In a place like London, history is easy to come by. The city's centuries-long rise along the Thames has created innumerable stories of well-known people and important landmarks, as well as countless reiterations of interesting facts and prized tidbits. History isn't so much an occasional thought here as it is a constant facet of modern life—and that sentiment wasn't lost on Tim Gledstone, a partner at Squire & Partners, when his team decided to move into an address that's stood since 1906 in the South London district of Brixton.
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"The Edwardian building was largely derelict and dilapidated, having had many different lives previously, including 50 years as a retail destination and a brief stint as a bomb shelter during World War II, before being sold and converted into offices in 1955," he says. "The building was used by various occupants who incrementally chopped up the internal spaces and added shopfronts to the exterior. In 2012, it became vacant and was taken over by squatters, who added their own legacy of street-inspired artwork to the building."
Gledstone and his team were drawn to the story of this property, and felt that its first chapter as an annex to the famed Bon Marché department store could be reimagined for the firm's overlapping departments in architecture, interior design, illustration, CGI, and model making. "It gave a lovely sense of the building coming full circle," Gledstone continues. "We also loved the notion of the space being used for display again, as in showing and retelling the story of our projects."
But envisioning a fresh start for a 66,000-square-foot space and acting upon it are two different things. The building clearly needed renovations, but a full restoration was too expensive, and a complete push toward today's finishes would strip away the past. So Gledstone focused instead on what could be salvaged and what needed to be thoughtfully changed. For instance, the open floor plates and ornate staircases were still in good condition, and could be used in a modern open-concept design. This compromise, Gledstone adds, was a way to "embrace its decayed decadence," while also repurposing aspects of the building for today's needs.
Even the newest aspect of the building—a fourth-floor extension that features a bar and balcony—is influenced by the past. "The new timber frame of the extension is constructed from green oak, which is sustainably grown in Forêt de Villandry in central France, creating a further link between the original Bon Marché stores in Paris and London," he says. "Green oak was used in place of steel due to its sustainable characteristics, but also because its natural quality complemented the age and character of the building."
Shop the Look
As much as the look and feel of the building was done with respect to its history and its surroundings, Gledstone says that Squire & Partners also wanted to ensure that their neighbors felt that reverence, too.
The company opened its ground-level storefronts to an independent coffee roaster, record shop, cafe, and post office. It also showcases local art in its windows, and hosts community events throughout the year. "This has transformed the building from an impermeable and hostile frontage into a friendly and open part of the community," he says. "It brings the building back into their hands following years of neglect."
Now that The Department Store is once again in full operation, where 250 people come and go from work every day, it has become what Gledstone and his colleagues imagined when they first came across its past and saw potential for its future. "Our journey was guided by a constant search for the layers of history within the building, and a desire to reveal them," he says.