Historically a vibrant if rather seedy neighborhood, bounded on the north by the Thames and trailing off into suburbs in the south, the borough of Southwark was populated largely by poorer citizens and boasted theaters, brothels and taverns before the advent of industrialization turned it into a place of railway bridges and grimy warehouses. Bombing during the Blitz and a series of fires over the centuries have had a particularly devastating effect on its architecture. Southwark has lately sought to revitalize its status as a place rich in the arts and culture; cut off from the rest of the City by the Thames as it is, it faces the challenge of attracting tourists and inhabitants over the river, a task facilitated by the construction of bridges (most recently the Millennium footbridge) and the revamping of its northern limits, the Bankside area (Godley).
Though buildings like the Tate Modern and the reconstructed Globe Theater have done an admirable job of breathing new life and interest into Bankside, venturing south quickly brings the observer into gritty residential and industrial neighborhoods with little to recommend them to the passer-by. The borough’s latest architectural projects aim to extend the revitalization south from Bankside: among these are the planned extension of the Tate Modern, the construction of Southwark tube station, and distinctive building projects by the brightest stars of modern architecture. SMC Alsop’s Palestra, an office building completed in 2006, is one of these projects. Located on Blackfriars Road just across from the Southwark station, its dramatic glazing and cantilevered structure draw the eye and stand out starkly against its dreary surroundings.
Known as a maverick with a reputation for controversial, distinctive buildings that shatter modernist ideals (Muir and Hurst), Will Alsop stresses the value of the popular imagination in architecture, asserting that the community should always have a hand in the process of designing and constructing buildings (Powell 2000). Before taking on the job of replacing the drab 1960s Orbit House offices, Alsop’s firm had just completed the 2000 Stirling Prize-winning public library in Peckham, a run-down, diversely populated working-class area in need of revitalization (Powell 2000). The Peckham Library is a fine example of community architecture, decorated with the same vibrant colors and unconventional, slanting and podlike forms that can be seen on the Palestra; the building is raised up on columns over a public square, sheltering a covered public space that provides a further service to the community. The result is unique and delightful, providing the community with a focal point for its future development and providing a new civic landmark and institution (Powell 2000).
In hiring Alsop to design a new office building for the area, the commissioners hoped to replicate the success at Peckham, creating a building that both addressed the business needs of potential tenants, helping to establish Southwark as a center for commerce and employment, and provided a strong public impact on the neighborhood (Powell 2002). Alsop set out to revolutionize the concept of the office building, with a conventional, flexible interior floor plan wrapped up in a flamboyant confection of tinted glass and tilted columns.
The original plans for the building, altered to suit building regulations and according to the wishes of the commissioners, give a good idea of Alsop’s intent. The initial model includes much more vibrant, even bizarre, colors and patterns; bold yellow crosses decorate the main body of the building, while a three-story penthouse at its top is decorated with clouds on a field of blue, presumably meant to blend in with the building’s backdrop of sky. The ground floor was meant to hold retail space and a large cafe, a place for the building’s workers, passers-by and the local community to mingle and relax. Together with the small piazza of sorts created by the elevation of the building, Alsop’s intent was to create a “covered public space, a place of passage and a meeting point for the private world of the office users and the wider world of London” (Powell 2000, 20). The building’s location on the path between Southwark tube station and the Tate Modern, Alsop reasoned, was conducive to making it a thoroughfare and public space for the community and for those passing by; the site had “the makings of a new gateway to the borough” (Powell 2002, 76).
In its final form, Alsop has designed a building that is striking in its colorful geometric patterns, its blending of podlike curves and shoebox-like vertical elements, though more subdued than the initial plans; one observer deemed it “a triple-decker sandwich gone slightly askew” (Knutt). The ground floor of the building, as well as the tilted top element, are tipped upward on round white columns; the elevation of the building creates an open space on the side facing Blackfriars Road, serving as a thoroughfare for those passing by.
