The three ugly sisters of Marsham Street are dead – and a much prettier successor has risen from their ashes. We assess the new Farrell-designed home of the Home Office

The new Home Office building presents an imposing yet benign frontage to Marsham Street
The new Home Office building presents an imposing yet benign frontage to Marsham Street

Step back a block or so and there’s quite simply nothing to see of the new Home Office building. As far as the general public is concerned, this is the building’s most notable feature.

This paradox only makes sense when the new building is compared with the one it replaces. Completed in 1971, the former headquarters of the Department of the Environment, aka the three ugly sisters of Marsham Street, was arguably the most Stalinist, offensively prominent, and universally loathed building in London. Stalinist because it comprised three 19-storey concrete slab blocks rearing up above a vast podium block that kept the masses at bay. Offensively prominent because the tall slabs formed a grim backdrop to the ornate Palace of Westminster. And universally loathed … well, you probably get the picture by now.

The replacement building, commissioned from one of Britain’s most prominent urban designers, Sir Terry Farrell, goes out of its way to avoid committing the architectural crimes of its predecessor. Most obviously, it rises to only seven storeys, no higher than any of the surrounding buildings, and so forms a backdrop to none. Instead of presenting an aloof, hostile concrete shell to the outside world, it deploys several undemonstrative planning and Urban Design features to make it more convivial and approachable.

However loathsome the old Marsham Street towers were, it was not actually their cityscape shortcomings that led to the redevelopment. As early as 1992, the building was condemned by its owner, the government, for the more practical reason that its disjointed layout and obsolete structure and services made it woefully inefficient as a place of work. A feasibility study by Arup Associates concluded that the building was so wasteful in space that all 3500 staff working in it could be rehoused in a medium-rise building taking up just two-thirds of the city block.

So what to do with the one-third that was going spare? In the completed scheme, the entire rear third of the site has been given over to 114 flats rising up seven storeys above a ground floor devoted to shops and restaurants. The majority of the flats are luxury apartments for sale, though 38 are affordable housing. A creche, open to all local residents and employees, has also been fitted into the first floor.

As well as packing extra money-spinning accommodation on to a prime city-centre site, the flats, shops, restaurants and creche all infuse the site with a richer mix of social activities than the introspective civil service monoculture of the offices alone.

The shops and restaurants can be relied upon to buzz with local residents and workers throughout the day, and the housing will generate comings and going well into the night.

Even the civil service offices themselves manage to engage with the public at large, despite the stringent security demands of a government department dealing with crime and terrorism. On the two smaller of the three linked blocks, clear glazing drops right down to the public pavement, allowing passers-by to catch glimpses of civil servants at work inside. To counteract the goldfish-bowl effect, colour-tinted glazed fins have been set between two skins of the glazed facade to serve as modesty screens.

 Inside, long “streets” on each floor link up all the offices and overlook atriums
Inside, long “streets” on each floor link up all the offices and overlook atriums

The replacement of the single overpowering monolith with six smaller blocks makes the building less intimidating, as do the three landscaped alleyways that traverse the site, which is left open to pedestrians throughout the day.

The entrance facade of the government offices has been set back slightly from the street, with landscaped ponds and raised lawns squeezed into this extra sliver of civic space. As encouraged by CABE, the entrance area has also been decked out in a collection of artistic enhancements designed by Liam Gillick. These include a projecting eaves canopy in a patchwork of coloured glass, a metal screen above the front entrance in an abstract pattern of rectilinear shapes, and white fritting in similar patterns on some of the external glazing.

The artistic interventions, open space and formal landscaping are intended to give a suitably civic presence to the entrance of one of Britain’s central government buildings. Laudable though the intention is, the public open space is nothing more than a narrow forecourt, the landscaping is stiff and the artistic additions wan.

As for the architecture in the conventional sense, the two corner office blocks have dark glazing panels framed in smooth creamy-white limestone bays, whereas the central block is fronted by a screen of aluminium louvres. The combination of modern glazing and louvres with narrow bands of traditional stone gives the building a retro-modern effect – decent, well-mannered and imposing, if a bit bland. More effective is the interplay between the offices and the three residential blocks, which were designed by Kalyvides Partnership. These are in a more active style articulated by set-backs, projecting balconies and several facing materials. Even this formal interplay between offices and housing could be classed less as architecture than urban design.

In Farrell’s hands, urban design has even been applied to the office interiors, which amount to 75,000 m2. Streets on every floor run straight through the three blocks from one end to the other and across the two separating alleyways in glazed bridges. Admittedly, these streets are entirely enclosed, but they link all areas of the office complex and are up to 4.5 m wide in places. The width enables the streets to act as a social nexus for office staff, and also to house free-standing pods – some 20 in all – that serve as meeting rooms and come in a stimulating array of sizes, shapes and colours. Each of the three office blocks is arranged around a central atrium, so that no occupant sits more than 6.5 m from natural daylight.

Despite its convivial urban design, it has to be said that the new Home Office building does omit the single attractive feature of its predecessor. A standing joke among former DOE secretaries of state was that the only good thing about the Marsham Street towers was the view out over London. In its place, the new building fails to peer out above the surrounding blocks – but it does give Londoners, keen for a glimpse of the workings of central government, a much clearer view in.

Project team

client The Home Office
PFI developer Bouygues
residential developer Galliard Homes
masterplanner and architect Terry Farrell & Partners
architect for residential blocks Kalyvides Partnership
structural engineer Pell Frischmann
mechanical engineer Battle McCarthy
electrical engineer Flack & Kurtz
interior designer DEGW
landscape architect Lovejoy
public artist Liam Gillick
client’s lead technical advisor Turner & Townsend
independent certifier EC Harris
facilities management contractor Ecovert (EFM)
design-and-build contractor Bouygues UK
specialist trade contractors Bouygues UK (concrete structure), Structal UK (curtain wall & link bridges), Space Decks (architectural glazing & cladding), Trabajos de Madera (joinery and decoration), Shepherd Engineering (M & E services), Communica (IT), SSG (security)

Finally finished after 14 years …

The redevelopment of the 1971 Department of Environment building at Marsham Street has been a tangled project that goes back 14 years and has included several false starts.

  • 1991: Property developer British Land bids to redevelop the site as a speculative mixed-use scheme, with masterplan by Terry Farrell & Partners and site density study by Arup Associates

  • 1994: Architectural competition sponsored by the Department of the Environment is won by Fitzroy Robinson, which submits outline planning application with “illustrative scheme” by Farrell

  • 1997: Outline planning approval granted by Westminster council for offices and residential use. Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions vacates building and moves to Eland House.

  • 1998: Developer European Land submits PFI bid to house Home Office on Marsham Street site, with third mixed-use scheme by Farrell and Bouygues as constructor and facilities manager.

  • March 2000: Bouygues takes over PFI consortium from European Land and submits final PFI bid with revised masterplan by Farrell.

  • August 2000: Bouygues’ £311m PFI bid to construct and manage the office buildings over 29 years approved by Home Office

  • February 2002: Bouygues starts demolition

  • January 2005: Bouygues completes construction and fitting out of offices

  • February 2005: Home Office moves in

  • May 2005: Housing due for completion

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