Track 3: For Power or For Passage: Re-envisioning Historic Industrial and Transportation Infrastructure
4 - Requiem for Welbeck: Re-imagining Multi-story Car Parks
Monday, September 24
2:45 PM - 4:15 PM
“Its rawness casts it as part of the infrastructural landscape: highway engineered into vertical stack. But here infrastructure is handled with such delicacy that all its rawness is elevated to sublime beauty.”
Sam Jacob, Director, FAT
Since its construction in 1970 the Welbeck Street car park, in the center of London, UK, has held a fascination for architects and members of the public alike. Designed by Michael Blampied and Partners, the building was commissioned to house vehicles for the adjacent department store within the city’s busiest shopping district. Its distinctive façade, a regular pattern of precast concrete geometric panels, is part of the heroic age of London precast concrete construction, much like Seifert’s nearby Centre Point tower.
But the building is now approaching the end of its existence: Westminster City Council has approved an application for demolition; despite protest from groups such as the Twentieth Century Society, Historic England refused to list the building. A combination of rising city center land prices and reduced car use, has meant the economic argument has been lost, and the developer plans to replace the building with a more profitable mixed-use scheme.
A postgraduate studio at London Metropolitan University immersed themselves in the programmatic, structural and logistical challenges involved in the adaptive re-use of this building, against a context of changing patterns of transportation, climate change and reduced energy availability. The building is as uncompromising as it appears: the external diagrid façade is load-bearing, with a continuous ring-beam cast in-situ. Lightweight precast ribs brace the façade and tie back to the central vertical slab core, meaning façade retention alone is not a viable solution. Further constraints include a floor-ceiling height of 6’-8”, and the deep floorplate which prevents light and air from penetrating into the plan. Following photographic essays and the construction of a model, the students researched a range of treatments, from the most minimal surface-finishing possible, to major gestural cuts in the façade and floorplates. Two projects: one a primary school, one a vertical urban farm, reconciled the original structure, new programs, and the building’s relationship to the wider city.
The life-cycle of the Welbeck Street Car Park is emblematic of the ambition of twentieth century modernity, and the developer-led, financialized approach to the asset-city in the twenty-first century. Also notable is the irony inherent in preserving the artefacts of the modern movement: the tabula rasa approach is now devouring its own products, at the very moment this often maligned architectural style has begun to receive a degree of critical and public appreciation. The students’ re-use projects, and the impending demolition asks us to consider alternatives to the economic framework we use to judge the value of buildings.
- Describe the development of multi-story car parks within the context of 1960s-70s late-modernist concrete construction.
- Understand the programmatic, structural and logistical challenges inherent in the adaptive re-use of concrete structures.
- List methods of altering concrete construction, such as cutting, jacketing, post-tensioning, overcladding, and lining.
- Discuss the economic and legislative conditions of the modern city that represent a threat to the historic environment.