Though Alsop’s ideas are all very well, however, the question remains whether the building is actually realizing the goals it was meant to fulfill. Reaction to this gleaming intruder on the Southwark skyline has been decidedly mixed; though it was recognized by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2007 (LondonSE1), Alsop’s unapologetically bold style also garnered it ridicule as “some dude strutting his bling” (Allinson, 146). Design questions aside, to see whether the building is fulfilling its intended function requires one to observe it in action, so to speak; to document its relation to its surroundings and the people of the Southwark community.
Looking southwest from Southwark Road directly behind the Tate Modern, the jarring contrast with the industrial grime and construction sites of the area surrounding the Palestra is particularly evident. The Palestra is designed to contrast uncompromisingly with the buildings around it, and its gleaming glazed facade certainly enlivens the horizon; the structure appears to glow in the afternoon sunlight. The building appears vaguely classical in proportions, almost reminiscent of a Greek temple–befitting its name, which is Greek for “exercise yard” or “gymnasium.” (In fact, the structure was named for a boxing ring that once stood on this site.) From here, the playfully slanting round columns supporting the eastern side of the upper “box” element are faintly visible. Also visible are some of the buildings on Southwark Road, which are nice enough, but for the most part not especially striking, with two exceptions: the newly built Bankside 123 and the A&M building across the street, both beautiful examples of revitalizing architecture. Southwark Road, however, still seems oddly deserted and rather dreary architecturally.
This building is meant to draw the eye, not to blend in or harmonize with its surroundings. As such, it is a bold gesture, though perhaps one that could be made anywhere–it bears more resemblance to other Alsop buildings, such as the Peckham Library with its pods and columned overhang, than to anything existing in the area. One might expect to find this building among the creative architectural pieces in the immediate surroundings of the Tate Modern, rather than among the drab buildings of inner Southwark. This does make sense given the purpose behind the structure, however; the Palestra is meant to be distinctive, to draw the eye and spark curiosity. Together with the likes of Bankside 123, it represents one of the first moves in an effort to overhaul the image of Southwark, and as such, a bolder, attention-grabbing design is better (this is probably why Alsop was hired to design the building in the first place). Good or bad, this structure has attracted ample attention since its construction.
Also notice the box at the very top of the structure, appearing out of place amid all the glazing. Originally, the building was planned to be outfitted with “green” energy-generating wind turbines, but they were scrapped and never reinstated despite claims to the contrary (LondonSE1).
Looking down Southwark Road shows a variety of buildings, mostly from the turn of the century onwards, mixed in with 19th-century warehouses and buildings from the early industrial age (more of these can be seen along Clink Street, located further to the east). The glazed facade of the A&M building is visible, the third from the left. Despite being one of Southwark’s main roads, on a weekend afternoon the street is almost totally devoid of cars and people–most of the structures here are commercial.
Looking south down Blackfriars Road from its intersection with Southwark Road to the east, one sees a mix of 20th-century commercial buildings. None of them are quite as large in scale, however, and the Palestra (out of frame to the left) still dominates the landscape here; the odd angles formed by the building’s tilted elements also stand out against the sleek orthogonal geometry of the nearby modernist buildings. Blackfriars Road is wider, more trafficked and busier than Southwark Road, coming directly off the Blackfriars Bridge as it does, but still feels rather dull compared with the City proper.
Moving down the eastern sidewalk of Blackfriars Road brings the Palestra into view. The glazing contrasts with the brick- and stonework of the buildings next to it, and the upper element projects outward over the sidewalk and street, drawing the eye. The variegated textures of the building’s different surfaces lend interest to the smooth glazed face of the building; the facade is as varied, vibrant and colorful as the Southwark community itself.
The Southwark Underground station is just out of frame to the right, another new addition intended to enliven the area. Upon leaving the station, the Palestra is the first thing to greet the traveler’s eye, an effective attention-grabber for Tate Modern tourists. The proximity is also convenient for those of the building’s inhabitants who take the Tube to work.
The Palestra’s glazed walls create an intimidating facade from the sidewalk as the passer-by looks up, enlivened by the projecting yellow panels on the top element and the tints baked into the glass sections of the lower “box;” an additional element of interest is created by the patterns produced in the reflective material of the overhang. The building’s tilt and cantilevered overhang appear almost precarious, though the glazing gives the structure a light feel.
