The building in public

Fred Pilbrow, senior founding partner of  Pilbrow & Partners discusses his approach to designing a building as an extension of the public realm.

You might think this ironic, but our main inspiration for The Market Building was a 160-year old cartoon. Sketched by the famous artist George Cruikshank in 1860, it is called the British Bee Hive – an illustration of British society through a vast range of professions depicted as cells in a giant bee hive. In the 19th century the bee was a popular symbol of industry and co-operation. And that’s exactly what we wanted The Market Building to be – a hive of activity where people of many different backgrounds and jobs live and work alongside each other. Only, this bee hive will befit the 21st century.

The building itself, is like a casket. It has a very simple, flexible framework within which all manner of activities, like bees in a hive, are planned. And by keeping the casket very simple and flexible, it can accommodate a wide range of different uses, whether it’s office space, retail, a health club, or even a hotel.

But what excited us most about this building, is the sense of its engagement with Union Square. That is to say, when it came to brainstorming ideas for a building as an extension of the public realm, a market hall felt like the archetypal public space.

So we’ve put a very generous, flexible, grand retail area at the base of the building, which could be used for a food market with cafés and restaurants interspersed with market style stalls such as butchers or cheese and wine stalls.

But what’s most exciting about this market space, is that it starts in this magnificent double-storey galleria beneath The Market Building, before unfurling seamlessly outside into Union Square. It’s as if the market has been invited inside. So that hive of activity is the first thing you see as you walk towards the building. And that, I hope, will inspire people to join in, to be a part of the Wood Wharf scene.

That is the focal point. But its devotion to the public realm by no means ends there. As well as having great public space at the bottom, we are creating one at the top in the form of a two-storey rooftop restaurant, fringed by a broad terrace and protected by an oversailing roof. That roof has the impression of a lantern that I think will make it highly visible from afar. We thought it would be nice that the thing you see on Wood Wharf’s skyline is activity. You can actually go there, have a glass of wine, a meal, a meeting, or just take in the view. Isn’t that better than some shapely roof that’s no more than just a corporate hairstyle?

Of all the buildings I’ve designed, The Market Building is one of my proudest. This is because, first, it talks to the particular site and brief that we were set – I think it does the job of providing a place that’s an extension of the public realm. But I think it also talks more generally to what the workplace of the future might be like.

Workplaces are changing. And wellbeing is becoming as important as the work itself. But how do you encourage wellbeing through architecture? The stress must be put on the quality of the space. You want the building to support meetings, the exchange of ideas, not to mention the social dimension of work. People who want to live in a lively city, want a lively office.

How best to do this? Simple: move the lifts. In most retail-office buildings, all the lifts and stairs go in the middle of the plan. We don’t like that. It squashes both the retail and office space around the edges, blocks natural light. The spaces become purely functional – you go to the lobby, get your lift, and go to the top floor. But by pushing the lifts and stairs to the north edge of the plan, we’ve opened up a wonderful space on the ground floor for retail. And on the upper floor it opened up the opportunity to create open, light filled and well-connected spaces for work. Plus, the stairs are glazed, opening them up to public view. So you’re kind of encouraged to take the stairs because you can see what it links. It feels convenient, and is a lot healthier to take the stairs. But the big one for us is that we’re trying to promote chance interaction. It’s that quick chat we have with a colleague on the way up to the office that might just be the most valuable part of our day.

Beyond that, each floor has tall ceilings, the space is lofty, well proportioned, brilliantly lit. Every floor links to an outdoor terrace space, which feels like a really important part of the quality of environment. Then there are the social spaces on your doorstep, which we hope will function as a formal extension of the office space. You could have a meeting in the office, in a breakout area, or on the top floor restaurant sitting on a terrace having a glass of white wine. That’s an important part of the offer.

I don’t like aggressive shape-making. By that I mean that good architecture – and more broadly, good cities – should be the background to the lives of the people who live in it. Now, that requires a degree of sobriety and reticence in the architecture, quietness even. But that doesn’t mean boring. We want our work to be really rich and layered and sophisticated. Plus, we want it to repay close scrutiny.

Public spaces have to feel public. There can’t be any confusion; you need to know what’s public and what’s private. And there’s a liberty in that. You could wander round Smithfield Market and know where you are and where you stand, both literally and figuratively. You know you’re in a city and you understand how it works.

I love wandering through London and just looking up at the buildings, seeing the kind of care with which they’ve been put together. For me, that is thrilling, and I want The Market Building to have that effect on people. It will be good architecture, and it will be very carefully put together. But more than that – more than anything else, really – I want it to reflect the lives of the people living and working in it.


Interview by Matt Blake

Twitter @mattblakeuk