Michel Mossessian’s architecture applies a deep understanding of culture and urbanity, technology and sustainability. As Design Director of SOM in London he led building projects in the UK, Europe and the Middle East culminating in his winning design for the new NATO headquarters in Brussels. Since setting up his own practice in 2005 he has won projects in London, Shanghai and Doha, and been shortlisted for competitions in Congo-Brazzaville, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. His agenda is multifaceted, encompassing his desire for architecture to communicate meaning and dialogue with context, a word that he does not baulk at when bringing a sense of public space to post-industrial or other kinds of unformed urban environments.
Paddington Basin in West London lies between London’s West End and Heathrow Airport and is one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects, a near 186,000 sq m site of future offices, homes, shops and leisure facilities. Originally opened in 1801, the 400 metre long Basin provided a link from London to the rest of the country via the Grand Union Canal. In the past its identity was run down and neglected, but now the district is being given a makeover. Clients European Land have already completed an initial phase with The Point designed by Terry Farrell and Waterside by Richard Rogers and Paddington Walk by Munkenbeck & Marshall, as well as numerous exceptional new bridges including Thomas Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge and Helix Bridge by Buro Happold. This February permission was granted to building a 42 storey circular tower - the Cucumber - to be significantly taller than St Paul’s Cathedral - by Robin Partington Architects.
The Cucumber - vying to be west London’s “Gherkin” (Foster’s SwissRe tower in the City of London) - will no doubt add boost the iconic power of this gigantic site still lacking in street life, but equally what matters if the place is to evolve as a viable piece of London is the quality of public spaces connecting them. This is where the partially completed phase two of the Basin to the east - and Mossessian’s first building in London, comes in, intervening in a mixed use scheme called Merchant Square which will feature six buildings on completion in a new canal side square culminating in a block of residential apartments. The aim was to create a high quality public realm, a challenge that required the buildings themselves to contribute as icons and in orientating visitors and regulars. Here Mossessian’s contribution is assured and refined, an exceptional project of big scale but also lightness.
Analysing the half made chuck of city of this big waterfront site, Mossessian realised his best bet was for the building to take full advantage of being the third of three that line up from west to east - the other two being by Richard Rogers and by Terry Farrell. Instead of one solid form, however, he devised three vectors, triangular shaped masses that permit access to the east corner of the site. Their dynamic identity allowed more experimentation with the envelope of the building, increasing its porosity, and enabled more efficient footprints than the typical dull, dark glass box, which the client needed.
This organisation of forms breaks the rules and frees up the ground. This is just one of a number of innovative features of the building: corporate tenants in the West End of London typically like outdoor space, so external terraces create communal space where corner offices would normally be. Structural columns, 2 degrees from perpendicular, are set back from the façade. Each of the three triangular forms has its own core, lending the floor space manageability and giving scope for multiple tenants to coexist with subdivisions.
The architects worked with Permasteelisa on the façade, pushing a standard unitised cladding system to be a little different, giving each prism a treatment derived from their natural relationship with the orientation of the sun and with light. What is an aluminium framed curtain wall system - common in office blocks - thereby departs from a monolithic façade, registering visually on different levels, and enriching the whole. The north façade, for example, has no direct sunlight, and has been given a printed double frit pattern, burgundy red outside and black inside, making it look different from far away - as if covered in clouds - and from close to - like a multi-hued fabric curtain. The frit creates a hue without tinting incoming light allowing the glass to reflect a pure white light. The western elevation has projecting bays, some of which are translucent or opaque, cantilevering up to 50 cm, that shade adjacent glazed surfaces, while the eastern elevation consists of a mix of alternating opaque and transparent panels. Mossessian has clearly considered light’s role in architecture passionately, and this attention pays off.
The local council initially resisted the burgundy hues, even calling them “vulgar”, a subjective opinion that on further discussion they fortunately withdrew. Viewing the building from various points on the site makes it patently clear that the contribution of the chosen palette to making the scheme cohesive but differentiated is vital - lending a tension to the dynamic play of façade treatments Mossessian expertly practices. The 15 storey atrium - where the frit is also used - and public lobby with a cafe give the impression of a much larger space and multiple corporate identities are enabled via two contrasting reception desk, one for a primary tenant and a second for further tenants. Detailing everywhere is immaculate and well-considered. One of the reception desks, plywood set on its end, grain on grain, for example, uses a technique and tooling that gives it expression and structure at the same time
“Public spaces don’t have symbolic meaning anymore”, says Mossessian. “The challenge today is to conceive them within the envelope of indoor spaces, in order to change the perception of contemporary cities. What makes a visitor feel immediately welcome? It is not simply a sense of beauty and grandeur but the sense that life is passing by, that narratives are intersecting and weaving themselves into a wider tapestry of sights and sounds”. At 5 Merchant Square, narrative and architecture are united in one of the most authentic-feeling places for work and civic interaction London has seen for quite a while.