Clerkenwell Close is today mostly made up of mid to late C20th half brick stretcher bond pastiche facades unable to quite tell which period or architectural language they represent. 15 Clerkenwell Close replaces one of these and aims in some way to better connect with a deeper and broader context, including the all but vanished first structure on the site an C11th limestone Norman abbey. The latter originally funded by Baron Jordan Briset for Augustinian nuns, it was expanded and remodelled until its C16th dissolution brought protestant revolution and precipitated a gradual erosion of the enclave. Initially appropriated as a single palace for the Duke of Newcastle then its subdivision into grand houses for the newly protestant barons following the new duke’s beheading. Oliver Cromwell’s republican revolution replaced baronial mansions with a new large but sober home before the restoration saw its replacement with further subdivision into smaller rented properties. Which with London’s C19th expansion and mass immigration briefly housed Marx and a visiting Lenin. Ignominiously a furniture sales room occupied the remains of the original abbey dining halls and cloister before fire and the 1970’s left only a few stones and the road layout as a memory of the nunnery. Whether Norman invasion, the killing of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt, Protestantism, Republicanism, printing presses that aided these and grew from leafleting into book and newspaper trades later attracting Marx, Engels and Lenin to write for and use William Morris’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ (now the Marx Library); Clerkenwell has had a history of radicalism outside The City gates and changing so with the times. 

Building anew within this context ought to raise more questions than how to “fit-in” with the 1970’s and 80’s façade pastiches. Half brick thick stretcher bonds and poor solid to void proportions already betray a lack of understanding of period proportions and details. That they hide poorly lit deep plan office floor plates and cellular flats alike only adds to disingenuous claim of respecting context and fitting-in. Shouldn’t we question whether architecture in the form of façade composition for such purposes is to be the future of our architectural heritage and in turn our broader cultural development? We’d be somewhat perplexed if music, the visual arts or indeed the sciences limited their outlook and innovations to a criteria of fitting-in. Perhaps then this is more a question of whether architects following several generations of mastering two-dimensional façade play have lost their literacy of materials. The innate structural and textural properties, the poetic possibilities of their architectonic and symbolic composition? The Normans brought with them to England the use of limestone fresh from the quarry as it remained soft enough to carve and key together before calcifying to make stronger fortifications. Timber frames, and solid brick walls became prevalent until the early C20th. The coming of steel and concrete frames and arguably for better weathering, fire and structural integrity ‘façade’ and ‘structure’ became separated and with it the skill and poetic possibilities of combining material and structure as a whole.

Using self-finished materials such as stone and brass, carved and fallen columns, revealed cloisters, pebble mosaic floors, and scallop shell handles 15 Clerkenwell Close at first expresses a reuse of load bearing limestone to define architecture, and alludes to a local social and historical archaeology. 8 apartments and two floors of open plan and double height office space sit within ‘loose-fit’ floor plates that allow future change in layout and use. Previously unkempt land to the south has been landscaped to serve occupants and neighbours and incorporated into the narrative of abbey remains with new pebble mosaics and further part-carved stonework. A biodiverse roof provides two beehives, bird nests and habitat for invertebrates. Four mature trees are used to soak up 90% of the average annual rainfall and therefore avoid rainwater attenuation tanks and further basement excavation. A glazed solar chimney is placed on top of the stair and lift core with a rain proof open glazed overhang to allow natural smoke ventilation and therefore avoid mechanical equipment, its carbon footprint and running/maintenance costs. The use of stone as superstructure reducing the embodied carbon of the overall superstructure by 90% compared to steel or concrete frames. Reason enough to promote the reuse of stone for such purposes, though the dressing in this instance of quarry found fossilized coral and ammonite shells can give way to any taste. Combined with the further lessons learnt, namely more timber used larger the CO2 sequestration, the investigation has led to “build to reduce atmospheric CO2” solution. Where the combination of stone and timber can be as CO2 negative, an absorber of atmospheric carbon, as the concrete framed equivalent building is a CO2 contributor. Which Professor Tom Crowther at ETH University Zurich explains will, if we begin to plant forests for construction use, take CO2 levels back to preindustrial levels within a generation.

source: Groupwork