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Critique of Jean Nouvel’s One New Change (for Architecture Today)

Jean Nouvel - One New Change. Photo © Paul Riddle

Photo © Paul Riddle

Like many architects, Nouvel is besotted with the idea that you can do almost anything with this most ubiquitous material. Not only is it waterproof and almost eternal (except for fallible joints), but it is the perfect substrate for illusions, graphics and messages. Here the low-iron glass is coloured and made less reflective by day with its translucent white external frit. The silica surface becomes the graphic architect’s territory, transformed by many colours layered on a foundation of just four – red, light grey, dark grey and beige – each chosen to ‘reflect and respect’ the Portland stone, concrete and red brick of the neighbouring buildings. A pinker version of Armani’s trademark ‘greige’ of the early 1990s, Nouvel’s ‘prown’ is surprising, challenging and somewhat alien. Where the greys work well and the red marks the double-height chasm through the block from Cheapside, more or less where Fryday’s Street (fishday) used to be, the ‘prown’ is unfamiliar. Was it really derived from the colour of the stones of St Paul’s before it was cleaned? This new colour extends along the most visible facets of New Change and Watling Street and because it has little building reference or familiarity it exaggerates the alien forms. The retailers’ graphic designers have been obliged to keep their shop signs within the skin – a good move since the upper level shop fronts can only be stage sets without shoppers.

The double-cavity triple-layer of glazing consists of a double-glazed unit and a glass outer skin, which combine to provide a thermal-regulation-compliant principal skin using separate soft coatings for both solar control and low-e. Although the client and architect are delighted, to my mind some of the detailing lacks the finesse that emerges in designing a mullion to accommodate the variable geometry and multi-directional junctions that such architectural form develops. Glazing systems often seem to miss an element between the glass unit and the mullion that could resolve design integrity, combining mullion, surface pattern, fold and facet geometry. William Shakespeare, who supped at the Mermaid Tavern on the corner of Fryday Street and Bread Street, could well have surmised, ‘Forsooth, what manner of glass is this that wears its surface in parenthesis?’ I’m also tempted to twist Cedric Price’s aphorism, ‘glass is the answer, what was the question?’