Urbanities

David Watkin
A New Order for Office Buildings
Spring 1996

While Le Corbusier’s view that the house is a machine for living in is now widely discredited as an error that produced an inhumane and brutal modern architecture, the notion that the office is a machine for working in seems superficially more reasonable. That’s what makes Quinlan Terry’s Richmond Riverside office development, completed in 1988, so important a turning point in the history of architecture. The huge success of this sprawling traditionalist structure as a real estate investment, a functional home for the most modern corporations, and an architectural monument instantly embraced by the public shows that we’ve been wrong to accept any part of architectural modernism’s mechanistic doctrine.

The business activity that underpins the life we all lead in the West by no means requires the bleak, widely disliked office towers that have torn out the hearts of cities across the world. Richmond Riverside shows us that there is another and nobler way to build offices so that they can be poetic, moving, and lovely—and still contain all the modern technology required by the corporate clients that occupy them, such as Compaq, the world-class computer company. This is not a theory but a reality, achieved here and now in Richmond, on the outskirts of London, where the architect and the developers can claim to have expanded the limits of the possible.

It’s easy to see why modernism’s graph paper-grid office blocks might seem plausible homes for modern business. They seem associated with so many of corporate industrial society’s ideals: rationality, unsentimentality, efficiency, modernity, and mass production. They seem to express the spirit of our industrial age. Such, for example, was the claim of the celebrated architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, writing about the then-new modernist architecture of Walter Gropius in 1936: “The creative energy of this world which we want to master, a world of science and technique, of speed and danger, of hard struggles and no personal security, is glorified in Gropius's architecture.” This kind of architecture is inevitable in our century, Pevsner asserted, “a century as cold as steel and glass, a century the precision of which leaves less space for self-expression than did any period before.”

But the now widely held assumption that the cold, anti-historical, and aggressive forms of much modern architecture are somehow inevitable for office developments, and that we are not really free to choose more pleasing alternatives, is wrong on three fatal counts. First, as I argued in Morality in Architecture, it is just not true that there is a Zeitgeist, or “spirit of the age,” as Hegel and Marx asserted. German philosophy notwithstanding, each age does not have an overriding collective will, expressing itself in all forms of endeavor, the ages succeeding one another in thesis and antithesis in a progress toward the birth of the new man. So in the twentieth century, there is no single set of universally acceptable answers to the moral, political, and social questions of the age—answers that are so absolutely mirrored in a particular type of architecture that individuals are no more at liberty to reject the architecture than they are free to abstain from the rest of the package. This is pernicious nonsense that in most areas of life, outside of the arts, most thinking people have rejected.

Second, the answers that modernists gave to the moral, social, and political questions of the age—answers their architecture supposedly embodies—turned out to be grievously wrong. The notions that our century is, as Pevsner called it, a “time of overpowering collective energy”; that the individual is not to oppose the overpowering collective will, which is pregnant with history; that there is little room for self-expression or for “the warm and direct feelings of the great men of the past”; that twentieth-century architecture should be “totalitarian”—how much tragedy sprang from ideas like these.

Third, more than a decade's experience of corporate restructuring has left the hierarchical, bureaucratic idea of business life that these buildings express looking quaint and obsolete. Their vision of compartmentalized functions, of layer upon layer of faceless, interchangeable clerks and managers processing their little bits of the company’s information flow, of the company itself as a standardized, inhuman machine rather than a unique and flexible human organization—all these are yesterday’s new ideas.

The sprawling suburb of Richmond, ten miles west of central London, has a historic urban core of Georgian and Victorian buildings on the banks of the Thames. A large area in the center had become a classic example of "urban blight," where empty buildings decayed while planners dithered. Before Quinlan Terry’s arrival on the site in 1983, a succession of developers and architects had been entangled in planning procedures for 15 long years. During most of that time the architects, working for the English Property Company (EPC), had envisioned building 106,000 square feet of office space to be rented as one or two units to big corporate users. The planners in the Richmond Borough Council, however, had the unusual good sense to argue that such huge blocks would be out of sympathy with the modest human scale of the existing buildings. They asked that the offices should appear to be a group of different buildings, though the same floor levels would be continued throughout. They also wanted brick to be used, but just as a veneer on a concrete frame.

