Monday, 6 February 2017

Quality, 'quality', and fashion - the beauty of black

Usually, you'd think of granite as a high quality material for the outside of a building, and consider paint to be lower down the scale.

But in the current makeover of a tired office building next to Farringdon Station, deeply unfashionable 1980s granite cladding is being painted black - what was conceived of then as a wannabe city office (but in slightly less smart Clerkenwell) reimagined now as a wannabe Shoreditch co-working hub (but in slightly less grungy Clerkenwell).

Derwent London's sales website for the project seems to suggest some different, more complex, and dare I say more po-mo, versions of the elevational makeover; but with the scaffold now down, I'm hoping it will remain in the simpler version seen above.

There's nothing inherently cheap looking about paint - context is everything.  Nash and Cubitt put up acres of painted stucco buildings in London where they would have used stone if they could have afforded it, as the architects of Georgian Bath and Edinburgh did.  Nash's terraces are always described as stucco, but what you are actually looking at is paint*.  The result is, nevertheless, classy - partly because the paint is well maintained.

The Farringdon building, on the other hand, though granite-clad, was ghastly - 'Early Learning Centre' architecture according to Hugh Pearman - and in a post a few years ago I suggested that it was a shame that it had not been demolished when so many other buildings in the area were coming down.

I remember the architect Irena Bauman, in a talk a while back, referring to the inability of some clients to distinguish between quality and 'quality' - a magpie like fondness for shiny expensive materials, splashed all over (ironically) as if with a brush, being symptomatic.  Gold lift car interiors, anyone?

The new version of this building looks classier, to my eyes, than the old.  I can see the point of the makeover - in 2017.  But here we are really in the world of fashion and kerb appeal rather than quality vs. 'quality'.    With a reference back to some interesting Georgian buildings such as 10 Downing Street allowing architects to claim that black paint is an established part of London's rich palette of building materials, projects from Adjaye Associates' Dirty House (2002) in the East End (which may have kicked all this off) to Squire and Partners' 5 Hanover Square (2012), and now this makeover by AHMM for Derwent in Farringdon, suggest that black elevations have become the new, well, black.

*Originally, much London stucco was intended to be painted to resemble stone. According to an essay 'Stucco' by Frank Kelsall in 'Good and Proper Materials' (London Topographical Society, 1989), oil painting of stucco (as found today) had become general by the 1840s, but was probably unknown to Nash. 

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