Exclusive Thames Court
Examining the theory behind and execution of a large, complex building project allows the result to be understood as well as assessed. This is especially valuable when studying the contemporary architectural history of the City of London, with its very particular cultural, economic and planning environment. Thames Court, a 30,000 square metre office building overlooking both the river after which it is named and a historic inlet, was completed in 1998 to designs by KPF – the waterside setting added another challenge. Insight into its genesis and construction came courtesy of an in-depth discussion I had with KPF director Mark Kelly at the firm’s Covent Garden base in April 2009, whilst I was able to experience Thames Court for myself in two visits conducted a few months later.
The Thames is the reason the City exists. Founded by the Romans at the first point where that river could be bridged, it was fundamental to the growth and wealth of Britain’s capital and the country itself. Queenhithe dock, an inlet formed by successive periods of land reclamation on either side and known by that name since the early 12th century when the practice of gifting its customs fees to the wife of the monarch began, dates to the time of Alfred the Great but may also have its roots in Roman trade.
Centuries of redevelopment had, by 1994, led to a site immediately to the east of the dock and fronting the Thames that was to receive a new building for the Royal Bank of Canada designed in outline by the New York office of KPF. This comprised three wings to address a listed Victorian building and the small lane that bisected the plot north-south, although detailed development of that idea and oversight of its realisation were due to be undertaken by the practice’s London team. On looking at their colleagues’ proposal, however, they suggested instead that a single building of different form would be a more efficient use of a plot as large as a football pitch and provide an opportunity for better architecture. This was where Kelly, who had only just joined KPF, became involved, and he summarises this counter-offer as presenting “A fantastic prospect”.
The client, the then Royal Fine Arts Commission and the City Corporation were all persuaded that the original scheme should be abandoned and the listed building demolished, although a historic section of river wall had to remain in situ. This last would form one of several inviolable boundaries when shaping the new building; Kelly described two more. There was the heavily-trafficked Upper Thames Street to the north, “a very harsh environment” where noise was the main concern, and whilst “two miles of aspect right the way along the river” to the south were obviously attractive, the façade would be subject to significant heat gain. Kelly and his team thus “knew that we needed some form of protection zone at the front of the building and we knew that on the south side we needed to do something for external shading.” The St Paul’s Heights restrictions provided a third (dimension). KPF negotiated an alternative assessment concept with the Corporation using contours instead of planes and the final building’s roofline, Kelly notes, is within 25mm of those limits.
By this time Rabobank, a collective of small independent Dutch banks, had become the principal tenant and its requirements centred on a trading floor, open plan desk space and a number of cellular offices. Accommodating this brief whilst generating good architecture on a constrained site suggested to Kelly the idea of exploiting “the sequential relationship that you [could] have as you move through the building”, maintaining all the time a sense of “connectivity to the outside world”.
Beginning on Upper Thames Street, a façade of Ham Hill limestone from Somerset – “We opened this quarry up again and started extracting this very, very nice Jurassic limestone that has a lot of life in it and a lot of depth, and that’s something we really wanted” – frames a four-storey-high glass wall that bows outward and houses the entrance. Inside, a tall space reflects the presence of St James Garlickhythe across the road but most importantly acts as a decompressive buffer. The palette is dark steel and sandblasted glass, with glass bricks used extensively in the floors of the lift lobbies and continued into the cars. Their mechanisms are exposed and they serve by way of bridges the upper levels, which overlook a skylit atrium descending through the fourth, third and second floors. Below this on the first is a column-free trading floor, fed directly from the entrance lobby by a flight of escalators. To achieve all this some audacious structural engineering was necessary, delivered by the Waterman Partnership.
At fourth floor level immense steel trusses a storey high run north-south either side of the atrium. Each 27 metres long and welded together on site from three smaller sections, they curve by 9.7 degrees in the horizontal because the site is not square; as Kelly explains, “there’s a grid against the river and there’s a grid against Upper Thames Street, and the atrium actually makes up the difference between the two grids”. Suspended from immense steel hangers attached to the lower chords of the trusses is the second floor slab or atrium base. Its central section is flanked by two 18m-wide strips of space. Kelly states that “we were very, very concerned to make the atrium feel part of the actual floor around it and therefore there’s no enclosure” or barrier between the two areas. A shading system for the roof comprising a series of angled paddles and roller blinds reduces discomfort from excessive heat, and there are openable windows. Rabobank were so impressed with this space that they accepted it as their trading floor, Royal Bank of Canada – now a smaller tenant – having taken that on the first floor at the time of my visit.