EPC finally obtained planning approval from the Richmond Borough Council but, wearied with the years of negotiation, were happy to sell the property to Haslemere Estates PLC. The exciting part of the story now begins: Haslemere agreed to buy the site on condition that its plans, designed by Quinlan Terry, would be accepted. Why Terry? The reason was that he was busy revolutionizing modern office building with the speculative block he was building for Haslemere in central London, at Dufours Place, in Soho. He designed this in a traditional Georgian style, even adopting traditional load-bearing brick construction. Begun in the spring of 1982, it included, at the planners’ insistence, a mix of uses: thus, apart from offices, it contains 25 apartments, a light industrial area, a doctor's office, and underground parking. Planning approval had been granted for an eight-story glass-and-concrete block, but Terry would have none of this. Keeping the eight stories, including the basement, and providing the same floor area, he provided cheerful red-brick exteriors with white-painted, wooden sash windows and a jaunty cupola. All this was so charming and so welcoming that people wanted to come and live and work there. Dufours Place was let even before it was finished in 1983, in contrast to existing offices in adjacent streets, which, for rent in 1982, were still unrented after Dufours Place was opened.

One of the most encouraging chapters in recent real estate development now unfolded, when Haslemere Estates decided to take the risk of applying the Dufours pattern to a vaster, $29 million development in Richmond. The given conditions at Richmond were the planning approval granted to EPC, the need to preserve two historic buildings along the river—landmarked by the government for their historic interest—the slope of the site, the presence of the river, and the whole historic character of eighteenth-century Richmond.

Haslemere Estates carried out the development in association with the Pensions Fund Property Unit Trust, a tax-exempt mutual fund established to enable pension funds to invest in the property market. Together they agreed to lease the 15 separate buildings as different moderately sized units, though the overall floor area was much the same as that proposed by EPC. They believed that, despite the predominance of single, monolithic office developments in London, there was still a demand for middle-sized premises. Instead of treating the site as if it were one large building subdivided, Terry provided attached but separate houses with real party walls. His buildings are what they seem, individual architectural entities, yet they give the illusion that they have grown over time, for they recall traditional town centers in which buildings of different periods rub shoulders happily with one another. They conform to a common vernacular—in this case, English Georgian—yet have details in different styles. The architectural historian can catch references to Venetian Gothic, Palladian, Baroque, Georgian, and Greek Revival styles, with allusions to such architectural masters as Bernini, Palladio, Longhena, Sansovino, Hawksmoor, and Chambers. But most visitors will hardly recognize these sources, seeing only a harmonious vernacular scheme enlivened by joyous details with a consistently witty, “over the top” flavor.

The situation of Quinlan Terry’s buildings on the banks of the Thames helps explain their architectural character, which deliberately harmonizes with that of the adjacent London riverside of Georgian Richmond, Twickenham, and Kew. Terry's buildings are invitingly open to the river through terraces and lawns, yet they also form a group that has a powerfully urban character. We have a sense of public streets with traffic, contrasting with those magical enclosures and squares that we find in Italian cities.

At the heart of the whole complex is Heron Square, a cloistered pedestrian retreat that is a key statement of the way in which beautiful urban spaces can be created despite the endless modern regulations concerning planning, building, and safety. These are often believed to be inimical to traditional planning, but Richmond Riverside is triumphant proof of the nonsense of that claim. The required access for fire engines is cleverly contrived through two richly ornamental archways that had to be four meters by three meters. In other hands, these dimensions would produce arches of an ugly shape, but Terry made them appear taller by the use of higher columns on each side, supporting an entablature that is higher than the actual opening. The curvaceous window above is from Borromini, while above this is yet another Roman Baroque window with a frame terminating in two broadly projecting ears or lugs that have led it to be known, unkindly, as the Prince of Wales window. Right in the middle of Heron Square splashes a central fountain, derived from a Renaissance example in Bologna. The small square paving stones of granite in the square cover a reinforced concrete raft forming the roof of the underground garage. In the center of the square's south side is an archway with a flight of steps leading enticingly down to the river.

