How the revamp of a central London landmark could change the nature of commuting.

Space House Covent garden

To design a truly cycling-friendly city, most architects and planners will tell you the best way is to start from scratch. The reality, of course, tends to be more pragmatic. The skill lies in the art of compromise, in adapting existing infrastructure to accommodate not just motorists but also historic buildings and a host of other competing interests.

It’s as true in Taunton as it is in Tokyo; and it’s certainly the case in London, where centuries-old road and rail is often patched up simply to keep it limping along. A city where, when dedicated schemes such as cycling ‘superhighways’ are installed, those competing interests can prove fatal.

All of this would be tricky enough without the added complications of the past few, pandemic-blighted years. Which makes the major overhaul taking place at London’s Space House feel decidedly on-message. When news of the building’s revamp was first announced, it merited little attention beyond a certain type of architecture enthusiast. Invariably referred to as a ‘brutalist’ masterpiece, the iconic tower block is twinned with the equally brutalist Tolworth Tower, in Surbiton in Surrey. (Pearson’s home county, back in our founding year of 1860.)

Except that Space House’s ongoing refurbishment could have significant repercussions for city cyclists, not just in London but in the rest of the UK and quite possibly beyond. Opened in 1968 in Covent Garden, Space House in fact comprises two properties: One Kemble Street, the highly recognisable tower with its honeycomb façade; and Civil Aviation Authority House, an adjacent block connected by a walkway, and whose snappy moniker (CAA House) was conferred upon it by its first occupants.

Space House Walk Way

Designed by Richard Seifert, Space House was declared a Grade II listed building in 2015; a designation that feels somewhat at odds with its pioneering past. “I believe it was named in tribute to the Apollo space missions,” says Tim Gledstone, an architect and designer at Squire & Partners, of which he is one. “It opened just two years after the screening of the first episode of Star Trek [1966] and went on to inspire a certain Millennium Falcon a decade later.” Gledstone’s firm has been tasked with breathing new life into what might otherwise have become a permanently lapsed landmark. 

Under the planning edicts of various London mayors, a key requirement for new and refurbished infrastructure is that it must align with the capital’s much-heralded plans to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality; cycling is central to these ambitions but will only remain so if attendant schemes are successful. Among recent high-profile projects is the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, or Ulez, introduced last year. An extension of the original Congestion Charge – soon to celebrate its second decade – early studies suggest Ulez has reduced CO2 emissions by a not hugely impressive 5%. Crucially for cyclists, however, levels of lung-penetrating particulates are down by as much 40% thanks to the new scheme; and the presence of nitrogen oxide (NOx) has been reduced by around 50%


That, then, is the journey, but what of the destination? Between them, the Space House buildings boast more than a quarter of a million square-feet of prime city-centre office accommodation. An obvious problem is that, post-pandemic, prime office-space doesn’t necessarily have the allure or relevance it once did. Where size was once strength, the intervention of Covid-19, not to mention a certain Mr Putin, means that offices are also good venues to catch a potentially life-threatening virus; or else turn a large fortune into a very small one simply by turning on the heating.

Point being, if you are going to tempt people back, you need to make it worth their while, to build into the working experience some of the lifestyle benefits that proved the (albeit slim) upside of Covid. Gledstone remains quietly confident. The Kemble Street tower, he points out, has 360-degree views of a spectacular conservation area, with immediate access to Covent Garden. There will also be a shared rooftop facility, offering a rare, club-space for all building users. Additional facilities will include yoga studios, as well as provision for retail, workshops and events, as well as what Gledstone calls “space for the imagination”. (Or what non-architects refer to as staring out the window.)

The project is certainly well funded, with reports putting the cost of the overhaul at £110m. All the same, the new landlords appear to be going above and beyond. Which brings us to the important bit. One of Space House’s more notable architectural features is a ramped, spiral basement originally designed as a car park.

Space House Cycle Ramp

“Space House was created as a futuristic vision based on the knowledge of the day,” Gledstone says. “The concept of using automotive transport to commute to a then state-of-the-art workspace was relatively new, yet it lay at the heart of the original design.” In fact, he points out, Space House has not one car ramp but three, which circulate the building much like the celebrated Lubetkin Penguin Pool at London Zoo. “The ramps [at Space House] created an extensive underground car-park world,” Gledstone says, “one that also had its own filling station, forecourt and cantilevered canopy. “In that sense,” Gledstone says, “travel was designed into the fabric of the building from the very beginning – we simply reinforced that vision.” 

By ‘reinforced’, Gledstone means dedicating an environment designed for cars to bikes instead. As part of the refit, those ramps will now be given over entirely to bike access and bike parking. Which is pretty remarkable given the property will, on completion, be able to accommodate more than 600 bikes. And which, for cyclists, will make it London’s highest-provisioned office location per occupant. 

“In architectural terms, the ramp was a gift,” Gledstone explains, “providing an enjoyable and practical experience for cyclists, runners and scooters. The original filling station will be repurposed as a café named, appropriately, the Filling Station. And the underside of the cantilevered canopy will be glazed, to form a striking visual feature.”

filling station

Cycling to work, however, is only half the job. Regardless of the season, Pearson’s apparel and accessories use fabrics that are not just highly breathable but will also wick sweat away from the body. Yet even the most lightly perspiring commuters know that once you’ve arrived, the chance to freshen up and change your clothes can be very welcome. Which is why planning requirements for bike-friendly premises extend to showers and lockers, both of which Space House will have in abundance. 

Space House Bike Parking

Among those involved there is clearly a belief that, if you are to entice people back to five-or-more days in the office, Space House might just be the way to do it. “It was designed for the future,” Gledstone says, “but that future has changed. So the building has to adapt, to cater for the advancement of cycling and other forms of green travel. It shows how unloved spaces can become essential, loved spaces, how monoculture buildings can become mixed use; and how something old and unusual can be reimagined to be better than new-build.”

space house bike parkng

If a more ringing endorsement were needed, a certain Sir Paul Smith has already taken a tour of the building, the fashion tycoon renowned for his love of cycling. “We read in an interview that Space House was his favourite building in London,” Gledstone says, “and he was very excited about the refurbishment. We did suggest a Paul Smith concept store for the ground floor, which he met with a wry smile.”

Paul Smith Cycling

Whether or not Smith takes up the offer, those refurbishing Space House have plenty to be proud of. London, with its complex infrastructure history, faces particular challenges but, as Space House clearly demonstrates, not insurmountable ones. In doing so, it is part of a wider, global movement seeking to establish cycling as part of our everyday life; with all the social and environmental benefits that confers.

“The Dutch and Scandinavians have had this sorted for generations,” Gledstone says, “with dedicated cycle paths woven into the fabric of city infrastructure.” And yet just as impressive are those efforts being made in poorer countries where, he adds, “heavy infrastructure ideas tend to come too late and be too expensive”. These problems require clever solutions, Gledstone continues. "Such as a project in Chile where, in some major cities, new cycle paths track existing train lines, in much the same way Britain’s canal towpaths have become cycle routes". Space House may be more sophisticated (and expensive) but the message is the same: Build it, and they will ride.


1 comment

Brilliant article. My grandfather was Richard Seifert and this along with Centre Point and Tolworth were his favourite buildings. He always wanted to try new materials and not just hark back to a twee past. He would have loved the ramp. As a keen cyclist I love that London has become so much better for cyclists. Thanks for this.

Richard Harris January 20, 2023

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