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London, UK - One Hyde Park

One Hyde Park radically redefines the London mansion block for the era of stealth wealth

‘The pressure on us as architects to find a way of mediating between the public’s expectation and those who have spent hundreds of millions purchasing a site is intense,’ explains Graham Stirk, perhaps a little defensively, about the design that he has led for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH) at One Hyde Park. The media has given the architects - who have been known to make socialist noises - a rather a rough ride for completing what is reputed to be the world’s most expensive residential address in their own capital city.

Financed by a company owned by the Qatari prime minister, the luxury developer Candy & Candy approached the practice to create the scheme during the economic uplands of the mid-noughties. One global economic meltdown later, the grand opening of the 86 apartment development in Knightsbridge finally took place at the end of January. On the day of the celebrity-studded launch party, publicists chirping about achieving the world-record price of more than £6,000 per square foot struck a dissonance with the news that 20 per cent of young people in Britain are currently unemployed. Described by Rogers concisely but vaguely as ‘a 21st-century monument’, the building was read more critically and symbolically by the Guardian columnist Alexander Chancellor as ‘a monument to the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and to the unique ability of the very wealthy to ride out the recession unscathed’.

Perhaps this is true. But, in a sense, what’s new? If the scheme is such a monument, it would hardly be an innovation for a site gazing north across Hyde Park. And indeed it used to be much worse: in previous centuries the ‘public’ was even excluded from the ‘public space’ itself. As one Captain Gronow remarked in his Reminiscences of 1863, you did not see ‘any of the lower or middle classes of London intruding themselves in regions which, with a sort of tacit understanding, were then given up exclusively to persons of rank and fashion.’ Many buildings that run along the park’s southern edge were born of and long-commemorate this aristocratic milieu.

Of these, the scheme is equidistant between two examples that appear as particular points of reference. On the park’s east corner is Robert Adam’s Apsley House (1771-78), the former home to the Duke of Wellington; the ultimate forebear for opulence, status and significance, the Grade I-listed mansion has for centuries been known as ‘No. 1, London’ - a sobriquet that surely influenced those who named One Hyde Park. To the west, of more typological interest, are the Albert Hall Mansions designed by Richard Norman Shaw (1880-87).

These started to sell the idea of apartments to the English upper classes, who had always associated such arrangements with either poor people or, worse, continental foreigners.Indeed, for inspiration, Shaw visited Paris in 1879, bringing back the city’s ideas about communal areas - grand lobbies and graduated staircases -and mixing them in his design with apartments more like a traditional London town house. This allowed the familiarity of split-level living, but it was still a fairly radical proposition, and the developer opted to build it in stages. The mansions as a whole are composed of three separate blocks, each in plan centred on a light well and two staircases: one large and open for the residents; the other small and hidden for the servants.

Essentially, what RSH has done is to invert this plan and to scale it up. Instead of designing long facades hiding light-voids and stairwells, the practice has created four separate ‘pavilions’, the floorplates of which flare in plan to maximise apartments’ floor areas and park views. The vertical circulation has been displaced into five glazed cores, connected up at ground level with a gently curving spine corridor. There are two residential and three service passages, all treated identically in proportion and detail (how about that for socialist principles?), but mirrored in plan so that the goods lifts face the local rag-trade and the residents the park.

Although RSH is au fait with the process of inverting a diagram - they practically invented this concept with the Centre Pompidou and the Lloyd’s building - it was less comfortable with scaling up a model. As Stirk admits, ‘We didn’t know how to fill in the planning drawings with these apartment sizes: we even scaled the beds up.’

And it wasn’t simply the extremities of scale that proved challenging, but the breadth of the shifts required to achieve them. ‘Apartments range from a generous one-bedroom flat, all the way up to 27,000 square foot,’ says Stirk. ‘That’s bigger than our office - what residential morphology can you think of that would deal with that?’

The closest real precedent is, of course, an office itself, and in their sheer size and adaptability, the large floors and sparse structure are indeed like parts of an office. Where the architect begins to rebuff the comparison lies in the property’s details. ‘There are bedrooms twice the size of the house I live in: that’s not a punched hole for a window,’ Stirk strikes back. ‘No one bedroom is the same size and we needed the verticality of the facade to allow all this fine-tuning.’