A view of the Palestra’s southern side, with residential complexes to the right, shows Alsop using the building’s tilt to play with the idea of perspective, a nicely playful touch. Note that there are no entrances on this side of the building; instead, it presents a blank glazed wall to the neighboring apartments.
Back on Blackfriars Road, looking past the lobby area of the Palestra to the residences beyond shows the vestibular space created by the cantilevered “stilts” supporting the building, and the curved pod element to the left; to the south of the Palestra is an apartment complex. The residents of that apartment have been complaining that the building blocks sunlight and television reception (LondonSE1); evidently the architect did not quite keep the constraints of the site in mind, despite his emphasis on creating an architecture for the community. Note the playful colored circular areas on the roof of the vestibule, and the jaunty angles of the columns.
This area is the crux of the building’s intended function as a public space; like the overhang of the Peckham Library, it is meant to encourage through pedestrian traffic and serve as a kind of public square in miniature, a liaison between the building and the surrounding streets. Though people do cut through the space, however, there is little evidence that it gets more use than that. One reason for this is, perhaps, an issue with its relation to its surroundings. Located at the crossing of two broad, busy streets, the space provided is relatively small, hardly an ideal situation for encouraging its use as a public square (as in Peckham). For nearby residents, the courtyards of the apartment complexes provide a much larger and more inviting space.
The major reason, however, probably lies in the current usage of the building itself. This signature Alsop pod, located to the left of the vestibule, and the ground floor in general were intended by Alsop for either retail use or a sizable cafe (Powell 2002), and this was meant to encourage public use. (Compare the nearby Bankside 123, whose ground floor is completely devoted to retail.) The result would have provided a welcome convenience for the apartment residents and for Tube riders, and would have drawn people into the space, which would probably have contained benches and tables; as it is, the bare concrete expanse under the overhang has little to recommend it. Instead, the pod is occupied by the Palestra’s current sole tenant, the London Development Agency, and is currently closed to visitors–belying the implied transparency of its glass front wall. The ground floor of the building itself, perhaps as a response to a need for heightened security measures in the past few years, now contains a sterile entrance hall with security guards barring entrance to all but workers and discouraging picture-taking (even hopeful-looking architecture students with cameras are not allowed in). As such, the building’s interior remains an enigma to those on the outside–though part of Alsop’s original idea was to allow people in to a proposed public viewing gallery between the “boxes,” letting them survey the area and the City across the river, and perhaps imagine what Southwark would look like filled with distinctive architecture.
Altogether, though Alsop’s Palestra has succeeded as a distinctive piece of architecture and hopefully set the precedent for a further revamping of Southwark’s gritty image, it does not appear to be achieving its full potential. Alsop intended the building to be welcoming to those in the surrounding area; his revolutionary new office space was meant to integrate public function with commercial function. As it currently stands, however, the Palestra is certainly architecturally intriguing, but has little to offer the public beyond a pretty facade and a nuisance to nearby residences (a fact that could hamper the future development of the Blackfriars Road area). Perhaps as more tenants move into the building the function of the ground floor will change, but as it is, the Palestra has none of the metaphorical transparency implied by its glazed surfaces. To truly revolutionize the area and the idea of the office building, it must come closer to its intended purpose, taking steps to provide public as well as commercial space.
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Author unknown. “Young Vic and Palestra win architecture awards.” LondonSE1, May 18, 2007. http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/2716.
Godley, R.J. “Southwark: A history of Bankside, Bermondsey and ‘The Borough.’” Bromley: Robert James Ltd. 1996.
Knutt, E. “The Palestra and the pod.” BD Magazine, September 2006. http://www.bdonline.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=719&storycode=3074546&featurecode=11969&c=1.
Muir, H. and Hurst, W. “Rebel architect tipped as London design tsar.” The Guardian, August 11, 2006. http://society.guardian.co.uk/communities/story/0,,1842185,00.html.
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