Now under threat of demolition, we revisit the AR’s original coverage of the RMC international headquarters, one of Edward Cullinan Architects’ finest buildings
By carefully preserving old buildings and by creating a heavily insulated semi-underground complex, Edward Cullinan Architects have used Green principles to create a magical world in which the past and the present, nature and artefact are interwoven with great poetic skill.
The RMC international headquarters lies to the east of the village of Thorpe on the western fringe of London, not far from Heathrow. The site’s southern edge is formed by the shore of the broad Manor Lake. A high brick wall separates it from the rest of the village and it contains threefine buildings: Eastley End House, a symmetrical eighteenth-century three-storeybrick box; Meadlake House, once the stable block of Eastley End; and The Grange, a large Arts and Crafts house on the lake side, strongly influenced by mid period Norman Shaw.
All three of the houses had suffered lumpish additions and insensitive alterations. The other main structures on the site were the great entrance wall and a long wall to the south, more or less parallel to the shore. A formal entrance court to Eastley End and Meadlake was approached through the north wall. In the middle of the site, buildings and walls between them defined a rough rectangle, once a formal garden but with only a few fine trees and shrubs still remaining. Right round, except to the north, swept a Reptonian grassy parkland dotted with trees.
Edward Cullinan Architects, who were appointed to create the headquarters building, were determined to save and enhance the qualities of the existing buildings and spaces. This meant removing all the rubbishy accretions and, as far as possible, returning the spaces and forms of the houses to their original state. But, at the same time, the client wanted 3600m2 of headquarters office space and a lot of other accommodation, including a new entrance to relieve pressure on the existing one to Eastley End, possibilities for recreation involving a swimming pool, squash courts, a gym and a sauna, and dining rooms, lodging for trainees, a lecture room and a laboratory.
Plainly, getting all this on the site while actually knocking down some of the existing accommodation would mean radical transformation. Edward Cullinan Architects decided on two basic strategies from which the design has flowed. First, although the houses were to be restored, there would be no attempt to carry on their style into the new parts.
In his proof of evidence to the planning enquiry that had to be held because the development is in London’s Green Belt, Cullinan explained that to carry on the manner of the existing into the new work would destroy the preciousness of the old by swamping it in a mass of similar seeming extensions: what was there already would lose its value by being copied. (It is a great pity that this argument is not more often understood by those who would unthinkingly try to create a fake cosy England by falsely reproducing the past.)
Cullinan summarised his approach by quoting from William Morris, who in his 1889 address to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings said ‘It cannot be for it has all gone! They believe that we can do the same sort of work in the same spirit as our forefathers, whereas for good and for evil we are completely changed, and we cannot do the work they did. All continuity of history means is, after all, perpetual change, and it is not hard to see that we have changed with a vengeance, and thereby established our claim to be the continuers of history.’ The second chief strategy adopted by the architects was to enhance the spatial qualities of the site.
This meant containing the new development in the enclosed rectangle in the middle so that the existing entrance court could be freed of accretions and the-surrounding parkland could remain untouched. The best trees and shrubs would be retained in a predominantly single-storey development that could link all three houses and provide the greater part of the required accommodation.
The team decided that the large central space should be developed as a series of strips of single-storey offices running from the two eighteenth-century structures at the west end of the site towards The Grange. Between the strips, garden courts would be created, and on top of them there would be gardens too. So, seen from the houses, the whole area would become a garden on different levels, locked into the old buildings but complementing them and not in competition.
The courts needed to be terminated and joined to the east and, here, the architects decided to place the new entrance and the recreational spaces in a new north/south axis whereby the visitor would be led from entrance towards the swimming pool via the restaurants. A sharp right turn before reaching the pool would lead to the central office strip, yet people would be offered a beautiful view of the lake over the pool through an arch cut into the old (and rebuilt) south garden wall to where a new inlet would bring the grey/blue lake water into virtual contact with the green water inside.
The new inlet would emphasise the isolated, object-like quality of The Grange which would be kissed by the new work only at its north-west corner and left to stand almost isolated amid the grass, trees and water. This is a strange condition for an Arts and Crafts house to find itself in, for they were almost all originally surrounded by terraces and formal gardens which effectively extended the spatial sequence of the house to a series of outdoor rooms.
Just as Cullinan’s team proposed to invert the relationship of the late nineteenth-century building to site, they wanted to change that of the eighteenth-century ones as well by creating a series of small formal spaces round houses that had probably stood originally in a natural seeming landscaped park. But these alterations of perception seem justified in the light of changes that had happened to the buildings and their settings since they were put up; the architects were, after all, responding toconditions as they found them.