As Terry points out, modern buildings, with their flat roofs and excessive use of glass, consistently fail in functional terms. One of many notorious examples is Sir James Stirling’s History Faculty Building at Cambridge University, which developed so many cracks and leaks that, less than 20 years after its completion in 1967—when it had received an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects—the university considered demolishing it rather than facing the cost of continuous repairs. Terry insists, by contrast, that in the wet northern climate of England four thick walls and a pitched roof are what is always needed. All the buildings at Richmond are built in load-bearing brick, so that the external walls, stronger and more durable than most modern materials, carry the load of the floors and the Welsh slate roof above. However, the internal walls are often in reinforced concrete, to increase the net rentable area. The roofs sport decorative cupolas disguising extractor ducts for the air-conditioning system and the basement garage. This last device is one of Quinlan Terry's most brilliant triumphs, for it shows how traditional forms can incorporate every kind of modern technical amenity. Terry also echoes the rich colors and textures of English eighteenth-century architecture: red and yellow bricks, stucco, tiles with curled ends, flat tiles, slate and lead, sash and casement windows, as well as all the five orders of columns and capitals: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite.

Haslemere stipulated that the floors be marketed open plan; as Terry laconically points out, “Work on the interiors, as with all modern office developments, is carried out after the tenant purchases the property.” This practice has a long history. Successful classical architects, from J.H. Mansart, who designed the Place Vend(tm)me in Paris (1698), to John Nash, who designed Carlton House Terrace in London (1827), were wise enough to know that the rich, rightly or wrongly, would wish to commission interior decorators to design their own interiors. They thus ran up imposing facades designed to a united plan, leaving the purchasers of the individual houses to choose designers for the interiors. What matters is the external civic image, not the ever-changing fashions imposed by interior decorators.

Terry’s frontage on the River Thames is an amalgam of new work and restored landmarked buildings. Like a painter, he has created a varied, animated, yet harmonious composition in which brick facades jostle with those in stucco, below a lively skyline of pediments, gables, attic windows, and cupolas. Tower House at the east end, an Italianate design by Henry Laxton of 1856, was remodeled by Terry as a restaurant and flats. Here and in the adjacent Palm Court, also of the 1850s, the front wall was retained, though all details are new. Next is South Gate, a gateway building by Quinlan Terry with arched Venetian windows in a Palladian style, replacing a mean building of the 1930s. It leads up to Heron Square through an archway inspired by those at Palladio’s Basilica at Vicenza. Next is the modest Heron House, a listed building of 1716, roofless by 1983 and in need of complete restoration. At the west corner of the main river frontage is Hotham House, a monumental building by Terry. A type familiar from English seventeenth-century country houses, it is 11 bays long with a central pediment, its roof surmounted by a cheerful domed belvedere. The broadly projecting eaves cleverly contain air-conditioning outlets in coffered panels.

Running from north to south at the west end of the site is Whittaker House, a stuccoed terrace of 21 bays looking like part of a never-completed Regency square and described by Terry as a watered-down version of a 1760s design by Sir William Chambers for a never-executed palace at Richmond for King George III. Adjacent to Whittaker House on the river is one of the most memorable buildings in the whole development, the main restaurant. With its round-arched colonnades on both main stories, it has a Palladian Venetian flavor, appropriate to its riverside setting. Terry was delighted to find that Haslemere Estates, appreciating the visual importance of this key building, accepted the rich and expensive ornament he proposed, including a lead roof and stone Ionic capitals on the first floor.

Adjacent to this beautiful restaurant is a long and broad flight of shallow steps leading up from the Thames to a new public open space known as Whittaker Square, lying between Whittaker House and Hotham House. This handsome staircase, which is aligned with the existing War Memorial, is flanked by the required zigzag ramps for wheelchairs. Three more flights of steps rise through the three levels of beautiful terraced lawns, which Terry designed to link his buildings to the river—and whose walks and benches are always filled. One might suppose that any architect would make equally good use of a Thames-side site: that this is not so is obvious to anyone who visits the graceless Hayward Gallery and National Theatre complex of the 1960s, built in the form of a series of bunkers in grim, gray concrete by Sir Denys Lasdun on the South Bank site in central London. The Prince of Wales commented ironically that they “seemed like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.” One glance at the New York waterfront will also show that good buildings do not sprout up spontaneously on good sites. (See “The Wasted Waterfront,” page 58.)

