In the corner of St James’s Market there was always something missing. A big chunk cut out of the building, it was just a large slab of evenly poured concrete with what looked like a little bus stop to nowhere – “People came down from their office to have a fag, and then disappear again. And, so, kindly, they put a polycarbonate shelter so people could get away from the rain.” Je Ahn from Studio Weave finishes off the bleak picture.
In answer to a competition brief from The Crown Estate and Oxford Properties for an art space as the focus of the new St James’s Market, Studio Weave had the winning proposition. Namely, the creation of a pavilion to showcase the area to a new audience, while also architecturally completing the old streetscape. “We saw that as an opportunity to... not exactly heal the site, but complete the urban grain. So an idea was born that we should place something as if it was always there.”
Their idea works on many wonderful layers. For example, their research found that the site was originally a safe deposit vault. “After the Great Fire of London, everyone realised they needed to protect their valuable assets and objects. And remember people didn’t have a bank with virtual money like these days, it was all paper.” On the outside then, the adjoining walls of black granite have been extended, squaring off this odd corner and turning it into one big empty black case. Much like a big deposit box in itself.
Inside, it couldn’t be more different. Sparkling with gold detailing, and deep rich walnut boxes stacked up with individual glass doors, it’s a huge cabinet of curiosities. “One of the most interesting things about safe deposits is you never get to see what’s inside. You never get to see everything together. But what if you had x-ray eyes? What would you see behind the rows of safe deposit boxes? So that’s why it’s glass-fronted; you’re there to see through.”
Like those grand Victorian banks, or indeed the high level of St James’s architecture in general – “it’s a grandeur of architecture that’s assertive” – the design and finish of the interior is pitched to match up to its surroundings. It’s a real gem of a building. “We wanted the reflect the luxuriousness of this kind of architecture – with the amazing embellishments on the roof, of carved depictions of wheat all gilded in gold leaf. It’s a glare of luxury, almost like a golden stalk swaying in the wind, and then illuminated by the natural light perforating the ceiling through its eighteen large chimneys.”
The ceiling tiles have been made by Tottenham firm Sands and Randall, and Ahn says it’s been an interesting process of collaboration providing these craftsmen new work. “They called their work ‘historic carving’ not just carving, as it has all became all restoration and copying from a pattern book. But we like working with them as creative collaborators, like how old church carvers would make their own work.” The original hand carvings then went on to be three dimensionally rendered, manipulated, and printed before being fixed into place and hand gilded.
Whether it’s the colourful geometric ornamentation of perhaps their first big work ‘Paleys upon Pilers’, which recreates the original gatehouse of Aldgate as a beautiful complex wooden structure, or the design of large-scale and highly engaging public realm masterplans, we suggested to Ahn that decoration was a key element to them: “It’s a loaded term these days isn’t it. But the surfaces and the embellishments all represent a human quality. And we are fully aware it’s not just the junction details we need to worry about; it’s about how people experience the building.” And where do these embellishments come from? “Everything is bastardisation. We all see something nice and it goes into your brain and gets regurgitated. But we try to provide a logic, even if maybe it’s only internal. Because we’re a team, we all have to have an understanding why we’re doing certain things. So the ceiling becomes a wheat eld because that was the form of currency when it was the market. Never just because, because. Oh, how I would love a project just because, because!”
Perhaps leaving the most important question till last, we tentatively ask – so what is a pavilion anyway? “ There are those that have quite straightforward simple functions like bandstands, banqueting pavilions, hunting pavilions – somewhere that provides shelter for a particular activity. And there are pavilions that are built for the pure enjoyment of its being – a folly. We built one called the Lullaby Factory for Great Ormond Street, because we’re interested in how we can help people to be more positive and happy. With the Safe Deposit, I want people to always have that nugget of the memory of finding it. Here, we’re providing a space as a holder of narrative, for the exhibitions and the stories of St James’s.”