• Arresting commission

    The Metropolitan Police has a new Commissioner and a new headquarters. Cressida Dick met the press last week but media coverage of her new base has been more low-key given postponement of its royal opening, planned for what turned out to be the day after the Westminster bridge attack in March. After 50 years in a Modernist glass tower on Broadway, though, relocation a few hundred metres east to an intriguing pre-war block originally by the civic and commercial architect William Curtis Green that was in fact built for the Met in the first place has nevertheless taken place. There is of course no public access inside, but what about the exterior?

    The Curtis Green building went up in 1937-40 as a second extension to Richard Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard of 1890, the force’s first purpose-built home. Clad entirely in Portland stone and in a style perhaps best described as Chaste Classical, it contrasted with the red brick turrets of its Victorian neighbour to the south yet blended nicely with E. Vincent Harris’s Ministry of Defence Main Building (1939-59) to the north; Curtis Green even included top-floor pediments, just as Harris did. A bridge linked the building to the Norman Shaw complex. Close-to, the fascinatingly individualistic detail of Curtis Green’s building emerges. This is different at each level, and includes shields complete with ‘G-VI-R’ crest, stone fillets on internal corners and a wonderful three-dimensional crown over what was originally the main entrance.

    Occupied after the war by the Met’s forensics and other technology departments and, ultimately, by a regional operational headquarters, the Curtis Green block was finally vacated in 2011. Security concerns were raised when the possibility of residential use was mooted, since both Norman Shaw blocks are now used as MPs’ offices, but ultimately a solution was generated that also dealt with the linked problem of a police headquarters that had outgrown its Broadway building, which was in any event a standard commercial block leased, modified and later bought outright by the Met.

    The competition to reshape the Curtis Green building for a new age and new function was based on a brief that required the same quality of general office accommodation as might be found in a contemporary equivalent of 10 Broadway, yet with the very specific additions of highly secure, screened entrance and exit, improved public realm and a buffer of some kind between the former and the latter. The five shortlisted firms responded similarly to the question of the reception area, all sharing a low, stand-alone pavilion forward of the main building, but differently when it came to adaption of the existing spaces and, crucially, that Curtis Green roofline – some decapitated it, others extruded it. Only AHMM, it appears, retained it.

    Clearly this was not the only reason AHMM was in the end selected, neither was the fact that the practice is rapidly becoming as prolific as Curtis Green was in his time, but its ability to flex across a wide range of civic and private commissions and respond strongly to context when doing so are likely to have been factors. Evidence of this last is seen in the design development that took place thereafter, whereby an all-glass rooftop extension was modified by the addition of Portland stone ‘bookends’ and a front wall seemingly clad with backlit glass also became calcified into stone.

    The basic elements of the transformation first outlined in 2013 remain, however, and can be seen easily in a wander around the two sides of the site that are accessible. Deeper consideration of the result is rewarding.

    The works stripped out the main floors, inserted a new central service and circulation core and added a new rear and small side extension that filled in the void of the original C-shaped plan. Useable area has accordingly been increased by 50%, although the actual number of staff and officers working at the new building is considerably fewer as a result of wider estate and organisational change. The new rear façade is dominated by a screen of deep, vertically-oriented aluminium fins in red, orange and yellow. The colour selection is patterned after the Norman Shaw blocks, although the reference is rather abstract and lacks the assertiveness of Whitfield Partners’ nearby Richmond House (1983-87) for the Department of Health.

    That said, I like very much how the new stone elevations to the north and south simplify the existing articulation and then introduce their own, complete with a staggered fenestration that supposedly reflects the functions of spaces within but which seems part of the same move. It reminds me of Francis Pym’s bold extension to the Ulster Museum (1964-72) or Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown’s Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery (1987-91) as caught in Simon Bradley’s description (in Buildings of England) of an entablature that “sheds balustrade and dentils as it goes”. My only caveat is that the Curtis Green attic pediments now appear a little 'pasted on’, whereas previously they stood out against pitched roofs that were removed as part of the project.