So far, I have largely been paraphrasing Cullinan’s evidence to the 1987 planning enquiry. It is extremely satisfactory to report that the original design intentions have now been carried out with great imagination and ingenuity.You enter through a new circular fountain courtin brick at the north-east corner of the complex. This leads to the reception area, relatively low, which expands in volume as it widens sideways to accommodate the staff and trainee dining areas, and as it rises over the pool; beyond is the view of the lake, exactly as promised.
But before you get dragged into the pool, the potential difficulty of moving from the north/south entrance axis to the east/west one of the office strips is simply resolved by inserting a curved reception desk which commands the area and from where visitors can be told to turn right to the offices.
If this sequence is not exactly a promenade architectumle, it seems appropriate in a building that has both semi-public areas andvery private ones: only a human filter can mediate between the two. After the right turn, a long toplit route towards Eastley End is revealed. It is terminatedby a half round stair which leads to a link with the old house. The light comes from the glass block path in the garden overhead. (This is a device that has been used to great effect elsewhere, notably in the sloping roof over the swimming pool.)
All along the luminous space are secretarial stations which are naturally lit and ventilated, even though they are right in the middle of the widest part of the new building. On each side, through the secretarial spaces, are the private offices which look out through continuous glass walls with sliding panels into the restful green courts. To the right (north) is the Eastley End court (the building itself is now converted to directors’ offices, boardroom, and reception rooms). The court is a formal affair, with a rectangular pool surrounded by lawns which complement the now delicately restored symmetry of the old house.
On the other side of the main office strip is the Fern court, much narrower than the other, but it is faced in cream tiles to compensate for its thinness and filled with fern-like plants and flowing water.
Unlike the double-banked middle strip of offices, the other three are virtually one room deep. But they share the same idiom: large, light rooms with glass walls looking on to tranquil gardens. To the south, the third internal open space, the Meadlake court, addresses its own old building (now converted to residential accommodation for trainees) and it is shaped partly because the old south garden wall took an angle north-eastwards at its eastern end. This angle is reflected in one on the other side of the court, giving this longest space an agreeable impression of being even longer by false perspective.
The upper part of the garden is ordered by strong geometry in its layout and a number of carefully controlled events. The old houses themselves rise above it so that their top parts seem to emerge as pavilions when seen from a distance. These are complemented by a new pavilion which houses the executive dining rooms over the staff dining rooms, and by a folly pavilion on the highest part of the garden, over the end of the swimming pool, which is an abstract, metal homage to Philip Webb’s lost masterpiece, Joldwyns. (Next to The Grange, Cullinan who, more than most, can claim to be the inheritor of the Arts and Crafts mantle makes homage to one of the founders of that movement.)
Another pavilion, a directors’ dining room, emerges southward from Eastley End at the upper level. This is in Neo-Georgian, well done in itself and complementary to the house, but almost the only moment in the scheme when the architects seem to have departed from their original principles. It is a bit worrying, because, for a moment, the team seems to have given in to the dreadful, naff spirit of revivalism promoted by the New Right in Britain today. But it is much better done than almost anything that has come from the drawing-boards of the camp which claims to inherit the eighteenth-century position. And, perhaps, it should be regarded as another folly, designed to show that, if proper late twentieth-century architects want to do Neo Georgian, they can do so with just as much ability as the adherents of the style, and do everything else as well: serving contemporary needs humanely, imaginatively and efficiently.
Perhaps the reason that we decided to put this excellent building into the AR’s Green issue was that it looks very green. But its inclusion here is justified for more than superficial reasons. Old buildings, and the invested energy they represent have been preserved. The new offices, with their thick layers of earth and insulation are very heat efficient, even with their outer glass walls. There is no energy expensive air-conditioning; the offices are protected from glare and excessive insolation by a sort of pergola structure which supports clipped hedges and Euclidian topiary.
A great new garden has been created, and a new morphology for large offices in the countryside. It draws deeply on the Arts and Crafts gardening canon (though it would have been good if the landscape architects, the Derek Lovejoy Partnership, who were responsible for everything that has not been clipped, had better understood Arts and Crafts precedents in planting). Taken as a whole, the scheme is wonderfully, poetically responsive to place, and to time, past and present-and to the needs of our beleaguered planet. And it is, in the strict eighteenth-century, Burkean sense, very beautiful.