Pictured left: Benchmark's one-off bronze and wood display table. Right: a freestanding staircase, in plywood and steel with a teak handrail and coating in an Yves Klein-inspired blue resin, connects the ground floor with the basement exhibition space. Photography: Michael Bodiam
‘I think Paul liked Raven Row because it touches on a few common values,’ says 6a co-founder Tom Emerson. ‘There is a lot of tradition and history, but it is also fundamentally contemporary, and the distinctions between what is traditional or historical and what is contemporary aren’t always clear.’
6a Architects was called to the large meeting table in Smith’s office to see and feel the many and various places Smith is coming from. ‘There was this framed piece with military medals with different ribbons, stripes and colours. This is the world that he reimagines,’ says Emerson. ‘He doesn’t quote it directly, it is kind of environmental. And that was slightly what we tried to do with the store.’
The challenge with No 11 was that the architects were only charged with transforming the façade. Chandor and the in-house design team would deal with the interior, the dynamics and mechanics of store interiors being a specialist art. And, unlike Raven Row, which had a long, rich and incident-ridden history, No 11 had very little history. And none of it rich.
‘It was a matter of concentrating less on a particular, literal history than a material tradition in London’, says Emerson. ‘It was a matter of saying, OK, this is not something specific to this building, but it is specific to this place. It seemed like something quite tuned to Paul Smith, this background tradition, this foundation on which all his design work and innovation sits.’
On the back façade of Raven Row, 6a had used cast-iron panels. They had been cast in moulds shaped by charred timbers, picking up on the skylights inside the building. Smith’s team and 6a thought cast iron might be the way to go in Albemarle Street. ‘We were thinking about what we could do that was really part of London’s character,’ says Emerson. ‘And cast iron is one of the background materials of London – railings, drainpipes, manhole covers, lamps, fireplaces. It is the background texture you don’t really think about. It’s not like Portland Stone, which is the material of expression that says: “I’m a really important building.” And it has this nice tradition of craft and technology, but has never been an overtly expressive material. It was free to be reinvented.’ And 6a got very inventive. ‘Originally we were going to have cast-iron fabric coming down the building, but the building would have fallen down. Cast iron is super heavy,’ says Chandor.
‘They came in with a lot of casts. There was mesh, knitting, curtains,’ adds Smith. ‘But being a practical sort of person, I thought, what if pigeons nest in there or people put empty bottles in there? How are you going to keep it clean?’ The more restrained but still striking (and structurally feasible) solution 6a came up with was to hang almost 60 elaborately patterned cast-iron panels across the first storey of the building. They settled on a circular pattern that would then be continued and repeated in a new balustrade across the first floor. ‘The interlocking circles pattern is a typical Regency pattern you get in railings,’ says Emerson.
‘If you look for it, it’s everywhere; in windows, balconies. It’s so simple but once you repeat it, you gain complexity.’ The solution for the rest of the building was more simple: paint it black. ‘There is an amazing Georgian building on Dover Street that is jet black,’ says Emerson. ‘And we realised jet black was one of the traditional colours of Georgian architecture. There was a blackness to London that was due to the smoke and smog and a blackness that was designed in. So we said, yeah, let’s just paint the façade black.’ Another nod to the immediate environment were the semi-circular windows, clearly referencing the curved glass store fronts of The Royal Arcade next door.
For the cast-iron panels, 6a returned to the foundry it had worked with previously, FSE in Braintree in Essex. ‘What is interesting about this process is that on one level it is really ancient, Bronze Age technology – heating up metal in a crucible, making a form in the sand, pouring in the metal,’ says Emerson. ‘But there is an element that is really hi-tech. We modelled the design over and over again on Rhino and then moulds were made with CNC cutting. But fundamentally it is the same process as in Victorian times. And the great thing is that if the casts aren’t right, you can just smash them up, put them in the furnace and start again.’
Not that they were looking for perfection. Part of each cast does carry imperfections, what Emerson calls the maker’s mark. Indeed, Smith was so enamoured of the maker’s mark idea that he made a few of his own. ‘One of the nice things about cast iron is that because it is fluid you can draw in it,’ says Emerson. ‘So Paul drew a bird and a cat and they were cast into panels.’ Smith now has those moulds in his office.