A knight's move inspires a secluded public garden in the heart of London

Herbert Wright visits Rathbone Square, a new green space in the heart of London that provides a tranquil refuge, designed by Make Architects and Gustafson Porter + Bowman.

Words by Herbert Wright

Suppose you looked north, up Rathbone Place from Oxford Street, and spotted a knight on horseback riding away. He enters a green jade archway on the street, which is 5.5 metres wide and high, giving him enough clearance to ride through. The arch is the entrance to a barrel-vaulted arcade running west, but when you look along it, the knight has gone. Where did he go? Following, you find that the jade-lined arcade leads to a space which opens up to the south — a surprising hidden garden. This is where the knight must have gone, turning into the space at right angles from the arcade; and it is the heart of a new London locale called Rathbone Square.

The knight’s move is how Ken Shuttleworth, founder of Make Architects, conceived the plan for Rathbone Square, an office and residential development around a traffic-free square landscaped by Gustafson Porter + Bowman. "The idea came out of a chess move, not architecture," he says. "Forward and sideways, discovering your way around corners like a curious knight".

Photo: Make Architects

The Rathbone Square site was previously a Royal Mail sorting office, with a long blue 1963 building along Rathbone Place; behind it, a big parking lot for post office vans stretched to Newman Street, which runs parallel to the west. One of Banksy’s most powerful murals, ONE NATION UNDER CCTV, overlooked the vans.The Post Office Railway actually runs under the site, at the fourth basement level.

When Great Portland Estates acquired the site in 2011, Fitzrovia was transitioning from an officey backwater with an urban mash of unexpected alleys, villagey high streets and buildings spanning two hundred years, to being the new Soho. Unlike the old Soho on the other side of Oxford Street, it had not yet been cleaned up or priced out the locals. The last mail van drove off in 2013.

Photo: Make Architects

The Make-designed 38,300 square metre development - which opened in late 2017 -  is essentially two L-shaped blocks, residential on the northern and west sides, with offices on the south and east sides. Gustafson Porter + Bowman’s new garden square occupies 2,000 square metres in the space between them. Facebook occupy the seven storey-high, 22,500 sqm office block, which is BREEAM ‘excellent’ rated; it is distinguished by broad silvery spandrels like Kitkat wrappers between the steel-framed windows, diffusing light from the north- and east-facing facades above the garden. The two upper floors, panelled with dark bronze anodised aluminium, are recessed.

Across the square from it on the garden’s northern side, the nine-storey residential block of 142 flats is clad in pale clay-based brick with chunky ceramic balconies, with recessed top floors (also clad with dark bronze anodised aluminium) above a line of retail units that restaurants are colonising. This block also presents an almost-symmetrical western facade along Newman Street, where another jade green archway temps you into the secret garden. A second stretch of barrel-vaulted jade passage takes you there, this one just 3 metres wide.

Image: Gustafson Porter + Bowman

The knight could have ridden in a straight line through both passages, passing the square, but a first floor internal bridge cutting above the narrower one would have required him to dismount. On the garden side above both passages, the dark anodised panelling comes down all the way to green arches just like those at each street entrance. To the south on Newman Street, there is a gap between the two blocks — a service entrance and a wide, open-to-sky third way into Rathbone Square’s secret garden.

Shuttleworth conjures up a knight, but Make’s project architect Graham Longman offers another fantasy that conveys Rathbone Square: "It’s a bit like the White Rabbit. You disappear and pop up in a garden". So, what do we find as we pop out of the jade tunnels? After the surprise of the square, two elements distinguish it straight away. First, a great arc of lawn takes centre stage. It is bounded by two quarter circles, one of which is continuous timber bench with a gently-rising sculptured backrest.

Image: Edmund Sumner

Mary Bowman, partner at Gustafson Porter + Bowman, says the sweeping curve of the lawn finds "the balance between the diagonal cut and getting people to stay"; the solution is elegant, dramatic and transforms the otherwise orthogonal geometry of the space. Not least, it makes the square very green. Behind the bench is a garden, rich and thick in species tolerant to shade. Gingko and Gledistra trees rise above the vegetation which includes hydrageas and flowering perennials. Between this lush zone and Facebook’s offices is a ground-level skylight strip for their large basement social hall, which extends beneath the square.

The second striking contribution to the square’s composition is a preponderance of water features, which were co-designed and constructed by The Fountain Workshop. There are two water tables: an 8 metre long one by the Rathbone Place arcade and the other - which is 13.6 metres long - inside the Newman Street gap. Like stone plinths but surfaced with water, they were textured by John Gould of stone specialist Texxus, and have absorbent acoustic properties. Brown granite planters host vegetation, from cherry and magnolia trees to manicured hedges and understory plants, and there are three water rills as well as stone bench edges.

Image: Make Architects

Why all the water? Gustafson Porter + Bowman partner Donncha O Shea says it serves "to create sound and animation, and mark a threshold between street and garden. Crucially, the placing of water tables towards the primary entrances reflects the landscape of the garden beyond and encourages passers-by to enter and to explore the space within".

Rathbone Square may offer public realm, but it is private property, and the bronze gates designed by artist Robert Orchardson at all three street openings are shut at night. Security can be visible and asks cyclists to dismount (which makes you wonder how they’d react to a knight). The blurring of public realm and private property is a contemporary urbanist issue, but it is true that the landlord - rather than the public - shoulders the cost of maintaining the space.

Image: Make Architects

Moreover, many developments keep the gates shut 24/7 to all but those with a pass. Rathbone Square is no gated community, and was even way ahead of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s agenda in at least one public-spirited respect. When Khan announced a public drinking fountain initiative in December, Rathbone Square had long before commissioned one from artist Alison Wilding. It now stands, shaped like a large vase with organic water ledges, opposite the arc of lawn.

Rathbone Square’s grass and benches provide a tranquil refuge, not just shielded from traffic by the buildings, but immersed in a refined, varied mix of nature and design. At the same time, there is urban life with those coming in and out of the Facebook offices or sitting outside the restaurants — or those just making a knight’s move to cut across Fitzrovia. Whether knight, rabbit or human, all are free to enter Rathbone Square’s central garden and find a fascinating inner sanctum.

Feature image: Make Architects

Working on something exciting? Submit your project to Design Curial.

Submit project to DesignCurial

Compelo Ltd Registered Office: John Carpenter House, John Carpenter Street, EC4Y 0AN, England. No: 06339167.Copyright 2019 Compelo. All rights reserved.