The Laszlo is on a largely residential street in a conservation area close to Highgate in North London, and a neighbour to the University of Arts, London. The 5-storey building dates from c. 1900. Originally the Batavia Mills, it was used for manufacturing and printing. During World War II gas masks were stored in the building.
The facades are brick, with pronounced piers and arched set-back window openings layered to create a facade with depth and shadow. Inside the structural frame is steel. Most of it is encased in elephantine concrete columns and beams but on some floors the steel structure is exposed.
When it was last refurbished 30 years ago – ostensibly for the storage of wholesale goods - a storey was added and the east gable rebuilt with a new entrance, and behind it a new staircase and lift. By the time we first visited the building in 2016 the floors were partitioned and occupied in a very adhoc manner concealing the building’s original proportions.
For decades the construction of an office building has been staged into a “shell and core” and subsequent “fit out”. This reflects the speculative aspect of office building where the shell is a form of infrastructure and the fit-out is designed for the occupation of the tenant. As a result, the interior, designed to the particular requirements of that tenant, becomes disposable. The specificity of the office interior, the degree to which it is branded, furnished and dressed, much like a hotel might be, has intensified as the product-nature of the office has become more pronounced.
In this context we sought to illustrate how elementary the construction of an office might be, by exposing the 100-year old fabric and making adjustments to it with low-tech building techniques and materials. This approach is complemented by elements that draw on a number of art references.
A simple steel glazed screen beneath a new concrete beam forms the new entrance. Inside, blockwork walls shape a group of interconnected rooms – hall, lift lobby, reception and “living room”. Generally, the original structure is exposed. Some spaces have wood wool ceilings and intentionally sculptural lengths of variously shaped ductwork belying their function. The same blockwork has been used to enclose the lifts, staircases and toilets. In every instance the blockwork is precisely detailed and carefully laid bringing a real sense of craft.
Throughout the doors take their cue from Josef Albers’ colour studies, their frames superimposed like a canvas hung on a wall. On each floor the colour studies are brought together to create a gallery of doors. This room, the hall to the toilets, has an illuminated inlaid ceiling reminiscent of the mid twentieth century north American office interior.
A painting by Lazlo Moholy Nagy became the inspiration for the repairs we made to the concrete floors – inlaying earth-coloured screed where partitions previously cut into the floor had been removed. On the top floor the new work also exposes the 1980s steel and timber joisted roof.
Furniture is imagined and made one of two ways but in both cases in dialogue with the original building: the reception desk and a bookshelf are elements of structure re-imagined as pieces of furniture ’structure as furniture’, whilst the dresser by the kitchen island is a piece of furniture composed in the image of structure, in other words ’furniture as structure’.
Throughout exposed steel beams and cable trays traversing the space distributing services, are coloured ivory and light grey, again pigment contributing to a painterly interior on which daylight and artificial light fall, and shadows are caste. The new walls are a warm light grey, and the mortar similar in colour flush with the surface of the blocks. Around the lifts the blocks are laid on their side for extra strength and toothed stretcher bond into the adjacent narrower wall. Where the new walls meet an obstacle, for example a beam, thin tiles of concrete block are stacked each on a bed of mortar. Unlike the conventions of “shell and core” and “fit out”, the work focuses on the careful detailing of standard materials and a continuity of thought between the largest elements of structure and finest tactile details. Materials - concrete, mortar, screed, timber and the pigment on the doors – make for a painterly and sustainable architecture and a challenge to fast fashion and ephemerality. The notion of an interior that has an architectural integrity and purpose beyond the surface is important.