Thick, slightly canted wooden handrails are found on balconies, stairwells, the top floor terrace and in the lifts, and steel cable is used instead of bar stock to lend lightness to balustrading. When I visited, facilities manager Martin Gilbert perceptively noted that these details can be read as nautical references and others, so primed, can also be intuited.
To the south the building continues and indeed oversails the existing riverside walkway, with columns clad in more of the Ham Hill stone making a public colonnade. A four-storey stairway is boxed out where Thames Court abuts the neo-Classical portico of Vintners’ Place to the east, answered to the west by the entire corner of the building cantilevering over both the river bank and the preserved Queenhithe dock wall. Pleased with the amenity this moment produces (“No-one’s ever going to build on that [dock]”), Kelly nevertheless recalls it as “the most complicated thing I’ve ever done in my life” as there were objections from many parties initially and the Port of London Authority now had to be consulted as well. Projecting from the roof, brises soleil shade the river frontage along with vertical blinds installed on the windows.
Creation of a single site allowed the services and secondary circulation, including stairs and a car lift, to be pushed to the edges of the plot. This brought more flexibility to the planning of the primary spaces but also assisted the architecture by contributing to the bay rhythm externally, breaking up an otherwise monotonous façade.
Mark Kelly is modest regarding the finished building: “It’s not bad, it’s not bad. It’s quite nice. You see it on the backdrop to reports every now and again!” In fact Thames Court is a remarkably assured building. Externally its convex entrance façade is a confident response to the motorway of Upper Thames Street, a distinctive presence that is easily read at speed. By contrast the slight concavity of the long, stone-faced Queenhithe elevation, facing as it does a narrow alley, usefully captures something of the atmosphere of the warren of warehouses that filled this area until well after the war. A carefully-managed interplay of paving and levels – the land slopes down to the river, meaning “The lower ground floor is a real lower ground floor” that receives daylight from windows here – further help tie the building into its location. The tough materiality of the Ham Hill stone and black-coated steel lend the building weight, but this is dematerialised inside. In the Upper Thames Street lobby the beguilingly elegant web of steel beams, brackets and wire that form the glass bow’s support lend lightness and combine to give an interesting exit experience as well, through the visual depth created.
Progression through the building engages Kelly’s idea that “You never get a clear view to the outside world, but you get this reading of light coming though and into the space and it’s quite strong” as well as presenting a coherent aesthetic. Moving from the entrance hall, under balconies which compress the visitor momentarily and through the complex geometry of the circulation core could have felt restless and awkward but the route provides enough delight and anticipation to sustain interest until the atrium is reached. No sterile volume this, its position, richness and linkages to the outside and surrounding spaces bring it alive, whilst the very visible trusses and the intricacies of the hangers – a direction change at the joints and the neatness of their connections to the floorplate are handled with aplomb – celebrate the engineering necessary. On the upper floors, the sudden emergence into the brightness of the eastern stair, which instantly suspends one over and against the river itself in a timber floor, perfectly represents the desire to connect the inside to the outside and to the history of the site.
Viewed from the south bank, the Miesian crispness of the steelwork complements the honey-coloured British stone, especially in warm sunlight. This and the firm but polite asymmetry allows Thames Court to take its place amongst the fascinating run of palazzos on the City’s riverside.
Published January 2022, adapted from notes I prepared for a tour in 2009. With thanks to Mark Kelly and, also at KPF in London at that time, Lee Polisano, president; Karin Feddersen, Lee’s PA; and Marjorie Rodney-Goodin.
The entrance sequence from Upper Thames Street; behind the convex glass is a tall space of movement and detail, including copper cladding, blue glass and airport destination codes within glass floor panels from artists Langlands & Bell (Anti-clockwise: Rightmove/Chris Rogers/KPF)
The atrium. Many of the castings used at Thames Court were designed in-house by KPF using pre-digital techniques of drawing and physical modelling. The journey from here to the river frontage is seamless (Above: KPF)
The principal features of the site and the solution are shown in a plan and section - Upper Thames Street is to the left in each case (KPF)