Building Design's view
Houston in Euston
28 January 2005
Hopkins has given the Wellcome Trust a building with an astonishing interior, but its endless glazing evokes the Texas town and displays an unhappy distaste for its surroundings
By Matthew Turner
Picture it: a new client that is not only rich but at the forefront of a field that ensures contemporary Britain contributes more to humanity than pop idols and ad campaigns. Hopkins Architects had just this rewarding opportunity in 1999, when it won the competition for the Wellcome Trustâ€™s new headquarters in Londonâ€™s Euston Road.
The trust â€” the worldâ€™s largest independent medical research charity â€” is one of the sturdiest pillars of the British scientific establishment. It was founded as a private endowment on the death of Sir Henry Wellcome, owner of the pharmaceutical company that originally replaced powdered medicines with the â€œtabloidâ€, or compressed pill. The biomedical research it funds is of huge importance to human and animal wellbeing, and the principal role of staff based at the new headquarters is to sift through and assess the relative merits of grant applications, and award funding to research projects.
Its influence on the scientific reputations and fortunes of Britainâ€™s top universities is therefore huge.
The trust has had various buildings on this Euston Road site since 1931, as part of its dispersed facilities across Bloomsbury. But the decision was made to consolidate all that in one larger building. The development was also an opportunity for the trust to recast its public image â€” promoting itself as a contemporary, youthful and progressive organisation.
The east portion of the site is occupied by the original headquarters, a 1930s neoclassical building by Septimus Warwick. The south side faces University College London, the west faces the spanking new University College Hospital and the north addresses Euston Road.
Hopkins Architectsâ€™ strategy was to produce three parallel zones â€” a front block of 10 storeys, a street-form atrium and a rear block of six storeys, extruding from the east and ending at the western limit of the site â€” a real back-of-the-napkin diagramme â€” which makes this large building extremely easy to navigate. Hardly a corridor exists in the whole building.
As you would expect from Hopkins, everything is fitted very neatly and tastefully. Matching chairs, blonde timber panelling, thoughtfully integrated services, light fittings, all with a muted palette of materials.
Consideration of the way meetings take place in the organisation has clearly influenced the buildingâ€™s layout. The legacy of the architectâ€™s experience at Portcullis House is evident in the well-conceived and proportioned ground-floor committee rooms with their antechambers, in which funding decisions are made. The enclosure of these rooms successfully conveys the formality of the assessment process while their siting either side of the entrance allows the fundamental function of trust to be core to the everyday operation.
Elsewhere internally, itâ€™s very accomplished: a Burolandschaft honed, reasoned and perfected. I take my hat off to the evident care that has been invested throughout. Showing me around after handover, Hopkins director Pam Bate is keen to discuss the practiceâ€™s relationship with the client during the project. The process of developing the brief and the design and winning over sceptical factions has clearly been rewarding. The practice appears understandably proud of the relationship. Itâ€™s no small achievement.
But as an outsider to the production of the building, the built result of this synergy of architect and client raises some serious doubts. You canâ€™t help but question some of the basic moves that, no matter how polished the detailing and beautiful the nuts holding its skeleton in place, still shine through.
â€œIt may have beautiful details, but is it anything other than commercial office space in appearance?â€
The relentless glassiness communicates little but anonymity. It may have beautifully resolved details, but is the building ultimately anything other than commercial office space in appearance or association? Faced with a clientâ€™s desire to project an â€œopenâ€ organisation, when are architects going to come up with something a little less literal than building glass buildings?
Personally, I found the buildingâ€™s â€œopennessâ€ closely related to the idea of surveillance. Ironically, the founder of the neighbouring University College London was one Jeremy Bentham. Among much else, Bentham was the inventor of the panopticon â€” the ultimate efficient prison layout where a central warder surveys all. For me, there is something of that atmosphere in the new building. Judging by the number of blinds drawn around work spaces, it is a sense shared by a number of the new buildingâ€™s users.
The assumption that openness is king might be well and good if the architecture was capable of real flexibility. But take a trip up to the fifth floor by the beautiful stairs or the swish lifts and you find a good example of the problems of such a didactic approach. Bate tells me the client is reluctant to use the new board dining room. Its function, one would imagine, might require privacy, but here the room is open on three sides to the gaze of hundreds of people. Is this indicative of a successful marriage of architecture and client or just an unyielding architectural mould, into which the client has been poured?