Quinlan Terry’s north and east frontages have arcaded ground floors containing shops, like the historic English towns of Winchester and Chester, with their Roman origins. Providing welcome shelter from the weather, the arcades boast anti-graffiti paint and columns in four orders: Greek Doric, Roman Doric, Tuscan, and Corinthian. The columns have no bases, to allow their heights to increase down the gradient of the sloping site. In the main building on the north side, recalling ambitious early-Victorian commercial buildings in provincial market towns, the stumpy columns carry a huge load and so have an appropriately pronounced entasis, the bulging profile of early Doric columns. On the east side, Terry introduced a simple Gothic building resembling backstreet houses in Venice. As Terry envisioned, the building already looks like one of the Victorian additions that bring such character to English towns.

Richmond Riverside represents a victory for real estate developers as well as for those who believe that the values of traditional cities can be retained in the modern world. Though totally contemporary in its provision of technological services, it puts us in direct touch with the past in an extraordinarily moving way. It attracts a vast range of admirers, including those who work in it as well as local residents and tourists, and it is popular as a film location, as a setting for fashion photography, and for office workers to eat lunch in or to sit and rest on its welcoming terraces. This life-enhancing place makes possible what was thought impossible: that a massive commercial development with 106,000 square feet of office space, 10,600 square feet of shops, 28 apartments, two restaurants, and underground parking for 135 cars can be inserted into a historic town center without ruining it—can, indeed, improve it, through good manners, charm, and wit.

Richmond also gave the lie to the myth that traditional buildings are more expensive than “modern.” A director of Haslemere Estates, interviewed on television at the completion of Richmond, gave the figure of £80 per square foot to build Richmond, compared with over £100 per square foot to build normal air-conditioned modern office space in central London. Quinlan Terry says that the answer as to whether traditional construction is commercially advantageous also “depends on the greed of the developer in a seller’s market.” He goes on to explain that “1989 was the first time since the war that office rents went down. Till then it was a seller’s market, when rent was computed on the basis of the total lettable area times the market rent per square foot. That is why modern developers put such a high priority on the lettable area. Since 1989 we have had a buyer’s market, where the tenant will look for quality of space, prestigious external appearance, as well as quantity. The big question today is whether it will let at all.” He points out that proof of the success of traditionally designed buildings is that, while vast areas of office accommodation in London remain empty, Dufours Place and Richmond Riverside are both fully leased. Moreover, he adds that most modern offices are built to last for only 30 years, but traditional buildings, built to last for generations, are more attractive at the later rent reviews.

By far the largest single tenant at Richmond is Compaq UK, occupying one whole building as well as two sides of Heron Square. The Compaq staff, well aware of the significance of these buildings in the history of office design, are delighted with them visually and functionally, and they take the riverside setting and wealth of restaurants as an added bonus. “We’re more than happy,” says Compaq UK’s boss, Joe McNally. With its full floors and hidden cabling for computer networks, McNally says, “the development is perfectly capable of supporting a high-tech company.” Staff members pointed out to me that the buildings are so well known that everyone knows where to find them: a tremendous tribute to Terry’s ability to create a sense of local and national identity.

However popular Richmond Riverside is with its tenants, with the general public, and with the Prince of Wales, the architectural establishment has universally criticized it for its supposed “Disneyland” character—an idealized and therefore fraudulent evocation of a past that was never so clean and perfect—and for the contrast between its exteriors and its open-plan, fluorescent-lit office interiors. Though the last criticism has some force, remember that clients demanded interiors of this kind. Without them, there would have been no Richmond Riverside, and the facades have surely given more pleasure than the interiors have caused pain.

