BuckleyGrayYeoman adds new layers to a 1920s building in east London

BuckleyGrayYeoman adds new layers to a 1920s building in east London

In the London neighbourhood of Whitechapel, a department store has been renovated into an office for London’s co-working community. Behind the thoughtful and elegant redesign is east London-based architecture practice BuckleyGrayYeoman (BGY), which has prided itself on preserving and celebrating the history of the building, while making it streamlined, airy and outward-looking.

Originally built in the 1920s and designed as a Wickham’s department store, this ‘Harrod’s of the east-end’ articulated its glamour and status through a grand neo-classical façade. Yet, as history has it, in the centre of the façade one stubborn clockmaker, Spiegelhalter, refused to sell up his shop and disrupted the Wickham’s vision – just one of the humourous stories to be told.

Amr Assaad, architect and associate director at BGY, made sure that these colourful stories are embedded across the design through material detailing and light layers of reconfiguration. BGY decided to preserve the Spiegelhalter shop façade, polishing up its typographic signage, and even drawing attention to it, by making this the entry to the office known as Dept W. ‘It’s a David and Goliath story,’ says Assaad.

Dept W exterior
Exterior of the building showing the restored ‘Spiegelhalter Bros ltd’ sign. Photography: Lewis Kahn

Restored original brickwork welcomes visitors into the open-air cobbled entry, tucked just behind the Spiegelhalter façade. A short journey through this friendly courtyard, a little retreat from the busy high street, and a metal-framed glazed inner façade marks entry to the minimal lobby, where again architectural details such as the brickwork and a timber staircase beyond, are allowed to do the talking. It’s remarkable how this simple space-making move changes the experience of entering the office – it could now be compared to that of entering a gallery or cultural space.

A public café with a with a glazed façade beside the office entrance creates even more openness on the high street. Inside, there are high ceilings and original terrazzo floors in the events space, as well as some smart meeting rooms for hire.

Original 1920s oculus restored
The restoration of the original 1920s oculus. Photography: Lewis Kahn

Across the rest of the building, the new BGY design brings order to a previously chaotic arrangement. Interior walls were removed at every opportunity to create vast open plan spaces with original wooden flooring restored. New outdoor terraces have been woven into the fabric of the building by strengthening existing roof space, and a central double lift shaft opens up at each level to light-filled spaces connected to outdoor access. The beauty of the space lies in how unique architectural moments of history have been combined with contemporary design.

The crowning glories on the third floor are the two restored concave stained-glass oculi, preserved and supported with new structures that allows light to positively bounce through the space between the new sky-lights opened up by BGY – it’s heavenly. In the 1920s department store, these oculi would have crowned elaborate staircases. Quite modestly, Assaad sees the BGY design as just another layer of history onto the building and the patchwork fabric of Whitechapel high street. §

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