending several steps from the Atrium level. The smooth-running lifts, located on the either side of the atrium, rise to the fifth floor offices. Here, the deep false ceiling so familiar in these work spaces has been dispensed, the light fittings were either inserted or simply hang from the ceiling plane, while the air-conditioning ductwork placed under the floor. Thanks to the choice of pastel coloured furniture, the atmosphere of the fifth floor feels very light.

Stepping out on the terrace through openings left in the structural glazing of the façade, a wide perspective opens towards the City of London. The view of the skyline floats between the plants that grow from carbon fibre bowls and the gazebos, allowing in summer a calm seating area. This deck seems to play the language of “Arcaismo Technologico”  (‘archaic technology’), a term used in Architettura Magazine in October 1960 to describe Louis Kahn’s approach to air conditioning. The terrace above the top floor is a platform on which the free cooling tanks and the equipment for ventilation system are set back, hidden from the view.

The following selection of photographs gives only a glimpse of the efficient re-use of a viable structure, the extension of usable space and the bright airiness of the top-lit Atrium. The decision to transform an existing building, and thus avoid expensive and noxious demolition, can be argued for not only through sustainability issues but also through architectural qualities and the interventions of contemporary artists able to contribute to an urban identity specific to the thriving buzz of Islington’s Upper Street.

Atrium of the Angel building with seating area in the lower floor level separated by a bench row, with the sculpture “Out of the strong Came Forth Sweetness” designed by Ian McChesney and upholstered by Bill Amberg, photo © Tim Soar



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