THE NEW BLOCK TACTICS

Would you like to live in an office? You might once it's been given a facelift and a name to conjure up the glamour of Manhattan, even if it is on Elephant and Castle roundabout. David Redhead reports on a new spate of urban renewal

Is it 1997 or 1987? After a few minutes in the 10th floor marketing suite at Metro Central, a new residential complex in South London, an overwhelming sense of deja vu is making it hard to tell. Flicking through the lavish brochure produced by developer St George, I learn that London is happening, crazy, sexy, cool, and that "Metro Central isn't just apartments, it's a lifestyle apart", complete with health club and "up to the minute business centre". To the frantic accompaniment of a noisy Blues Brothers soundtrack, sales people warn telephone enquirers that they need to be quick if they want a piece of the action because these "vibrant homes for style-conscious Londoners are selling fast." No hype here, either. Three quarters of the 400 apartments on offer (prices starting from pounds 60,000) were sold when I visited the development three weeks after it came on to the market.

Both the sales pitch and the willingness to buy conjure up the consumerist mania of the era when "aspirational" was the buzzword of every estate agent worth his striped shirt. But that's where the resemblance to the 1980s ends. Even when the last boom was at its height, no developer with all his marbles would have chanced his fortune on a 1960s monolith then known more prosaically as Alexander Fleming House and considered a classic among carbuncles. A vast Southwark Council office in concrete and glass, it was once memorably described as "Stalin's architecture as it should have been". It was a building that found few friends beyond the diehard disciples of its modernist architect Erno Goldfinger. And the setting, a forest of anonymous 1960s council flats, office blocks and shopping precincts felt almost as unloved.

lt isn't surprising that in the section marked "location" in St George's brochure, the emphasis falls on the convenience of Metro Central's proximity to the West End rather than the charms of its immediate locale. Only a fantasist would attempt to portray the windblown corner where the New Kent Road collides with the Elephant and Castle roundabout as any sort of yuppie paradise.

The metamorphosis of Metro Central from concrete into cash is just one of the more dramatic examples of what is becoming a distinctly 1990s phenomenon. Roam the streets of the inner city from Bethnal Green to Battersea and you'll spot dozens of buildings "upsizing" from previously mundane existences as offices, workshops, factories or storage spaces into shiny new lives as apartment blocks with names to conjure up the glamour of Manhattan's Upper West Side: York Central, Lexington, the White House.

So what's behind this renascent spirit of urban renewal? In a sense, of course, it simply confirms in property terms what the trend watchers and international news magazines have been telling us for ages. This city is hot. British art, British fashion and now British film are all the international flavour of the moment. The economy is bucking Europe's downward trend. London is swinging again and everyone seems to want to buy in. Geoff Marsh of property market data analysis consultancy, London Residential Research, has been following the conversion trend for some time and thinks he knows where it began. "The collapse of office values in the early 1990s coincided with London getting its act together," he says. "Around 1993, parts of the old industrial centre such as Clerkenwell and Bermondsey became fashionable places to live." In Marsh's view, it is the idea of loft living that has done most to turn our enthusiasm for the city into a lifestyle-led property boom. "It took a couple of visionaries to make loft living happen," he declares.

"Visionary", may be overdoing it a little but there is no doubt that developers such as Harry Handelsman of Manhattan Lofts and Colin Serlin of London Buildings have popularised a kind of urban living that broke with the country- cottage vernacular of traditional house developers. Serlin and Handelsman unashamedly sought out buildings with a hard urban edge - old printing works, workshops and factories were ideal - offering characterful post-industrial brickwork, steel trusses, beams and girders and, above all, space. "Location, location and location are no longer the three essentials, says Colin Serlin. "Light and volume are what I look for."

The loft developers' sense of style also broke new ground. Serlin's architectural roster reads like a roll call of Britain's coming generation of cool modernist hopefuls: Eva Jiricna, Munken-beck and Marshall, John Pawson, Chassay Wright, ORMS, Harper Mackay. Meanwhile, Harry Handelsman offers purchasers of his "Manhattan Lofts" free advice from a retained list of architects who can offer different ways of tailoring the basic "shell and core" loft as living spaces to fit personal taste.

It has proved to be a formula right for the moment. According to London Residential Research, nearly 70 loft-style conversions have taken place and the idea has spread, through companies such as Urban Splash, to other British cities including Manchester, Liverpool and Edin-burgh. Its appeal is no longer confined to the design conscious media set. In London at least, an increasing band of City types now seem willing to swap two-up two-downs in Fulham for something more gritty within walking distance of work. According to Colin Serlin, the majority of residents of City Pavilion - a London Buildings development in an office block on the fringe of the city that was built in the 1980s but never occupied - are members of the pin-striped brigade.