The endless glazing seems doubly strange given that Hopkinsâ€™ work to date divides relatively neatly between buildings in urban situations that are substantial, massive and weighty and those on greenfield sites that explore issues of transparency and lightness. In this difficult urban context, vastly complex solutions have been deployed to make such a quantity of glazing feasible. One can only question the logic of a building that contains a seven-storey-high sculpture installed ostensibly to block the view towards hundreds of people in hospital beds across the way. Call me stingy, but if I were a client I would not be happy to be paying for such opulent solutions to problems of the architectâ€™s own creation.
At this point one has to bite the bullet and, unfortunately, venture outside. I say unfortunately as this building is imbued with a distaste for its surroundings that verges on the disdainful. This really is where my heart sinks.
With all the talk of improving Londonâ€™s urban fabric and the general quality of design, Euston Road is always going to be a toughy.
Until 1800, Euston formed the northern extremity of London. The road is actually the worldâ€™s first bypass, covering the worldâ€™s first underground railway. During its relatively short life, this proto-M25 has seen a good degree of development, demolition and redevelopment. After the arrival of the big rail terminals of Kingâ€™s Cross, St Pancras and Euston, headquarters of trades unions have come and gone and Bloomsburyâ€™s academic nucleus has expanded north.
The road is a kind of 19th century Cardo Maximus borne out of a technological rather than a civic imperative. Somehow the combination of the scale of the street and the typologies lining it has required almost all buildings of size along its length to engage with this city artery with civic intent. Yet even now, within steps of the road on the north side, there is a surprising calm in the residential streets of the 1820s Southampton Estate.
The Wellcome headquarters sits at a junction between just one such contrast. To the west, emerging into Euston Road at the top of Tottenham Court Road, you would have to be blind not to notice the change thatâ€™s been going on. If you are not, you soon will be, as on a sunny day your retinas are greeted by a series of buildings seemingly sporting every architectural glazing system imaginable. Itâ€™s a sort of Houston in Euston.
â€œWhat particularly worries me is that this is by no means a uniquely challenging urban situation in Londonâ€
Just to the east, a small stretch of predominantly masonry buildings cling to a sense of shared scale and material. At the meeting of these two worlds sits Wellcome, retaining its historical home with the utmost determination. Unquestionably, it is a difficult situation. But stand on the corner of Euston Road and Melton Street, walk west, and it is clear the Wellcome building makes the fundamentally wrong decision of allying itself unequivocally with the team to the west, paving the way at best for increased sales of sunglasses.
Walking around, one wonders why the tectonic is essentially the same on all three elevations when the environments they address are so different.
Is the relationship to the original stone headquarters building (destined to house the â€œpublicâ€ spaces while the glassy bit contains the â€œprivateâ€ functions) not strangely inverted if not belittling of the earlier structure? Is the simple modulation of the mass really all that the building can do to negotiate with its surroundings? Why is the clientâ€™s requirement that the main entrance be retained on Euston Road so begrudingly accepted? Is bluntly revealing the cross-section really the best way to come up with a side elevation? Is it really adequate that elevations are articulated at no finer scale than the 3m by 3.8m glazing module? It is hardly a great gift to the streetscape. It could be north- or south-facing, or in Beijing for that matter. Come to think of it, all this would perhaps be understandable if it had been designed in Beijing. But it wasnâ€™t. The architectâ€™s offices are a stoneâ€™s throw away.
So with all these day-one-of-the-design-process questions in mind, what surprised me is the architectâ€™s easy claims for the buildingâ€™s supposed â€œcivic presenceâ€.
What particularly worries me is that this is by no means a uniquely challenging urban situation in London and the building is hardly alone in its lack of focus.
The area is so typical in London â€” one of transition, deep-rooted adjacencies overlaid richly with associations, but often completely contrasting building types. Itâ€™s what London does well â€” be messy, vital, complex â€” a curious ability to be simultaneously abjectly squalid yet proudly dignified. From Whitechapel to Archway, this is precisely the kind of difficult location where architects need to prove their mettle if Britainâ€™s renaissance of trust in architecture as an agency for improvement is to prove worthwhile.
There is beauty in these places, and it takes time and effort to seek it out or react against.
But to disengage is simply unacceptable.