    The firm refers to its rooftop extension as a pavilion, even though that term is best used to describe the detached, fully-glazed extension built in the forecourt and which reconciles the brief’s requirement for “positive contact between the building and the general public” with the necessary security measures (new openings punched through the main façade allow access to the circulation core). Its semi-circular ends are reminiscent of inter-war Tube station architecture, the entire structure recalling the platform shelters that can be seen today on the Jubilee and Metropolitan lines. The cantilevered roof, striped on its underside in a manner that actually does reflect the Norman Shaw blocks, tends to confirm the analogy.

    A raised contemplation pool to its south houses the eternal flame to fallen officers, relocated from Broadway. Critic Laura Mark points out that its positioning in this way continues the line of memorial architecture that begins on the Embankment lawns of the Ministry of Defence, though this is perhaps a little conceptual given the pool’s placement at height, behind glass and as part of a secure building. Certainly, though, its inherent significance was – sadly – reconfirmed last month.

    At this point it is appropriate to examine in some detail the visible security measures that have been integrated with the scheme, which would have been of note even before that recent attack given current concerns about public/private space in general and the increasingly defensive streetscape of Westminster’s government quarter in particular. There are several, and most have been addressed architecturally rather than as industrialised add-ons.

    Firstly, the high perimeter wall of aged brick has been removed and replaced with a chest-high Portland stone plinth-cum-wall. This releases space to the pavement and supports the pool and reception pavilion but also, thanks in part to the fall of land, acts as a simple introduction to the entrance threshold. Steps connect this to the pavilion. The building’s original entrance, a squat stone ‘kiosk’ bearing that three-dimensional crown and thus resembling a police box, has been remodelled as a display case with windows cut into the sides. This clever device, along with a new version of the famous revolving sign, does work to draw the public across the forecourt, and with the new entrance off to the left, this can be permitted with only a small compromise in security. Again, though, it’s doubtful whether many will recognise the weakly differentiated tones of stone paviours as another nod to Norman Shaw’s work.

    Next, there has been remodelling of the workaday vehicle entrance to the north. New bollards, railings and retractable barriers provide obvious security, but a row of elegantly minimalist new lamp standards, a simple stone block that suggests a bench and a small planter contribute and create a far more civilised look.

    Finally, the entire length of pavement fronting the building, including its corners, is lined with the by-now standard run of closely-spaced steel bollards just behind the kerb. These appear individual but are actually connected below ground level by steel and reinforced concrete to provide a single, monolithic barrier to vehicles that is permeable to pedestrians (and, it must be said, motorbikes and bicycles).

    All of this responds well to a major part of the brief, though any prospect of reopening Derby Gate, gated in Norman Shaw’s time and closed permanently in 1967 when the parliamentary estate took over, or any of the other passageways between the buildings in this area must remain extremely remote. Even Richmond Terrace, a pedestrian way running between the Curtis Green and Ministry of Defence buildings, is subject to closures.

    Some time ago it was announced that the Met would revert to ‘Scotland Yard’ when it moved in to a revitalised Curtis Green building, no doubt to avoid any witticism about ‘New New New Scotland Yard’; AHMM’s early visuals confirm it. Even recent traditions stick, however, and so ‘New’ prefix remains firmly and indeed prominently part of the name of the building, with large free-standing letters on the pavilion roof – these, arguably, the only truly over-fussy note in a design that is otherwise a model of sober restraint.

    Re-presented in this manner, Curtis Green’s urbane but hitherto unappreciated block equips the capital’s police for another half-century at least and, architecturally speaking, once again takes its place in the sequence of Thames-side palazzos along the Victoria Embankment.

    0 Comments

Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

final cover

You are viewing the text version of this site.

To view the full version please install the Adobe Flash Player and ensure your web browser has JavaScript enabled.

Need help? check the requirements page.


Get Flash Player