Naturally the success of loft living made the big-time developers sit up and take notice. Geoff Marsh of London Residential Research says the crucial turning point for the big boys was in 1993 when developers Regalia turned Peninsula Heights, a tatty 1960s office block on London's Albert Embankment into luxury flats. "As an office building it was boring and practically valueless but some of the flats sold for pounds 1m each," Marsh recalls. "Everybody began to get the idea that people who consider a view worthless when it's from the office window will pay handsomely to see it from the window of their living-room."

That newly discovered property truism has proved the touchstone for what is rapidly becoming a minor urban movement. Around 500 office residential conversions are currently proposed in London and the competition among big time developers for high profile central London sites is hotting up. Now almost every building is a candidate for conversion. County Hall, Shell's old HQ (the White House) and the Independent's former City Road HQ (The Lexington) have already made the transition. Now, according to London Residential Research, the old Daily Express building in Fleet Street and, believe it or not, the Treasury also feature on the hit list.

But the new emphasis on these mega office conversions has changed the style of the game. Low ceiling heights and a shortage of characterful details mean that, unlike workshops and warehouses, few modern offices really lend themselves to the loft treatment. Besides, 70 per cent of cental London flats will be sold to overseas buyers, whose tastes, developers seem to believe, run to a more heritagey style of Britishness.

Flats in many office conversions may be slick, smart and modern - they are at the Lexington - but they're unlikely to be too daring or to demand much initiative of their buyers as the "DIY" lofts do. "Loft developers make a feature of the building's history but in most conversions you'd have no idea that the building had ever been an office,"says Geoff Marsh. "The vast majority of the new residential wave is what I'd call `pastel shade product' - chintzy and reassuring."

Somehow "reassuring" doesn't seem to look right either. The bland, institutional and faintly poky character of Metro Central imposed by St George's competent but boxy design layouts, hardly seems an improvement on Goldfinger's open- plan design. "At least it was saved from the bulldozers and from the conversion into a mirrored glass office they had originally planned," says James Dunnett an architect who worked with Goldfinger and is now his chief apologist. "But I don't think it works as domestic space. A loft-style approach would have been better."

The building could have expected just such sympathetic treatment from Colin Serlin - who tabled a bid for the site but admits to having nothing approaching St George's financial muscle. So does the arrival of big money in conversions mean an end to the spirit of design individualism that loft developers injected? Not if Crispin Kelly of Baylight Properties has anything to do with it. Kelly, from west London is that rarest of creatures, a money man who studied architecture, and he may just be at the vanguard of a design-led development new wave. He is currently converting a British Gas research station near Wandsworth Bridge into a multi-storey complex. The exterior, oddly, is adorned with abstract wall murals by the artist John Piper. Designed by Oxo restaurant architects Lifschutz Davidson its boldly graphic facades and interiors may make the Piper Building the most spectacular loft development London will have yet seen when it's completed in a few months time. Certainly its apparent success in the heart of conservative Fulham seems to signal a shift in taste and attitudes to modern design. "The success of people such as Manhattan Lofts gives people like me the courage to try new things," explains Kelly. "As people's tastes evolve I think there will be an increasing market for modern architect- designed new homes rather than conversions."

Kelly is already putting his money where his mouth is. After the completion of the Piper Building, his next project will be a new-build apartment block in central London, which will also be designed by Lifschutz Davidson. Colin Serlin too has already ventured beyond conversions into "new-build" residential schemes. "The loft movement is a staging post on the route to a new modern residential architecture," says Kelly.

A good sales pitch? Just wishful thinking? Maybe, but some hard-headed analysts agree that the developers prepared to put their faith into design may be on to something. "Residential architecture in London has so often been suburban and safe but I do think people will soon be prepared to pay a premium for homes designed by `name' architects such as Richard Rogers and Will Alsop," says Geoff Marsh.

A premium. Yes, there's the rub. Even now loft prices are climbing fast. There may still be bargains to be had at Alaska, which is London Buildings' development in Bermondsey. But you'll have to be quick. And if you want good design and a smart location, you'll have to pay more. Elegant it may be, but a one bedroom loft at the Piper Building costs an intimidating pounds 180,000. At that kind of price you'll need plenty of cash to go with Crispin Kelly's flow. After years of bland and comforting suburbanism, London residential developers may have woken up to modern design. It remains to be seen how many Londoners will actually be able to afford it. !

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