The pavilions are of course glazed floor to ceiling, but this is wrapped in a veil of bronze privacy screens, which funnel views towards the park and, as the widening of apartments toward the cores forces an almost neighbourly proximity, hide the super rich from each other.

‘Rather than doing slick glazing, which in big residential projects is a nightmare since you can’t control what blinds people will have, you’ve got to create something robust enough to allow people to be exuberant in terms of what they want to be,’ says Stirk.

In taking this view, he touches on the project’s crucial dilemma - that between fantasy and rationality. This duality is no more clearly expressed than in the building’s relationship with the adjacent luxury hotel, the Mandarin Oriental, an Edwardian version of a French château, with two floors wedged between each band of stone, coursing in an attempt to make the building’s proportions hold.

Even though the context is dotted with a number of more high-rise buildings, RSH has set out their project’s massing using the Mandarin eaves line and attempted to strike a companionable dialogue by picking up the strong horizontals every two floors. In mediating the relationship between the building and the street, the practice has created a couple of gardens that will give access to the three ground-floor shops.

This green space is more than most private apartment blocks offer, while also giving glimpses of the park skyline through the glass cores. On the one hand, the project is looking to placate the planners and the public, whereas on the other - well, the other hand must tease and titillate the fantasies of the billionaires.

These fantasies, as the interior reveals, can be pretty extreme and disquieting. If at one time hotels mimicked stately homes so that rich people felt comfortable in them, now the international super rich demand their apartments look and feel like hotels. The Candy brothers clearly understand and cater for this shift. Alongside the constant availability of room service via an underground passage, their intent is confirmed through their fit-out’s five-star friskiness. Once you cross the threshold, you enter a world where reality feels familiar but strangely filtered. The scene calls to mind Sigmund Freud canoodling Rocce Forte, shot by Robert Mapplethorpe.

At first you arrive in a double-height hotel lobby, with copious staff yet no other guests. You see a ‘library’ that does not appear to have any books; a grand piano playing without a pianist. Then a schism emerges. Candy & Candy produced the interiors with RSH only doing shell and core, and nowhere is that put to more deranging effect than in the spine corridor, which abruptly alternates between detailed high-tech transparency and the frothy cappuccino of polished plaster - from the start of the curving route, it looks like this small schizophrenic episode might go on forever.

Inside the enclosure of the show flat - which amazingly covers the entire floorplate -the Candy treatment is on a surer footing, and it is this that Stirk credits with the scale of the record sales figures. ‘When you walk into one of those apartments that hasn’t been finished by [Candy & Candy] you look at it and think, it’s really nice, but would it command the sales figures they’re talking about?’ he says. ‘But when you walk into one where they’ve positioned everything, you think it probably would. The whole way this thing is secretly guarded. We don’t know one person who’s bought one.’

There’s a paradox here between publicity and privacy, the media fizz at odds with the desire for anonymity. This suggests that the enterprise’s immediate financial success depends as much on perception as on reality. With prices claimed to be £6.75 million for a one-bed flat and to reach up to £135 million for a penthouse, you wonder whether a residence here will prove such a good long-term investment once the hype has died down.

In a recent essay in AD on Typological Urbanism, academic Peter Carl observes that: ‘Dwelling, properly understood, is more profound than the efficient or attractive accommodation of a lifestyle -it comprises orientation in reality.’ One Hyde Park steers clear of a reality that almost anyone can relate to. Applying mega-scale to the mansion block has the effect of removing its local and national context: Albert Hall Mansions were mostly for people rooted in the English countryside who wanted pied-à-terre; One Hyde Park is for global billionaires with perhaps no real links to Britain.

I have no problem with that, but - combined with such things as car lifts that mean residents never have to step on a pavement - this certainly alienates them from London’s larger story. The architecture is a well-conceived, finely detailed private apartment block, but it is not a monument in any sense of the word, since it deliberately avoids any emotional engagement with the wider city or its inhabitants.

Of the Napoleon-trouncing Duke of Wellington’s former residence No. 1 London, historian Edwin Beresford Chancellor eulogises in The Private Palaces of London (1908): ‘For Englishmen it represents, crystallised in stone, more fully perhaps than other dwelling in the country, an idea, a sentiment… consecrated to the memory of one who may justly be termed the saviour of our country.’ Now that’s an architectural monument. One Hyde Park doesn’t even come close.

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