Robert Matthew, Johnson Marshall & Partners ,1963New Zealand House
|Materials||aluminium, plate glass, portland stone, re-inforced concrete|
|Borough||City of Westminster|
New Zealand House is one of the most accomplished and graceful buildings of the early post-war era. It sits elegantly at a prominent site in the West End within the context of a busy, predominantly Edwardian streetscape of theatres and Regency clubs. In contrast to some of its more brash and clumsy contemporaries, the building’s crisp and straightforward design achieves rare style and dignity in an architecturally sensitive area.
The site of New Zealand House was acquired in the 1950’s by a rather progressive New Zealand government keen to apply the new language of architectural modernism to a changing role in a new world. The building replaced the famous Carlton Hotel, a giant and rather splendid Edwardian building of which one-third remains in the form of the neighbouring Her Majesty’s Theatre.
The building’s British architects, Robert Matthew, Johnson Marshall and Partners (RMJM), were a new practice in 1953 and knew the London scene well having worked closely with the London County Council and at the time they were working on the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. New Zealand House’s development was subject to huge scrutiny by numerous bodies, all of which were keen to make a positive contribution to this landmark project. As the first ‘tower and podium’ structure to be built in central London after the war, New Zealand House would be a test case for the new architectural forms pioneered in America with the Lever Building of 1952. Amongst those involved in its final outcome were the London County Council, the Royal Fine Art Commission and the Ministry of Works. These bodies negotiated height restrictions on the final tower, advised towards the employment of suitable materials and dictated terms for its treatment at lower levels; in particular where the new building would meet its historic neighbours.
Although a slightly higher New Zealand House would have certainly been more dynamic, the result is a well-executed compromise of fifteen storeys, rather than the twenty or so originally conceived by RMJM, with a four-storey podium finished to an extremely high standard. The building shows off its structural lightness through the employment of vast areas of plate glass organised in bold horizontal bands between thin floors of reinforced concrete. The view of which from Cockspur Street can still be appreciated. This process created some of the best daylight office spaces in London, that enjoyed open views in all directions and, for pedestrians looking back, appeared transparent. Openness and lightness was and remains a central theme to the building’s form. The tower was finished with a large open terrace at penthouse level where the roofline appears to float unsupported over the viewing areas.
At street level the podium is finished where possible in Portland stone and its façade follows the line of the street turning the corner into Pall Mall to fill the site. This is most notable from the top of Haymarket. The building’s simple taut skin of glass and stone at this level makes for a particularly stylish contrast to that of the decorative excess of its 19th century neighbours. Its double height ground floor is raised on slim pilotis wrapped in stainless steel. As well as not appearing to age, the columns reinforce the idea of structural lightness to the street, with the oversailing floors providing a welcome arcaded space for the pedestrian and, at its entrance, a far-projecting cantilevered canopy. Despite all this, Pevsner deemed it simply unsatisfactory. At the cornice line a light band of Portland stone carries the podium around the corner framing yet another large open terrace, this time with an L-shaped garden. The interiors were finished to an extremely high standard with RMJM paying close attention to designing bespoke washbasins, light fittings and planters. Wooden fixtures were finished in New Zealand timbers and public spaces characterised by other native details and predominantly Scandinavian furniture.
In the 1970s, due to the thermal weaknesses of such an expanse of plate glass, the building was curtained. This act has detracted somewhat from the lightness envisioned by the architects, particularly on the tower, but it provided a simple solution without any major overhaul of the building.
New Zealand House is not without its detractors; the building’s geometry is often criticised. The tower for example does not line up with the edge of the building’s lower portion and its ‘unwarranted importance’ on the skyline of the West End is still a challenging issue for some.
Despite being over forty years old, New Zealand House has managed to maintain its fresh and bold appearance. Unlike many of its contemporaries it has not had to suffer the indignity of commercial restyling or neglect. New Zealand House is not an aggressive assertion of an architectural absolutism. In contrast, it has great humanity; its construction ushered in the restoration of the neighbouring Royal Opera Arcade for example. As embassies (or rather high commissions in this case) go, it is a bold public statement and has certainly done much to contribute towards the average Londoner’s awareness of those far-flung islands in the South Pacific. New Zealand House was Grade II listed in 1995.