Structural construction work has begun for the future Covent Garden (London) retail store, which architectural plans indicate will be one of the chain’s most expensive to build, but will also be the most impressive to visit when it’s finished. The location less than a mile from the existing Regent Street store is shrouded in scaffolding and protective netting, even as thousands of summer visitors crowd the plaza, marketplace and surrounding retailers each day. New planning documents highlight the historic nature of the building, and also the balancing act that local officials are undertaking: objections to Apple’s architectural design that change the building’s historic nature, versus the desperate need to bring a high-profile retailer to Covent Garden. Last November the Westminster Council approved initial construction plans, but set out certain conditions on the finer points of design that Gensler, Apple’s architect, are still working to meet. But unless a major impasse is reached between Apple and city planners, the store will open in mid-2010 as the chain’s showcase.
The UK is home to Apple’s two oldest stores: the Regent Street (London) location was carefully installed within a building owned by the Crown, with most architectural features restored and preserved. The building and its intricate mosaic storefront dates to 1898. The Buchanan Street (Glasgow) store features tall Corinthian columns and a massive, weathered-stone storefront. The building dates to 1842. Both stores generated few objections from preservationists when the architectural plans were originally presented. In both cases Apple’s architects went to great lengths on their own to retain–and even highlight–original features.
The private Covent Garden square dates to the 1630s, and was surrounded on four sides by noble mansions. The addition of a church later led to the space becoming public.
The Covent Garden buildings Apple will occupy date to a major restoration ending in 1879. They consist of #1 The Piazza and #6-7 The Piazza, both ground floor spaces, Bedford Chambers above, and Cubitt’s Yard, an interior courtyard that originally provided service access to rear of the buildings. The building design is credited to Henry Clutton, and was built by William Cubitt & Co., a notable firm at the time.
The building may be the best-documented structure in Apple’s chain. The London Metropolitan Archives still has Corbitt’s original construction plans on file. The façade hid and unified the combination of buildings that comprised Bedford Chambers. It also included an exterior arcade with eight arches facing Covent Garden market, an interior, two-level courtyard covered with glass, a large original staircase to the upper-level offices, and a mezzanine.
A heritage consultant’s review of the building found that the original storefronts and roofs have “high significance” architecturally. The chimneys, cornices, doors and window linings are considered “significant,” the consultant said. But the building does have “detracting elements,” including poorly-designed and executed door and window joinery, modern pavement in the portico, and the modern glazing over the interior courtyard.
Everyone agrees that the location, shape and configuration of the current retail spaces has discouraged retailers from leasing the building. The lack of modern amenities has also discouraged use of the upper-floor office space. A restaurant has occupied the eastern end of the building for several years, but its success has not attracted other tenants to the building.
Apple’s proposal would, “undo this situation and unlock the potential of this important site,” the consultant reported. It would, “provide substantial community and conservation area benefits which would on balance outweigh the losses.”
Otherwise, Covent Garden is a magnet for locals and tourists, especially on weekends when street entertainers provide a show. The space in front of the future Apple store is typically a sea of people on Saturdays.
Under Apple’s design, the building will provide ground-floor, mezzanine and partial second-floor (first-floor in UK terminology) retail space. The remainder of the second, third and fourth floors will be occupied by offices and meeting rooms for Apple’s European administrative staff. The basement will be used for stock and other back-of-house functions.
The current hodge-podge of ground-floor spaces will be unified, given a level stone floor and updated to Apple’s standard interior design. Apple will install a spiral glass staircase in the southwest corner of the structure, glass-over an interior light well and install a lift and stairway in its place, and the interior courtyard will be incorporated into the retail space.
The mezzanine will be rebuilt, leveled and modified to make room for the glass staircase. The rear portion of the second-floor will be remodeled to accommodate an “Apple Small Business area,” according to submitted plans.
Apple has committed to upgrading the building’s support systems, including accessibility upgrades, along with power, water and air-handling improvements. Apple has agreed to make substantial restorations to historic features that have deteriorated or disappeared, all under the supervision of an independent heritage specialist.
When finished, the retail space will occupy about 30,100 square-feet, including stock in the basement.
According to planning documents, officials have allowed Apple to begin construction, even as Gensler architects prepare alternate design proposals for the interior and exterior details to meet various objections by city officials and architectural groups.
First, planning officials object to Apple’s proposal to move the main entrance now at the front of the building to the James Street side-street. The design proposal would also remove the original wooden staircase that leads from the ground floor to the second-floor. The stairway relocation would also mean the loss of the original door woodwork and detailing.
The building owner proposed to create a single space by removing the intervening stairway, saying it was, “critical to the building’s success and its ability to attract a suitable retailer.”
But the Westminster Planning Applications Sub-Committee noted that the staircase and details were, “the only remaining fragments of historic fabric and plan form found at ground level.” They said the removal would be contrary to the city’s planning policy for historic buildings, and that it had not been proven retaining the staircase would negatively divide the retail space.
Apple did address some concerns, the sub-committee said, including changes to the storefront materials (timber instead of metal), signage and courtyard construction. In a letter to the city’s Department of Planning and City Development, Apple’s representative stuck to the proposal for moving the stairs. He said Apple and the building owner, “have sought to address the shortcomings of this building and believe they have developed a design sympathetic (to) its special architectural character whilst meeting modern day requirements.”
But in the sub-committee report, the group said the changes, “do not overcome the fundamental concerns over the removal of the doorcase/entrance to Bedford Chambers and the removal of the lower part of the main Bedford Chambers stair.”
By Nov. 2008 the city’s Planning & City Development agency issued construction approval, but set out several conditions, mostly to insure preservation of the building’s historic nature. Several of the conditions require Apple’s architects to “apply to us for approval” on various design features, and said, “You must not start any work on these parts of the development until we have approved what you have sent us.”
Apple’s architects still have several design proposals pending, including plans to put up signs featuring an Apple logo.
Download the newest documents (pdf):
- Historic Building Impact Assessment – history of the building, architecturally-significant features, pros and cons of the project’s impact on the building and the district
- Sub-Committee Report – consideration of the design and its impact
- Apple sign plan and withdrawl – original signage plan
- Planning & City Development decision, Oct. 2008 – general conditions
- Planning & City Development decision, Nov. 2008 – historic conditions
As part of the his heritage review, the consultant included several photos, maps and other information about the building.
Thanks to Ryan for these early July photos of the construction scaffolding–
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