While it has its golden roots in medieval times, a renovation of offices in its Victorian building was bang up to date
Client: The Goldsmiths Company
Design: Neu Architects
Completion Time: Two years
The Assay Office London, part of The Goldsmiths Company, is in the serious business of testing and hallmarking precious metals for some of the UK’s leading jewellers, but, as this contemporary renovation by Neu Architects shows, serious doesn’t have to mean sombre.
Neu Architects had already designed a small ‘satellite’ Assay Office in London’s jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden, and the practice’s work had impressed Robert Organ, deputy warden of The Goldsmiths Company. So when The Company decided to reorganise and redesign the separate elements that made up the Assay Office at Goldsmiths’ Hall in central London, Organ wasted no time in asking Neu to work on the project.
‘This was a fascinating project for a fascinating client,’ says Neu Architects’ director Ben Paul. But it was also a challenging one in which the architects had to use all the skills they have honed in previous projects for retail, office and leisure design. Paul continues: ‘The project had an extremely complex brief, which required rigorous examination of the spaces and operations within the Assay Office in a building that is a scheduled monument.’
Previous ad-hoc alterations to the building had led to an inefficient use of space, with staff split across three floors, and this was affecting workflow. ‘All areas desperately needed to be reorganised and brought up to date,’ says Paul.
There was a lot to do, but the architects needed to proceed carefully; these were the most profound changes to the building since it was completed in 1835. ‘The scheme needed to be a well-crafted, delicate and honest design that gave customers and staff something to be inspired by,’ says Paul. ‘Our proposals had to be submitted for a complex series of permissions, given the hall’s status as a scheduled monument, which entailed dealing both with English Heritage and the offices of Goldsmith Hall itself.’
‘Our palette of materials was modern, but very much based on tradition and inspired by The Goldsmiths Company’s incredible heritage, with particular inspiration taken from the company’s leopard head hallmark,’ says Neu Architects’ codirector Silka Gebhardt.
Neu Architects created a new retail space at the building’s public entrance, with a curved wall made of Corian in a colour called Beach Glass. The wall, which is lined in steel to make it completely secure, separates the public areas from the retail space. It had to be carefully detailed so that it didn’t clash with the period features of the building; the uppermost section is mirrored to create an affinity with the newly restored ceiling bays, which were discovered when a suspended ceiling was removed.
From the entrance, customers see illuminated images on the Corian wall of both a life-size leopard prowling across the floor and the stylised leopard-head hallmark of The Company itself.
‘It was a challenge to carve the image of the leopard into the curved Corian from behind and then back-light it,’ says Gebhardt. ‘But using this technique gave the images a translucent quality and also made them flat to the touch, maintaining a sense of mystery. The Assay Office mark and name are carved from the front to give them a tactile quality, echoing the traditional hallmarking procedure.’ When the lights are turned off at night, both engravings seem to disappear.
The walls of the entrance hall are clad in bespoke Goldsmiths wallpaper, designed by Neu Architects, using six historical varieties of the leopard head stamp. A Corian shelf on the right hand wall is used to display leaflets. The entrance corridor has an elegant chandelier by Foscarini Caboche, and the flooring is one of limestone tile from Strata Tiles.
Before the renovation, customers would arrive at the rear entrance of the grand baroque hall only to be diverted to what Paul and Gebhardt remember as a dimly lit post office-style counter, dating from about 1970. All customers now arrive at a specially designed black Lacobel glass counter, offset to the right of the retail space. At the back of the counter area is a freestanding wall with the Goldsmiths’ stamp displayed, creating privacy for the secure areas behind. Opposite the public counter is a black glass panel, bearing the leopard’s head crest and the name of the Assay Office; this was printed from the back on to the glass and then sealed to ensure robustness.
An untidy notice board in the retail area has been replaced with two screens inset into the black glass panel, one of which also allows customers to scan their receipt and receive a progress update on their job. ‘The combined elements, reflective and illuminated, in this area play off one another to create both spatial illusions and historical allusions,’ says Paul.
Ground-floor offices were relocated to the second floor and a new accounts space has a dedicated meeting room, which features the same bespoke Goldsmiths’ wallpaper as in the entrance hall, along with black American walnut flooring, bespoke cabinetry and furniture by SCP.
A new staff cafe on the ground floor has a glass screen that functions as a shop front and a reinstated skylight which floods the space with daylight, while three Louis Poulsen satellite pendant lights add more light and reflectivity.
The high-spec kitchen area of the cafe features stainless steel units and bespoke Plexwood cupboards, matching the tables and benches. Deep, chocolate-brown Karlstad sofas line the glass wall and a TV, bookshelves and internet facilities are all housed at one end.
Flooring is a dark, grained Artigo rubber. ‘The staff area is smaller, so what we replaced it with really had to be good,’ says Gebhardt. ‘Our client asked for a canteen space to rival the high street, and that’s what we created.
‘The final space was so well received that within days workers had brought in salt and pepper sets for all the tables and created a library space filled with their own books. It is treated with great respect.’
• Armstrong - www.armstrongworldindustries.co.uk
Black glass cladding
• Lacobel -www.glass-design.net
• Strata More Nylus - www.stratatiles.co.uk
• iGuzzini - www.iguzzini.co.uk
• Foscarini - www.foscarini.com
• Liminaires Lighting - www.liminaires.co.uk
• Gravity Design Associates - www.gravitydesign.uk.com
• Louis Poulsen Satellite - www.louispoulsen.com
This article was first published in FX Magazine.