The Disneyland criticism is easy to answer. Richmond Riverside belongs to the so-called Picturesque planning tradition, developed in late-eighteenth-century England. In this tradition, buildings were designed to summon up a range of associations: they could evoke history through the use of past styles, or they could blend into their landscape settings to suggest harmony with nature. A perfect example is John Nash’s Regent Street, built from 1818 as a commentary on and a dialogue with the traditional buildings in English towns. Nash deliberately designed Regent Street to resemble the episodic grouping of the historic High Street at Oxford. For the facade of the County Fire Office on Regent Street, he took as his model, at the request of the client, the demolished seventeenth-century gallery at Old Somerset House, a former royal residence, then believed to be by Inigo Jones. So, too, did Terry provide an echo at Richmond of a royal palace, though one never built. In a broader sense, at Richmond Terry brilliantly arrived at exactly the same conclusions as Nash in his inventive use of the legacy of the past.

Terry’s frequent reference to earlier buildings, many of which he has drawn in Continental sketchbooks, is in harmony with the methods of Nash and other great architects of the past. Terry also explains his echoes of these buildings at Richmond Riverside and elsewhere as a necessary consequence of the speed with which the modern architect has to work: Terry had six months between receiving the commission for Richmond and going to tender, so he had to tax his memory and imagination heavily to produce the details. As he points out, an architect must put in all the ornament on the drawings at the start of a commission, for he can never hope to add it later.

Richmond Riverside is the greatest triumph of Quinlan Terry's personal onslaught on modernism. About Terry himself is a total consistency running through the man, his work, and his ideals. A handsome man upholding traditional values and traditionally courteous and reserved behavior, Terry and his buildings are all of a piece. With his old-fashioned, well-cut tweed suits and his perfect manners, he is everyone ís idea of the traditional English gentleman, an ideal of selfhood remote from the norm current today. Born in 1937, he has constructed a persona in deliberate contrast to the values embodied in Bryanston, the public school in which he was educated, a modern, liberal establishment where pupils wore open-necked shirts and called their parents by their first names.

He is the ideal paterfamilias, with his lively Polish wife, also trained as an architect, his children, and his grandchildren. He lives in a modest classical house in a tiny English village deep in the countryside and works all day in an office that fills a couple of sixteenth-century cottages in the High Street of another tiny village. He enjoys traveling abroad to sketch historic buildings and ornamental details but visits London as infrequently as possible. With a strong Puritan streak, he eschews novels and the theater, his bedside reading including the Bible and the now neglected spiritual writings of the seventeenth-century Puritan divines. He goes to the village church on Sundays and is even a lay preacher. His religious faith enables him to be largely indifferent to the opinions of the fashionable world: herein lies the strength of his personality and the independence of his architecture. Indeed, he believes the classical orders emanate from the same divine design that orders the world. The one attack that wounds him is the attack by his former supporter, architecture critic Gavin Stamp, who has sarcastically dubbed him “God’s architect.”

Certainly, it took ample fortitude to withstand the setbacks of the 1960s. Typical was the tale that befell the imaginative plan that he and Raymond Erith, his master and subsequently his partner, designed in 1966–67 for Shottesbrooke, Berkshire. The commission came from Sir John Smith, a director of Coutts Bank, the Financial Times, and Rolls-Royce Ltd., as well as a passionate architectural amateur. Erith and Terry proposed a charming residential development in the form of a complete closed quadrangle of 12 single-story houses for the elderly, partly Georgian and partly castellated in style. Aligned on an avenue of lime trees in axis with the tower of the medieval parish church, they were to be built on land given by Sir John Smith at his own expense as a gift to the local authority. However, the county planning authorities rejected the scheme in 1968, partly because in the new modern secular world it was thought distressing for the old to look at a church and a graveyard.

Terry’s career began slowly, with minor country buildings from the 1960s to the late 1970s. But thereafter the pattern changed dramatically, with commissions for country houses from the very rich, who were encouraged by the change in the political and financial climate introduced by Mrs. Thatcher. The turning point was the totally unexpected commission from Sir Thomas Pilkington for a substantial country house at Kings Walden Bury, Hertfordshire. Built between 1969 and 1973 from designs by Erith and Terry, this sumptuous, traditional mansion was eventually followed by commissions from Mrs. Thatcher herself, from the Crown, and from Cambridge University. Terry is now one of the busiest architects in England, even though leading knighted architects such as Sir Norman Foster and Sir Richard Rogers despise him.

