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Soft Reopening

London, UK

LABS' sensitive reinvention of Holborn's Victoria House into flexible workspace mixes solemn neoclassical grandeur with material warmth

A decade ago, local government branding tsars had a go at renaming the area around Holborn ‘Midtown’. Cynical Londoners being what they are, it never quite caught on, but at least the description was right: the neighbourhood is slap-bang in the middle of everything, with Oxford Street, Euston, Clerkenwell and Waterloo the compass points radiating out from its centre. It’s easy to see why workplace provider LABS has targeted the area for several of its office venues, but none have been so ambitious as its latest flagship project.

Victoria House is one of those buildings that add a solemn neoclassical grandeur to London’s streetscene; built in the 1920s and taking up an entire city block, it’s best known for the opulent Bloomsbury Ballroom venue in the basement. LABS commissioned architects Hutchinson & Partners to remodel the building, which had last had a serious overhaul in 2003, when Alsop Architects added, among other things, glass curtain-walling and amorphous meeting-room pods suspended in the capacious atrium.

LABS and Hutchinson & Partners’ approach is less turn-of-the-millennium playful, but warmer: whereas Alsop used steel and glass, the new iteration features bronze and stone. In the huge marble and travertine-clad entrance hall, the first space to greet visitors, Alsop’s glass platform has been replaced by new terrazzo flooring, for example.

Not everything from the previous upgrade has been swept away, however. “The Will Alsop iteration did much to bring the building into the 21st century in terms of addressing some of the basic requirements around accessibility, and resolving the wider spatial strategy through the introduction of the lift cores that run the height of the building,” says James Bazeley, director of Hutchinson & Partners. “These principles, along with the distinctive – and very Alsop – suspended pods were the primary elements that we considered to be important to retain.

We are creating spaces that embrace a much more flexible and hybrid way of working, as opposed to the traditional nine-to-five routine

“However, the building lacked a certain sense of warmth and character, and the proportions, detailing and material choices that had been made in the Alsop years felt slightly cold and dystopian when viewed against the grandeur of the original spaces. Our approach was to introduce a new language of intervention that responds more strongly to the original character of the building, while also being undoubtedly contemporary in its nature.”

The central hall is not just grand circulation space to sweep through on your way to the office, but a place to work and meet, so it has been filled with friendly clusters of seating. Designer Fred Rigby collaborated with LABS on a collection of furniture for these communal areas, featuring organic shapes and soft, tactile materials, with oak tables reinterpreting the design details of the building’s oak doors.

“The atrium has a very grand, but harsh, elevation. By introducing a timber partition, warmth and softness were immediately felt in the space,” says Yaara Gooner, head of architecture and design at LABS. “We chose furniture with curved shapes and textured fabrics to complement the marble surrounds. Nods of brass visually lift the space and appease the eye.” The office areas are sited on the upper floors, punctuated by a variety of other spaces: libraries, nooks, meeting rooms, phone booths and informal workspaces, alongside central timber tea points.

Illustrating the direction in which the modern workplace is moving, Victoria House is, of course, much more than a suite of cellular offices: it’s a “lifestyle destination”, with a gym and studio, space for larger meetings and events, and – coming in summer – a roof terrace and a lobby bar.  “Incorporating different amenity spaces into the workplace is integral to supporting overall wellbeing and a healthy work-life balance,” says Gooner. “We are creating spaces that embrace a much more flexible and hybrid way of working, as opposed to the traditional nine-to-five routine.”

She continues: “Victoria House has been designed with experience in mind – the breakout zones, meeting rooms and private booths have been carefully thought out to support the future interactions between members and clients, both formal or informal, to optimise connections and collaboration.”

With where and how we work now up for grabs after the revolution of the pandemic, workspaces that feel more like a members’ club, such as LABS’, are potentially poised to sweep up all of those businesses that need some space but want greater flexibility, and that also see the benefits of rubbing shoulders with other like-minded companies. Add a central location, social and leisure amenities and laudable design credentials, and Victoria House now seems fit for the future.