Wood in architecture
London || UK
American tulipwood is used to refurbish former Victorian warehouse, providing light and spacious new office accommodation whilst retaining the original character façade.
A sculptural timber form is the most striking thing that you see when you enter the reception of a converted warehouse building in North Kensington, west London. Made from panels of stained tulipwood, this feature is not only decorative but also functional. Architect Stiff + Trevillion designed it to disguise an ugly staircase which the budget did not allow the designer to replace. And, in a space dominated by hard surfaces, it also serves an important acoustic purpose. The structure also houses the offices’ reception desk, providing the reception team with a presence that many would envy.
The architect was not responsible for turning the building into offices. That had already been done, and those offices housed the headquarters of Chrysalis Records, which had been at the forefront of the 1980s New Romantics movement in the UK, publishing bands including Spandau Ballet and Ultravox. Since then it had changed hands several times.
The client wanted to make the most of the building. It decanted Chrysalis to the upper floors, and Stiff + Trevillion designed a new reception space by roofing over an existing courtyard. This both gave the building a more imposing entrance, and provided an area that could be used for informal meetings. The architect went for a simple industrial aesthetic, with a glazed entrance.
It has exposed the underside of the new metal deck roof, installing glazing around the perimeter at the junction with the existing buildings, to bring in light. The floor is of polished concrete.
This ‘industrial luxe’ feeling was however in danger of being compromised by the presence of what Andrew Trevillion, director at Stiff + Trevillion, described as a ‘clunky 1980s’ staircase in the middle of the space. Since there was not enough money to replace it, the architect decided instead to disguise it – not in a way that tried to make it recede into the background, but by celebrating and transforming it.
The timber enclosure is so interesting precisely because it has a form that would never have been generated naturally, but instead accommodates the twists and turns of the stair.
It is made up of four horizontal layers, each set at an angle to the one below with the horizontal surfaces generated between the layers used to accommodate uplighting and downlighting. The lowest layer is carved down to an appropriate height to accommodate the reception desk with, in this case, the horizontal element forming the surface of the desk.
By making the ‘sculpture’ work so hard, there is an essential simplicity to balance the complexity of the form, doing away with any extraneous elements. The carcase is of softwood, with a painted wooden board attached, to which are fixed American tulipwood battens, each measuring 20 by 30 cm. The edges of the battens have been cut at angles, with three or four variations which give the lively, irregular almost rippling effect that is so attractive.
‘At first we just specified that we wanted a hardwood,’ Trevillion explained, but when he investigated further he found that tulipwood was ideal for his purposes. Although he was aware of the material, he had never used it before but he would, he said, use it again. He liked the fact that it was light coloured, with few markings and that it took a stain well – at the Phoenix Brewery it has been coloured a rich mid brown, with a finish that also gives it Class 0 fire rating. And one of the over-riding factors, Trevillion said, was that ‘it takes a good edge. You can get a sharp arris on it’. This was vital since those edges play such an important role in the success of the sculptural conceit.
With a restricted budget and a relatively large amount of timber, the other attraction of tulipwood was that it is one of the more affordable hardwood species, thanks to the abundance with which it grows sustainably in the United States.
Because the different elements had to be fixed (they were pinned) in a specified order, the contractor, said Trevillion, ‘thought it was rather complicated at first. But once we explained, they realised that the job was quite straightforward.’
The angling of the battens provides a range of surfaces on which sounds can be absorbed or bounced around, softening what would otherwise be a very reverberant acoustic in the space. The way these are arranged is slightly reminiscent of the interior of some concert halls, but there is an important difference. Acoustic design for performance spaces is a specialist subject, calling for the use of highly skilled consultants, since it is vital that, as near as possible, every member of the audience should hear the music in ideal conditions.
In a social space like the reception at the Phoenix Brewery, it is simply important that the sound experience is pleasant, and that people can talk with a degree of intimacy. The acoustic design does not therefore call for complex calculations. Instead an architect’s instinct and understanding of materials is sufficient. And that is what happened here. Trevillion did not know exactly the impact that the timber form would have on the acoustic of the space, but he knew that it would improve it. And this proved the case, ‘If we had not done this, the space would have been impossible to sit in,’ Trevillion said.
Instead it is welcoming and attractive, with some carefully chosen furniture. It fulfils the role that the client was looking for thanks, in large part, to the tulipwood enclosure that the architect designed.
American tulipwood (Liriodendron tulipifera)
American tulipwood has a creamy white sapwood which may be streaked. The heartwood varies from pale yellowish brown to olive green. This green colour tends to darken on exposure to UV light and turn brown. The wood has a medium to fine texture and is straight grained.
One of the best value and most versatile US hardwood species, tulipwood is widely used in construction, furniture and interior joinery. Although relatively light in weight and soft, American tulipwood has excellent mechanical properties and has a very high strength to weight ratio making it ideal for laminated beams and structures. Tulipwood is often painted or stained, but the use of natural finishes to show off its exciting colour variations and grain patterns, is increasing.
Client: Chrysalis Records
Architects: Stiff + Trevillion – Andy Trevillion
Photography: © Stiff + Trevillion Architects - Kilian O'Sullivan