Ian Ritchie Architects were commissioned by the Mercers’ Company and by Longmartin Properties Ltd – a joint venture between the Mercers’ Company and Shaftesbury PLC – to lead the design for four major mixed-use developments, at a total construction value of about £35 million, within the Mercer Company’s Covent Garden estate, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of their extensive property holdings.
The Mercers’ Company is the premier Livery Company of the City of London and was established by Royal Charter in 1394. Today it exists as a charitable institution whose activities are funded primarily by their property investments. This particular estate of more than 2 hectares north of Long Acre in the heart of Covent Garden was left to the Company in 1530 by Lady Joan Bradbury, widow of the Mercer and former Lord Mayor Thomas Bradbury. It is bounded by Long Acre, Upper St Martin’s Lane, Shelton Street and Neil Street.
IRAL ‘s briefs included the urban design of a new public plaza and pedestrian street, the design of new buildings containing residential, retail, and office space, and the transformation of heritage buildings. The main contractor was Osborne. The developments consist of the reconstructed Sussex House; Phase 1 and 2 of Mercer Walk, comprising Mercer Walk and 117-12 Long Acre; and enhancements to St Martin’s Courtyard and Slingsby Place.
Mercer Walk, designed by IRAL for the Mercers’ Company, transformed a group of old warehouses and cluttered service yards between Mercer Street and Langley Street within the Covent Garden Conservation Area, into a completely new public realm for Covent Garden. The £20 million mixed use development is part of a new pedestrian route from Upper St Martins’ Lane to Neal Street, with the last link from Langley Street to Neal Street yet to be completed.
IRAL’s work is underpinned by strong analysis of context and profound understanding of materials and construction, allied to an appreciation of the subtle connections between its social role, the arts of construction and the role of beauty in architecture.
The overall strategy for Mercer Walk was to create the new to be as familiar as the old – to create a group of buildings and spaces which would enhance and complement the surrounding urban realm with similar proportions and human scale to that of the mix of wide and narrow streets, hidden courtyards, and Georgian and Victorian buildings that contribute to Covent Garden’s distinct appeal and recognisable character.
The new pedestrian street – Mercer Walk – links Mercer and Langley Streets and is aligned with existing access to St Martin’s Courtyard, creating a direct visible link between them. It opens into a new, contemporary central piazza which forms the heart of the development in the formerly inaccessible site. Three new 5 story mixed-use buildings with windows and screened loggias opening onto the piazza provide 24 residential apartments on the upper floors retail and restaurant space at ground and basement levels.
IRAL’s design was highly praised for its quality by Westminster City Council planning committee when permission was granted, as was IRAL’s appreciation for the historic context and architectural grain of this part of Covent Garden, and the project has been listed for and won awards since its completion in 2016.
The internal transformation and renewal of 117-123 Long Acre to create 28 apartments, 4 retail spaces and 1 office space at a construction cost of circa £8 million has been granted planning permission.
Ian Ritchie Architects were invited by Longmartin Properties Ltd to envisage enhancements to St Martin’s Courtyard in Covent Garden to increase its vibrancy, identity and attractiveness and make it more inviting to passers-by. The project was completed in 2016. It is a mixed-use development at the junction of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. It includes retail, entertainment, office, and residential accommodation, and can be accessed from entrances on Mercer Street, Upper St Martin’s Lane and from Long Acre via Slingsby Place, a previously narrow and uninviting pedestrian lane.
IRAL’s scheme for the space evokes a sense of delight and human scale by the introduction of adaptable new lighting and landscape elements to create a feeling of place, seasonal atmosphere and human scale that entices people to linger rather than walk through, whilst offering moments of amusement, charm and appreciation.
Longmartin Properties Ltd also appointed Ian Ritchie Architects to design the transformation of Sussex House, the most prominent corner building at the intersection of Long Acre and Upper St Martin’s Lane, for a construction cost of £7 million. The formerly utilitarian and undistinguished building has been given a new façade, and the completely redesigned interior space has a 4,000 sq ft flagship store or gastro pub at ground level and first floor, and 7,600 sq ft of office space with a 500 sq ft rooftop terrace.
Any new building or refurbishment in Covent Garden must strike a delicate balance between history and modernity. While satisfying contemporary needs, its design qualities must demonstrate sensitivity to the area’s distinctive existing fabric, long history, and well-loved character. As with the Mercer Walk development, for the transformation of Sussex House IRAL consulted the Covent Garden Area Trust’s design strategy, produced in conjunction with the City of London and English Heritage.
Following upon IRAL’s studies of the proportions and characteristics of Covent Garden’s existing façades, the design for Sussex House is informed by the context, colours and predominant vertical language of Covent Garden and the choice of materials was carefully considered to complement the surrounding urban landscape. The elegant new building presents a rich yet harmonious architecture to the surrounding context.
St Martin’s Lane and the Seven Dials were designated as special areas for enhancement in the Westminster City Council 2005 Theatreland Initiative: ‘At night-time, the theatres would have a new sense of sparkle and by day have an excellent quality of streetscape.’ The refurbished Sussex House reflects these qualities. During the day it complements and enhances the existing urban landscape. During the hours of darkness, carefully designed internal lighting gives a subtle white glow to the translucent glazing and acts as an urban menhir along the ‘Theatreland’ route from St Martin’s Lane to Seven Dials.