Property developers: Doing well by doing good

Property developers are usually good about money but less so about architecture. But, as Piers Gough's Bankside Central building for Harry Handelsman proves, the relationship between architect and client can improve rather than blight radical ideas. Jay Merrick reports
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When Frank Gehry, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim, collected his Riba Gold Medal 18 months ago, he said two things that stuck in the mind – one for its brazen untruth, the other for its crucial verity.

"You know what?" he told me. "I've never made any money from architecture."

And the other remark: "The client is the most important thing in architecture. You can't have a great buildings unless you have great clients."

Bankside Central, a medium-rise office development between London bridge and Blackfriars bridge, is not a great building. We can be sure of that because its architect, Piers Gough of CZWG, says it isn't. But it is good and significant architecture; the kind of building that suggests that radical alternatives to status quo, battery-worker buildings can be both startlingly cheeky and user-friendly.

Bankside Central, on a corner site in Southwark Street seems, at first, to be whacko because there is no clean edge to the vital corner element. Gough has subverted it by fooling around with the windows that wrap around it. The first floor glazing juts out to form a normally right-angled edge; the window above that is folded to form three planes; and above it a corner is formed, except that there's a cut-back under the frame which makes an odd little shelf. The top floor windows lurch outward at a truly alarming angle.

As if that were not enough, the window frames are very brightly coloured: jarring blue, virulent green, acid yellow, satsuma orange. Gough has described his poke-in-the-eye design of the exterior as an ironic tribute to Damien Hirst's mundane dot paintings, but that slightly over-eggs this intriguing confection. Bankside Central might just as well have been transplanted from a garish slice of downtown Miami.

For all Gough's razzle-dazzle, the building's existence is assuredly down to Harry Handelsman, the property developer who made loft-living a cool option for yuppies a decade ago via his Manhattan Loft Corporation developments. Two items in his W1 office give the game away – the game being architecture. Behind his desk is a framed drawing of a building. It's pretty ropey, by any standard, and the hastily coloured-in lumps inside the building are inscrutable. But it is by Rem Koolhaas, so we must assume scribbly genius. The other item is more familiar, an asymmetrically zig-zagged steel paperweight: the conceptual "stretch" version of Daniel Libeskind's Berlin Jewish Museum.

Handelsman is Gehry's kind of client, and the way he talks about his buildings is rather unusual; developers are typically rent-slab wallahs interested in problem-free solutions rather than unusual designs. "Bankside Studios has the opportunity to be very beautiful," he says. "Southwark Street was one of these unexpected places, very secondary. You moved to this vicinity if you didn't have the money to live somewhere better. But I always felt there might be the opportunity to create something Parisian here – a St Germain in Southwark Street. Something that relates to the Tate Modern."

The man is a dreamer, then. But he is also a money-making pragmatist; he gets what he wants. He may love Gough's work – they've clocked up many projects together – but that doesn't guarantee eternal sweetness and light. "Bankside Chambers was the only argument I've ever had with Piers," says Handelsman. "We were talking about doing the development and designing the interior. He came up with two designs and I said I didn't like them. And he said: 'Harry, I'm the fucking architect.' But then he came up with a good solution."

Handelsman has always loved buildings, though he can't remember a single, revelatory moment. "And I'm very visual. If I see a thread hanging down, I notice. I'm very fastidious. Buildings are there, and they stay there for quite a while. They can be offensive, or very beautiful. They are challenging. There's a responsibility. I believe that the developer has a role to play. You have to get involved with the architect. The architect is the one that expresses the vision of the developer. I'm not sure that buildings should be built by architects or developers. I think it's a joint thing."

He'd like to commission the greats to inject real adventure into commercial projects. "I want to work with Rem or Renzo Piano. Frank Gehry? I went to see him in California, after we were shortlisted for the Millennium Village in Greenwich. We took the decision to work with thirteen architects. Richard Rogers didn't like it because there were too many architects. But I thought a multitude of architects would have made it much more interesting."

Handelsman may be interested in creative multitudes but, sometimes, it is just one that throws up masterstrokes. Working with Libeskind, the developer came within touching distance of what would have been the most architecturally sensational department store makeover ever. Compared to what Libeskind conjured up, Future Systems' giant, wraparound lurex girdle for the new Selfridges in Birmingham is one-take architecture.

The redevelopment of Berlin's Rosenthaler Hof, built by the Jewish Wertheimer family as the world's first large department store, would literally have exploded all previous architectural notions of such emporia. "I met Daniel and asked if he would do a mixed-use scheme for me, about 25,000 square metres (about 270,000 square feet)," recalls Handelsman. "He said no. So I went to four or five other architects in Berlin, and none of the designs I liked. Then I was at a dinner at the V&A and talked to Nina Libeskind and she asked me to give Daniel another chance. He said he would do it, but on one condition: that I came up with the plans by X-Y-Z date.

"I said it might be best if we saw each other inbetween. He said no: that was the deal. So I said, fine." Handelsman pauses, in what is obviously an oft-replayed moment of wonderment. "He came up with a plan that was absolutely amazing. It was absolutely perfect. And then the idiots decided not to sell the building. And Daniel said that that was the way things were in Germany. But it would have been great!"

Which returns us, more or less, to Gough's not-great Bankside Central. His dismissiveness is playfully disingenuous, for this is a development that has made a virtue of the eclectic by retaining a good deal of the original structure internally – notably the rough, tough Victorian brickwork and cast-iron columns. The corner offices are interestingly arranged, too; and the "penthouse" top floor is naturally top-lit and has an exceptionally agreeable feel to it.

Bankside Central, and Handelsman's thing about architecture, are unlikely to turn Southwark Street into a deuxième St Germain. But his tenets of architectural "responsibility" and "challenge" demand a certain respect. They may not always produce scintillating solutions, but they will be more likely to deliver mixed-use buildings that refresh the flâneur's eye, however momentarily. And so we must brace ourselves for more amusing subversion: Handelsman's Fulham Island and Ealing Studio redevelopments are under way and hot-to-trot.