New London Architecture

Five minutes with… Eric Parry

Thursday 25 June 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

Eric Parry talks with David Taylor about roof gardens and high spaces for schoolkids, the end of too-tight occupational densities, being ‘enervated’ back in the office and his ‘light bulb moment’ about public space and tall buildings in the fast-changing City of London

David Taylor: Hi Eric. How are you?

Eric Parry: Yeah, very well, thank you.

DT: So, the first question is: how you have found, as a practice, the whole lockdown experience, including in terms of virtual planning and running the office. How has it been for you?

EP: it's getting really enervating at this point, I have to say. I'm basically in the office all the time, which is just around the corner from where I live; I'm a City resident. On the whole it's been a bizarre experience to be in a big space for one person, with odd people coming in and social distancing, to make sure that stuff is on and is working, particularly IT. But the point was that we only had 10 days to get ourselves organised. My hat's off to our team who got more than 70 people working pretty well from home, in an integrated manner, on some projects which require a lot of scrutiny from the security point of view. So not easy. And it's been down to some big teams which break down into smaller teams and they’re always be in touch with each other. It's just a screen world, as everyone would say and that's been amazing. Actually, you can do a huge amount. But at a certain point it does really get frustrating, not being on a table with a piece of paper and in close scrutiny. I found out I raise my voice, so at the end of a day of unrelenting screen time, and then generally drawing at night, I find myself very hoarse! (laughs)

DT: (laughs) Yes

EP: Efficiencies inevitably go down but on the other hand we've been lucky and have work in the pre-planning stages and plenty on construction sites that have meant that, actually, progress has not been interrupted.

DT: Do you get the feeling that this period is, as it were, the end of the beginning; and that henceforth your staff will start trickling back, and there will be some semblance of normality returning?

EP: Yeah, we've already started that. We had some free-desking arrangements in place, so that kind of happened quietly and by careful negotiation. But it’s now a bit like a kids’ game – we have got arrows or on the floor everywhere. I'm just sort of getting used to the labyrinth and the signage. We have a few people coming back and we plan to keep that going, and obviously today's announcement (on social distancing guidelines) means that that's going to be easier.

DT: Sure. So, the City. 50 Fenchurch street, One Undershaft, The Garden at 120. There is a sort of consistent theme, which is roof gardens and public space. Do you think that has been the secret to those permissions, alongside other factors? But one of the secrets?

Pictured: Undershaft Aerial Cluster, ©  DBOX, courtesy of Eric Parry Architects
EP: I don't think there's any secret. It’s all part of an ongoing dialogue, which is the blessing of the planning system in the City of London. It’s an interesting place to be working, as of course are many others in London, but it has its particularities. One is part of an emerging urban condition, which is really interesting. The idea that started to emerge of how to absorb taller buildings within an envelope goes back the best part of 30 years now for the City planners. It has matured and, like precedent in law, it has emerged slowly rather than by dictat. I am really interested in the differences between the French model, the German model and the English model, particularly. But ours is a picturesque kind of idea that goes back to landscape roots, of the topography of the tall buildings in the eastern part of the city. So yeah, really fascinating. 

But for me the way a building engages with the space around it has always been a critical issue, a critical bit of European urbanism I think, as a continuity. Whether a building is on a square, like Finsbury Square, or whether it happens to be on a street like several buildings. When we got the commission for Finsbury Square, the first thing I did was to get in touch with some landscape architects and talk about the square. So the building and the square. Aldermanbury was the same. We designed a hard landscape and the planting for Aldermanbury Square in front of our building, and it was all about how you move through the City. As a city resident and having had a child at primary school at Aldgate and having moved between Golden Lane and Aldgate every day – at least one way – you get to see it sort of emerging and changing. And, you know, that has been fascinating.

In each of these sites you find extraordinary spaces like Saint Helen’s Place and the Leathersellers - it's an amazing piece of urbanism. Then round the corner of course on the other side you've mentioned Undershaft. But I think going back, it was building Aldermanbury at about 18 storeys, and looking down on the landscape of the roofscape, the fifth elevation of city buildings, that the light bulb went on. At that point when the first kind of throw of the dice with Fenchurch street, Fen Court, 120, whatever - it started to emerge. It started as a kind of Plaza as a public space on ground and a tall building, and actually a smaller and taller building. So like a group setting of a rather standard kind.

