Once again, Foster and Partners has shown the wonders modern CAD can perform – this time by combining the golden spiral of the Nautilus with wonderfully imaginative engineering. So, who wants to be a millionaire?
The latest Foster and Partners building to come up to completion couldn't be better located. Albion Riverside faces across a superb sweep of the river Thames to Chelsea, and stands right next door to the practice's own riverfront offices capped by Lord Foster's penthouse flat. So if you want to trace how Foster and Partners' designs have evolved over the past 14 years, the answer is staring you in the face when you stand on Chelsea Embankment.

On the left, Foster's offices and penthouse are a prim 10-storey block bounded by flat window walls on all sides. On the right, Albion Riverside rises to a similar height and likewise features a clear-glazed window wall facing the river.

But that's where the similarity ends.

Albion Riverside is a flamboyant, curvy, rippling sculpture of a building. It has a crescent-shaped plan with an undulating facade facing the river. At the rear, it presents a smooth, concave shell punctuated by small windows and covered by an outer veil of narrow, white horizontal bars.

The energetically curvilinear form of Albion Riverside is, of course, a tribute to the coming of age of CAD, which was a mere infant when the practice conceived its own office. Yet there's more to this curvy formula than the latest fashion in styling. According to Andy Bow, Fosters' director, it grew out of a desire to create public access routes through the site to the riverbank. "What emerged was a series of diagonal lines, which soon suggested a soft curve to the building. From that came the idea of spiral geometry based on the curve of the Nautilus shell."

More to the point, the curvilinear design scores highly in the spec developer's favourite game of extracting maximum profit out of a given site. This site's top asset is self-evidently its stunning river view, and Foster's combination of concave frontage, undulating facade and continuous balconies on each floor allows the maximum number of flats to benefit from this asset. Of the 286 flats in the block, 70% of them enjoy river frontages.

  Even so, these glorious river views do come at a price and that's more than just the selling price, which spirals up to a dizzy £10m for the largest penthouse duplexes. The number of rooms facing the river has been maximised by the simple ploy of squeezing and stretching them, with much space given over to internal corridors. The crescent-shaped plan and undulating facade also have the effect of making the rooms slightly wedge-shaped and setting the front window wall askew. The double-curved rear wall, which looks so compelling from the outside, has resulted in bulging external walls along which residents find it difficult to fit window blinds and furniture.

Despite the top billing given to the luxury flats, Albion Riverside is a true mixed development by the Hong Kong-owned developer, Hutchison Whampoa. The first two floors have been expanded into a deep podium given over to restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and a fitness centre. To one side of the building stands an elongated six-storey block of affordable housing, also above retail, while behind it is an infill block of offices.

The final components of the mixed urban development are the external paved areas. These are all true civic spaces, as they make inspired use of the riverfront site, are nearly all pedestrianised, are all accessible to the public and paved throughout in solid granite slabs. They begin with a generous courtyard that occupies the prime space between the ground-floor restaurants and bars and the riverfront. From there, a wide public alleyway leads directly beneath the building to the public street at the rear. Towards the social housing block, there is a triangular piazza with widely spaced mature trees.

With the ground level and the lowest two floors given over to civic and retail amenities, the main internal circulation space for the flats has been pushed up to the second floor. This takes the form of a wide curving concourse facing out through a glass wall to the river. In the foreground, a luxuriant private lawn for residents stretches out over the roof of the podium.

What, then, do the rich mix of uses and sculptural effects of Albion Riverside add up to? Well, despite one or two compromises, quite a bit. Although there is no concealing that this is a collection of millionaires' pads, it is anything but an exclusive gated enclave. The range of amenities, housing for the less well-off and office employment all add up to what the developer calls "a vibrant new quarter for London".

Not least, Fosters has taken its latter-day sculptural design – already lavished on government buildings (London's City Hall), office buildings (Swiss Re tower in the City) and arts buildings (Gateshead's Music Centre) – and applied it to housing. In the process, Albion Riverside has enriched the parallel but often separate worlds of speculative development and architecture.

V is for victory: Foster’s technical innovations

In Foster and Partners’ well established tradition, the ground-breaking design of Albion Riverside rests on ingenious technical innovations, devised in collaboration with Arup as structural and services engineer.

  • Sun shading The veil of horizontal rods that covers nearly all the curving south facade, including the lower parts of balconies and upper parts of windows, acts as a wrap-around sun shade. The architect wanted the veil to have a uniform weave throughout, but the double curvature of the facade posed the problem that the sun’s rays would strike different parts of it at different angles. Arup’s answer was to map the seasonal and daily movements of the sun across every balcony and window and come up with a formula that would provide shading in summer but admit sunlight in winter. The result is a screen of horizontal rods of anodised aluminium 40 mm in diameter and spaced 175 mm apart.

  • V-shaped columns On its lowest two floors, the 11-storey building is supported on concrete columns that are paired in distinctive V-shaped formations that splay outwards at the rear. This configuration gives the maximum uninterrupted space for retail and pedestrian routes at ground level. Moreover, the pairing arrangement halves the number of columns penetrating the basement below, thereby making more space available for car parking.

  • Car park ventilation A novel system of ventilating the basement car parking was devised. The aim was to cut out the conventional system of flues rising up through the building and rooftop plant rooms, both of which use up space that could be more profitably devoted to living accommodation. Instead, fresh air is sucked into the basement on the river side and extracted at the rear. What seems like a simple solution took what Mohsen Zikri of Arup describes as “one month of research and development to distribute any pockets of carbon dioxide that might build up in the basement from car exhaust fumes.”