Burlington Gate shares a name with London’s longest and classiest shopping arcade. It is partly proximity but partly also affinity. This new development, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH+P) for Native Land, embraces a very rare thing: a new West End shopping arcade. Burlington Arcade, just round the corner, was built in 1819 and became a model for the arcades that were springing up across the country and Europe.
It was a Parisian affair originally, the arcade being a device for ensuring landlords could squeeze profit from the deep floor-plates of urban blocks — the parts of a site with no windows which would otherwise have been difficult to let. Designed for an era when foggy, ill-lit streets were ankle deep in mud and worse, arcades presented a cleaner arena of consumption, a space for the well-dressed and affluent to show off under the cover of glass roofs and illuminated by gaslights (which made the city safer, especially for women) and shop windows twinkling with jewels.
The delicacy of the shopfronts, the wrought-iron roofs and the architecture of these covered streets characterised arcades as the quintessential spaces of 19th-century consumption and display, a quality noted and brilliantly explored by Walter Benjamin in his unfinished Arcades Project, arguably the 20th century’s greatest work of urban literature.
But what is the contemporary arcade in the age of the global mall? Burlington Gate gives some kind of answer, though not one that’s entirely clear. It appears as a kind of grand gateway to a super-prime apartment block. Shopping is used, not so much as it was in the early 19th century as a way of filling in dead space, but as a defining motif, a branding device. Shopping has moved centre stage.
The building itself is a relatively discreet work of corporate modernism. With its dark columns, lots of glass and black brise-soleil, it looks like a 1980s yuppie fantasy. That modernist elevation is an attempt, I suppose, to reconcile the dark-grey brick façades of this part of Mayfair with the mid-century offices which punctuate them.
The roof is swept back to accommodate the street profile, a feature that gives the penthouses garret-type interiors with sloping ceilings. Thanks to the low-rise roofscape of this part of town the views from up top are astonishing, spanning the whole of central London. It becomes almost proprietorial — which, given the cost of these apartments, it probably is.
The block comprises a surprising high number of apartments — 42 — but to the street it also presents five purpose-built art galleries, shoring up the neighbourhood’s status as London’s commercial gallery hub (all buttressed by the imposing presence of the Royal Academy next door). Parking is subterranean and the building is serviced by the hotel-style amenities now de rigueur in these kinds of developments, most notably after RSH+P’s own notoriously expensive One Hyde Park in nearby Knightsbridge.
For RSH+P, the practice co-founded by Lord Richard Rogers, this is a restrained building, the firm’s high-tech, structurally expressive motif appearing in the form of the diagonal bracing in the arcade, visible from the street. This is being billed as Mayfair’s first new arcade since the 1930s, but there is of course another sleek, black arcade in the City in the form of Jean Nouvel’s faceted and folded One New Change.
If the façade looks a little repetitive, almost mechanical (another RSH+P trademark), it has reason to. Much of the construction here was modular, allowing the contractors to build units in a factory environment — cleaner, more predictable and more precise than the messy conditions of a site. This technique has been used often in mass housing, including by RSH+P, but much more rarely at the top end of the market. Its time seems to have come.
Photographs and artist's impressions: Native Land