Pictured: 50 Fenchurch Street
And what I then realised in conversation as ever at a meeting with Peter Rees and his team….he said: ‘I like that. I like the tall building, but not for here. We want an urban block, and it should be part of the street’. I said the urban block, actually, and related it to various precedents. In the to-ing and fro-ing about where the shoulder of the street on Fenchurch should lie, I sort of negotiated between our clients that it was instinctively about an area and as ever the planners and the public realm.  I instigated the idea of the roof garden, and that got grabbed and has been with it ever since, thankfully. 

We also ran a landscape competition for that roof garden, as part of the planning process, involving planners as non-voting participants. And it was at that early stage that we with a building formed or big you know kind of in sectional character and matching formed we took on Latz + Partner. Indeed, I've been working with Latz on that scheme at Finsbury Square. The section 106 money? I don't know where it went without Islington. It was extraordinary how nothing seemed to happen. But you know the idea has always been the building and its setting. 

That is the same with the Undershaft. Past that ugly ramp that separates you very hard pressed to Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate and then a ramp down. How could we change that? How can we open up the space, and hence the side court, hence the base of the building, hence the bracing of the external skeletal frame? So: everything falls from the thinking about the urban realm, actually, and how it's going to open up new perspectives. That includes the thinking about getting up to the top of the building, and it being a civic rather than commercial space. It should be a place for school kids which has kind of being taken over also by the Tulip. Indeed, the very school I’m referencing is my daughter’s school. So I think we were there long before Fosters with that idea with two classrooms in the air, directly accessible from the base. But it's part of civilising development. It’s very important that these things take time. You know, ideas don't happen overnight. There needs to be to be discourse and development, and 50 for me, has been a really interesting matrix of problems and constraints that could be turned on their head to advantage. Taking the obvious unrequited potential of the post-World War Two Livery Company HQ to put a taller, bigger building, but then to give the livery company a presence and embed them round the grade one listed tower of such significance. And then draw light in, and then the cascade of public spaces. It was the first virtual planning permission. 

DT: Yes, it was

EP: That was really interesting and it was referenced that actually we are providing 36 times the public realm area that is on the site at the moment. So, with an increasing density of the city and questions of wind mitigation and environmental comfort, and obviously sustainability, it all kind of comes together in a really exciting way, in my mind.

DT: Last questions - would you agree that, given what we've been through in terms of the pandemic, that public realm has gone up the scale in terms of importance…

EP: Yes, absolutely…

DT … and secondly, there's quite a lot of office accommodation in these buildings. Have you cause to rethink anything about that in terms of the future office, and how it'll change?

EP: Yeah. I think that that there has been a sort of drive towards ever greater occupancy densities. I think that’s hit the buffers. I think that's a good thing. I think working patterns are going to be much more flexible. We just finished a building in Birmingham which is PWC’s headquarters there but it's also a major investment in terms of Argent but also you know for PWC as a key headquarters out of London. Looking at the way that quite high densities are managed with greater volume, so more generous sections, much more interest in the landscape, and a much greater sense of flexibility between where the individual is pitched and where a team is pitched, how the teams integrate, how vertical circulation works. There are so many exciting things that come out of this, like breakouts and wellness. 

And actually one has to say certain things have been really ahead of the game - like Undershaft has something like 1700 bicycle spaces and all the showers and facilities associated with that. I think there are 6 car parking spaces for a million square foot. That's just going to be reinforced. It's such a joy to cycle around the City, particularly with the temporary cycle lanes that are going to become permanent. So I think we've seen a complete change in terms of the way we're going to work and navigate the urban context.

DT: And one that's permanent? That’s going to last, do you think?

EP:  Yeah but it's not I don't think it's going to undermine the efficiencies and you know the kind of intensity of meeting and being in a common space. it's just going to be different. 

DT: Brilliant. Thank you, Eric. That was really great.

EP: Thanks. Good to speak to you. Keep well!




David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


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