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Behind the Scenes : Urbanest City

Updated: Jul 17

On the 28th of March 2023 I had the great pleasure of joining the CAF’s tour of Urbanest’s Emperor House development on Vine Street, in the City of London. It was a project that I was unfamiliar with, designed by a practice whose work I used to know well when I was studying but who, over the years, I had no longer found myself following.

I arrived just about on time and made my way into a meeting room off the entrance lobby to the student accommodation. Here, before starting the building tour, Jim Greaves and Alex McCartney of Hopkins, who designed the scheme up to Stage 02 and Nat Lee of Apt Architects, who delivered the design through to completion, provided us with a highly informative background to the project and the considerable challenges they had overcome since its inception in 2010 through to its completion in 2022.

As an overview, the development is comprised of three built forms containing its two principal uses of student accommodation and flexible office space. The main built form is a linear building that runs alongside a new piazza on Vine Street, with 11 storeys of office space occupying the northern end and 14 storeys of student accommodation to the south, arranged within the same overall height as the office by virtue of its lower floor to floor heights. The building is characterised by its louvred barrel vaulted roof that extends over both uses and slopes down its Vine Street elevation to respect the constraints of rights to light and, in so doing, cleverly belies the height of the building when viewed from the street. In addition to sharing the same roof, both uses share a material palette of metal, glass and concrete but are subtly differentiated in appearance by the extensive glazing and greater floor to floor heights of the office building.

Further student accommodation is provided in two secondary built forms that employ the same material palette and architectural language, with a wing of accommodation offset and angled away from the main building to continue the line of the street frontage onto Jewry Street, whilst on Crosswall a simple infill building sits quietly but assuredly between its neighbours.

The tour started by exiting out of the student accommodation entrance lobby onto the newly created piazza followed by the group looking up at the Vine Street elevation to experience how modest the building felt despite its height thanks to the previously mentioned sloping elevation whose five-storey ‘eaves’ was set at the predominant building height of its neighbours. Here we were also shown the joint-line, where the two different uses with their different storey heights meet. This could have been a difficult relationship but at lower level the change happens within a recess whilst at higher level the connection was covered by the continuity of the louvred sloping elevation.

Following this, we arrived at the generously sized double height entrance space to the offices, via a well-choreographed change in level. Here the same changes in level we had experienced externally had been used to create a series of terraced informal seating and working areas that served to not only break down the space in plan but also vary the space volumetrically in what might otherwise have felt a slightly oversized and empty space. The office floors were relatively modestly sized clean rectangles of space with raised access floor and exposed services above*. So far, so normal. However, what I was struck by and found quite magical were the views out all three sides of the office space onto the close-up elevations of the three surrounding neighbouring buildings. Seen through the full height glazing and framed top and bottom by the floor and soffit, the three different ages of the architecture became a theatrical backdrop to the space and started to make me begin to appreciate what this project was doing so well. It was a growing sense that, from the outside in and from the inside out, the building was engaged in conversation with every aspect of the City’s context.

*(For those interested in their office specifications, of particular note was that the height of the office the space felt generous despite the relatively low floor to floor height of 3.3m, which, thanks to some impressively well co-ordinated services, still achieved a clear height of 2.6m to the underside of the light fittings and felt more than ample for the size of the floorplate.

This feeling continued as we departed the office building and followed a well-groomed landscaped planter that mediated the changes in level along Jewry Street until we reached an entrance to the next unexpected moment. Here was a glazed elevation with views down into a space that re-enshrined the significant remains of a Roman wall. Once unceremoniously hidden away in the basement of the previous office building on the site, it was now fittingly and ingeniously opened to view to the passing pedestrian by the introduction of a public cut through the building and housed in its very own independent space to allow the public to inspect the wall at close quarters and learn about its history from the accompanying exhibition. This was remarkably well done and increased my sense of the relationship the building had with its context; on this occasion its topographic and historic context as well as the contribution its permeability and accessibility gave to its urban context.

The discoveries continued with the next part of the tour through the 8,000 sq.ft of University incubator space that had been accommodated in the lower levels, adding further richness to the mix of uses and life that the buildings contribute to the city. This was followed by a journey up through the student accommodation, the largest of the two uses. Here we sampled generously sized well-appointed rooms beneath the sloping roof. My observation here was that the rooms could have benefitted from more natural light and the treatment of windows and louvres felt heavy, leading to a slight feeling of claustrophobia despite the generosity of space in plan. Whilst not abnormal in terms of specification the tight floor to floor heights of 2.85m did noticeably contribute to the slightly constrained nature.

The finale of the tour was a trip up to the vaulted roof of the main building. We arrived at the lower level of a double height space and then ascended steps alongside cushioned wooden bleacher seating that faced a large screen tv for movie nights or sporting events. It was a great way to enter the space and instantly communicated this was a space in which to come together and relax. At the top we arrived into a linear open plan area of the student common space, finally enjoying the full internal volume of the barrel-vaulted roof. 14 storey views of the surrounding context can be seen through the full height glazing, placing you in amongst the elevated levels of the city with views into and past the neighbouring buildings and in turn providing neighbours with even more interesting views of the new student life the building has bought to the skyline. One observation was that there was no apparent external space on the top floor which would have been good to see. One final unexpected moment came as we were guided by our hosts into the final space of the tour. Here we were in the fully glazed gable end of the barrel vault to witness views south of Tower Bridge and the River Thames, not a coincidence, I’m sure.

We descended the lifts and said our goodbyes. I then walked the wrong way to the station, but as fortune would have it, on my circuitous journey, I walked past a historic passageway, and in glancing through it saw the piazza and the ground floor of the Vine Street elevation. I stopped, wandered through and smiled in my assessment that this was a building that had truly become one with every layer of its context.

Since the tour I have reflected on one

point that I and my colleague Liam O’Grady discussed during the visit, which regarded the need for buildings to address future adaptability, a much-discussed subject in our practice. It concerns the conjoining of the two different uses and their two different storey heights and more specifically the choice of viability over future adaptability. This is a building where both sets of architects, through careful co-ordination have achieved very low floor-to-floor heights for both uses. At 3.3m, the floor-to-floor height of the office space sits only 275mm above what is largely considered to be the most technically and economically achievable residential floor to floor height of 3075mm. With such a minor difference between floor to floor heights and with the decision to express the uses within one form, it raises the question, if the building was being designed from inception today, whether the same decision would be taken to have different storey heights or whether it would be seen to be of greater value, in terms of sustainable investment, to have continuous storey heights to enable future adaptability. The argument for squeezing in more student floors is clear, it makes the scheme more viable and more profitable, but today’s discussion needs to ask at what cost does that come in terms of re-use in the future.

I would like to thank Urbanest, Hopkins, Apt and CAF for the opportunity to tour the project and for inviting me to share my reflections on the visit.

Ross Hutchinson words and photos

Member of City Architecture Forum

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