The iconic Economist Building was designed in the early 1960’s by infamous architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Now known as Smithson Tower, it along with the other buildings and plaza are Grade II* Listed and are considered a modernist masterpiece in the heart of historic Mayfair. These classic octagonal layouts typically had circulation around a single central core serving individual offices; the partitions of which in turn aligned with the perimeter façade columns, clad in Portland Stone.
Following the departure of the Economist magazine in 2016, the building underwent extensive refurbishment, with each 3,600sqft floor plate emptied and primed for individual leases. ConForm Architects were tasked with designing a new HQ for a financial client on the 11th floor.
The strip out around the central core offered unparalleled 360° views, and the foundation for a great 21st century open plan proposal. This condition informed initial thoughts and discussions with the client, who appreciated and wished to retain this open plan nature, whilst also requiring privacy and acoustic separation for meeting rooms and between various operational spaces. Office and workplace design has significantly moved away from the individual cellular spaces around the perimeter of the original 1960’s building layout, to more mixed and collaborative zones. Further to this, the client wanted to experience a range of different types of less formal, comfortable, almost domestic working environments that both staff and guests could experience, a home away from home.
Conceptually, the strategy was to maintain both internal openness and dynamic views to the surrounding city, whilst also celebrating and reflecting the contextual uniqueness of the classic layout. The strong structural grid of the existing building and columns logically subdivides each of the eight zones. The corner spaces with their diagonal, dual aspect façades, provide a distinct spatial quality and historically housed corner offices – often for executives. Low level joinery or ‘pens’ had also originally lined and accentuated this unique geometrical condition.
The proposal establishes a distinct horizontal datum at cill level, below which textured, solid elements subdivide each of these zones, also lining the perimeter providing storage, concealing services and protection for the air handling units. Above this datum, the existing white framing of the glazing is conceptually and simply replicated, where necessary, providing a deep threshold framing views between spaces.
A major challenge to the scheme was incorporating and adapting the existing air conditioning and heating / cooling infrastructure. The Economist Building was the first building in the UK to have air conditioning and the historic system was geared around exclusively servicing the cellular perimeter offices. As the original circulation route correlated with that of the air ducting, the opportunity arose to accentuate this service zone by lowering the head height and lining the core with acoustic Kvadrat panels, providing a more intimate and contextual path circumnavigating the core.
As this concept developed, the diagonal axis became increasingly interesting as it offered through views across each corner, between primary spaces. Further historical research revealed an early concept sketch design undertaken by the Smithson’s, of a diagonally gridded ceiling plan that sought to connect column and mullion locations to their counterpart on the perpendicular elevation at a 45° angle. Junctions where these diagonals met the core featured angular internal feature columns. This diagonal concept became a key design feature delineating spaces and connecting spaces across the plan. The octagonal plan form is replicated (internally) as floor finishes help to draw the eye across multiple spaces and blur any distinct thresholds between zones to maintain the open plan nature. At key junctions, angular internal columns or ‘anchor points’ resolve the interchange between expressed circulation element, low level joinery, high level frames and large pivot doors between spaces.
Following initial design exercises, the decision was made early in the process to locate the fixed desk spaces to the NE / SE of the plan offering the more spectacular city views. This allowed the often-high-capacity meeting rooms to avoid overheating during regular morning meetings and assisting the limited air circulation capacity. Reception is then located by the passenger lifts with views across Green Park and Hyde Park beyond.
A further nuance of this project was that the 11th floor was formerly home to the library and archive, requiring a solid concrete subfloor, therefore lacking an existing raised access floor for services. Carefully planned, purposeful interventions and amendments to the Grade II* Listed building fabric were needed, with channels chased into the slab in strategic positions.