The Laszlo is the remodelling of a five-storey building dating from c.1900. Set in a largely residential street in North London next door to Central Saint Martins’ Archway art studios, the former Batavia Mills building has been thoughtfully reconfigured to create flexible workspaces that uses our artistic sensibility, including a refined approach to working with colour, to celebrate and extend the building’s industrial heritage. 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. In this context, our work focuses on the careful detailing of standard materials and a continuity of thought between the largest elements of structure and finest tactile details, exposing the 100-year-old fabric and making adjustments to it. The notion of an interior that has an architectural integrity and purpose beyond the surface is important. The Laszlo is a celebration and extension of its industrial language, using ordinary building components such as blockwork, and playing on notion of breathing new life into a building whilst making it more itself. 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’s 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 Laszlo 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. 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 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. The project is informed by a design approach that favours retaining and improving over a constant cycle of demolishing and rebuilding in order to retain embodied energy and reduce operational carbon. The reuse of the existing building is a significant sustainable measure, significantly reducing the amount of new materials used and preserving the embodied energy used during the original manufacturer of materials and construction. The current climate crisis demands a delay of carbon emissions where possible to allow the planet time to heal. Preventing high amounts of carbon emissions within a short period of time, in this case for the construction of a building, is therefore the best we can do. Reusing the existing building in this way equates to a saving of 80 years of operational carbon emissions or, in other words, it takes 80 years before a more efficient new building starts to improve the emissions because the initial amount of embodied carbon is so significant. Improvements to the fabric have resulted in an estimated 47 per cent reduction in annual operational carbon emissions.
Established in 1995, we have evolved into a practice completing award-winning education, healthcare, residential, commercial and arts buildings as well as “adaptive reuse” projects. We were named Healthcare Architect of the Year in 2008, Public Building Architect of the Year in 2011 and Housing Architect of the Year in 2021. In 2018 Chadwick Hall was shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize, whilst nominated for the Mies van der Rohe Award EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture in 2019.
Each building we make is carefully planned to reflect its social logic. Anthropology and psychology also play a part in this. Whilst good buildings help support the community they serve, poor ones can undermine it. We do not strive for novelty but instead continuity. Working sometimes with existing structures we have developed a respect for historic building types and construction. This translates into the way we plan, make and detail our buildings.