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Beyond the fringe at Norton Folgate

Updated: Jun 14

A world away from the city’ promises one of the headings on British Land’s website for its £225m, 330,000 sq ft office-led mixed-use reincarnation of the Norton Folgate site in Spitalfields that was so controversial in its nascent stages back in 2013 when AHMM prepared their first feasibility study for the developer.

 

Planning skirmishes dated back to 1977, however, when earlier plans stirred resistance from local residents. Yet CAF members on their recent ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour of the development, whose cobbled streets and compact elements of public realm are about to open to the public, might be heard muttering ‘so what was all the fuss about?’  

 

Maybe the ‘fuss’ influenced this sensitive outcome which appears capable of allowing new wine to be put into a handsome mix of old and new bottles in a way that will sooth local opinion.

 

This was certainly the positive response of CAF members at first viewing of the development, which might be regarded as atypical of British Land and its varied portfolio in which historic or heritage elements have not featured prominently, other than Plantation House perhaps, now known as 30 Fenchurch Street.

 

Norton Folgate is indeed a ‘world away’ from British Land’s neighbouring Broadgate, now being very boldly redeveloped.  And although the two schemes are vastly different in scale, typology, materiality, massing, context – there are some echoes between the two.

 

Broadgate’s success was to draw in the City’s higher economic values using a new spacious public realm to create an architecturally-branded enclave of value, replete with public art on the former Broad Street station site. Norton Folgate does something similar on a much more intimate scale, weaving revitalised and restored public realm between its six buildings.

 

Some of this new space is semi-public and pedestrian, some is restored historic and public cobbled street. Norton Folgate slips you back into an historic series of alleys, places and streets, their interest intensified by the mix of refurbished historical and characterful new elements, mostly minimal, some more ornate. All new building components, pay homage to local scales and materialities to build a coherent overall character. The scheme applies a building-by-building approach, using restoration, refurbishment, extension, remodelling and façade retention.

 

AHMM were masterplanners and designed three of the six buildings – Blossom Yard and Studios, Nicholls and Clarke’s new building, and Loom Court which includes a secluded internal courtyard space for office workers and restaurants.

 

Stanton Williams, Morris + Company, and DSDHA designed Elder Yard and Studios, 15 Norton Folgate, and 16 Blossom Street respectively, with East leading the public realm strategy.

 

DSDHA’s southern elevation to Blossom Yard features light stone cladding that catches northern light while large golden window units add elegant and unexpected opulence. Almost everwhere else, a variety of brick types and hues, is used for robustness, quality and its suitability for the Conservation Area’s character.

 

Embedded between the new ‘tech-city’ hub of Shoreditch, about to be extended by the development of Bishopsgate Goodsyard, Norton Folgate hints at the Boho-hotel character desired by the post-Covid occupiers. Not ‘financial’ but creative professional, with hints of ‘loft’ and a clubby feel.

 

Internally the main Blossom Yard’s building’s entrance ‘lounge’, for example, is wide, low and long, with wide composite floorboards that have a sawn timber finish (think Tate Gallery, but wider), revealed brickwork walls and a bare concrete soffit with tidy minimal services suspended. There are lots of plants and red leather perimeter benches. Very comfy, not too corporate, nor wasteful of space.

 

Much effort and patient experimentation has clearly gone into maximising the presence of retained elements and their transformation into fully functioning spaces capable of modern occupation. Elements of facades, floors, beams, soffits, where they offer desirable character have been retained and upgraded to meet modern regulations, but keeping the ‘look’ occupiers will appreciate – and presumably pay for.

 

A range of office types is on offer, with retail at the ground floor, and should appeal to a wide range of tenants from start-ups and SMEs to more mature organisations, including local tech and creative industries. And the very healthy pre-letting of 126,800 sq ft to law firm Reed Smith in Blossom Yard & Studios, taking a third of the space, is proof of the pudding.

 

More natural ventilation and less sealed windows in some of the spaces would perhaps be more appropriate for today’s market, but this was not high on the agenda when the scheme was conceived pre-Covid. And some of the fantastic high-ceilinged restaurant units in the historic retained buildings will probably prefer opening windows onto those cobbled streets in warmer days, rather than the large sealed units now installed.

 

These are minor niggles that British Land or occupiers will be able to adjust. What the team have achieved is a welcome, highly sensitive resuscitation of a site in need of renewal for many decades.

 

Which is not to say local protestors were wrong-headed, or to deny that British Land or the entire property industry for that matter, might well have produced something of less character and value if the site had been tackled in earlier eras.

 

It’s tempting to think Spitalfields pioneers, now affluent property owners rather than the squatters they once were, or possibly even an original Huguenot refugee, might admire the new mix of uses and spaces created that can continue Spitalfields’ traditions of a culturally diverse and industrious community pursuing a variety of  enterprises – hopefully for decades to come.


Lee Mallett words Forum Committee Member

 

With thanks to Peter Mayhew, Paul de Hoxar and Alireza Iravani of AHMM, and David Hills of DSDHA, for hosting CAF’s Behind the Scenes visit.

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