Haberdashers' Hall, City of London
Species: American white oak
Architect: Michael Hopkins & Partners
Photograhpy: Tessa Musgrave
Charity dinners and after-dinner speeches are as essential to the modern-day Haberdashers' Company as ribbons and gloves were when it was founded in the 15th century. So it is appropriate that Haberdashers' Hall, which opened in 2002 near Smithfield market, should be dedicated to the formal reception.
Michael Hopkins and Partners' building provides a formal spatial experience for guests as they make their way through a series of passageways and rooms to the ultimate space, the livery hall. This is not just where the main business of the building takes place, but the basis of its plan and its centrepiece - a timber and steel roof.
The hall's rigorous geometric proportions were derived in the first instance from the space required to seat 190 guests at tables arranged in the traditional E-shape. The length of the hall - 20m - dictated the dimension of the square courtyard around which runs a 5m wide band of rooms, accommodating an office and flat for the beadle, a reception gallery and adjoining meeting rooms.
But the geometry had to be imposed on what was originally a chaotic urban block. Hopkins demolished the rear of the largest building on the site, a former warehouse, creating space for the new hall but leaving enough of the old building to accommodate 65 residential units. This gave the hall its own elevation and created the secluded courtyard, while barely disturbing the Smithfield frontages that act as a buffer to the hall.
At first all that is visible of the hall is a glimpse across the courtyard through a low passageway leading from the street. Guests are taken through a loggia to an entrance flanked by a grand spiral staircase. An orangery, complete with young citrus trees, opens onto the courtyard for evening receptions, while the staircase leads up to the main function rooms on the first floor.
From outside, the building is awkward and the proportions unsettling. A lead roof of over-sized diamond shapes bears down on relatively slender brick piers. But inside the detailing and proportions are elegant and human in scale.
The palette of materials was limited to timber, handmade brick, precast concrete, York stone and stainless steel. American white oak is used in a variety of ways: to form a non-loadbearing screen of planks around the ground-floor offices, as veneered panels in the reception gallery and hall and as a laminate to the structural glulam roof trusses.
The original plan had been to use English oak but Hopkins was advised that stocks were running low (one project architect half-jokes that the practice used it all up at Portcullis House). The 'best value' alternative was American white oak, which, says Hopkins director Jim Greaves, is a 'very consistent product'.
Initially, the Haberdashers' Company had been keen to reuse the varnished panelling from its previous premises, a hall built in the 1950s, but this was ruled out for stylistic reasons. For Greaves, the connotations of timber vary enormously. 'We used solid wooden boards at Emmanuel College [Cambridge] but for Haberdashers we felt that would be too rustic,' he explains. 'Here it's rooted in the way Louis Kahn used timber at the Yale Center for British Art [New Haven], as a way of achieving a surface that has a lot of interest.'
Timber also provided a direct link with the Haberdashers' first livery hall, built in the City of London in the mid-15th century. Parallels with the medieval timber- panelled hall are reinforced by a mezzanine gallery and blue silk blinds (designed by Patty Hopkins). But where Hopkins' design departs from tradition is in the use of stainless steel ties as bracing elements for the roof structure as opposed to hammer-beam trusses.
With typical savvy, engineer Arup has come up with a technical term for the structure - a 'braced diagrid' - although Greaves says the only element that is actually new is the glue used to bond the timber rafters to their stainless steel shoes. At each intersection of the lattice, four of these shoes are bolted to a stainless steel node that in turn connects to steel ties that brace the structure. The result is a delicate web of structure that leaves the space open, rather than crowded with criss-crossing beams, and the impression is of a series of lightly touching patterned surfaces like the lid of a beautiful box.
By Vicky Richardson, first published in RIBA Journal Hardwood supplement.
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