However, when Kings Walden Bury was commissioned, Erith and Terry feared it would be the last decent building erected in an age of barbarism—for it is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which in 1968 it was still widely believed in Britain that there was no alternative to modernism for a large building, or indeed for any building. The situation was different in America, where the modern movement ís ideology had achieved a stranglehold only on urban design. Rich Americans were always able to build private buildings in traditional styles in the country. In England after 1945, the socialist stranglehold was two-sided, in that it condemned both traditional architectural styles and traditional wealth. Taxation, which remained at 98 percent on investment income until Mrs. Thatcher brought it down, prevented the rich from erecting private buildings in the classical—or indeed in any—style. In England, evidence about the flickering rebellious survival of traditional and classical architecture was suppressed, rather like free thought in Soviet Russia. In 1983 the Architectural Review, the leading British architectural journal, which reports on all significant new buildings, refused to publish Quinlan Terry’s substantial Corinthian pavilion at Thenford, Northamptonshire, partly because it was classical, and (doubtless) partly because it was commissioned by a leading Conservative Member of Parliament, Michael Heseltine.

The history of this hatred of classicism and traditionalism in England has still to be written. A singular resistance to it was provided by the monumental column that Quinlan Terry built in 1976 at West Green House, Hampshire, for Lord McAlpine, director of the construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons Ltd. and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party from 1979 to 1983. Built at a time when the Labour government was imposing shockingly high tax rates, the column bears an inscription in Latin that can be translated as: “This monument was built with a large sum of money that would otherwise have fallen sooner or later into the hands of the tax-gatherers.” To create a thing of beauty, functionally useless, was a nobler end for McAlpine’s wealth than any use the government could find for it.

Since Kings Walden Bury, Terry has produced a remarkable chain of country houses in England and in the U.S. In the process, he has initiated a new Renaissance, in which he successfully reinvented the classical language of such architects as Palladio and Sanmicheli and the craftsmanship required to build such architecture. The mechanized technology of modern English architectural practice had destroyed all this inherited knowledge, and over the last two decades Terry re-created it, helping to train a whole new generation of young craftsmen in stone, timber, stucco, and iron.

The mounting prestige of his career can be measured by the commission he received in 1988 from Mrs. Thatcher, a friend and ally of Terry's patron, Lord McAlpine. This was the architectural enrichment of the three modest, rather dull state drawing rooms at No. 10, Downing Street, which date from the 1730s but had been altered over the years. Here the great traditionalist architect came face-to-face with the greatest traditionalist politician of the 1980s: Terry told me how Mrs. Thatcher had wanted the walls of these rooms to be hung with the portraits of “high achievers.” The beautiful result has received virtually no publicity in England, such is the hostility of the architectural profession to Terry and, indeed, to Mrs. Thatcher.

The sensitivity to the historical environment that informed Terry’s work on these rooms also informed his new junior common room building (1985–89) and Maitland Robinson Library (1990–92) at Downing College, Cambridge, a notable Greek Revival monument. In 1985 the Fellows of Downing were won over to Terry's cause, less because he chose classical forms than because they were convinced that his buildings would be solidly constructed so that they would not fall apart, as Stirling’s ill-fated History Faculty did. In recognition of the extent to which his work was welcomed by the public as a whole, Terry was commissioned by the Crown Estate in 1987 to provide six villas in London’s Regent’s Park, to be added to those built by Nash in the 1820s. Terry has so far built three: the Ionic Villa, the Gothick Villa, and the Villa Veneto.

One cannot sufficiently emphasize what a solitary furrow Terry has plowed, how totally he was, and is, ridiculed by the architectural establishment. However, in the perspective of history, he will doubtless be seen as the single most influential British architect of the late twentieth century to pull the rug from beneath the false certainties of modernism. Terry demolished these brutal ideals most triumphantly at Richmond Riverside, which provides a model not only for incorporating new buildings into historic towns but also for enhancing any city, whether old or new. It remains one of the most challenging and inspirational models for urban redevelopment in the modern city.

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