Sir Terence Conran – The Visionary
Terence Conran has masterminded the restoration and redevelopment of many of London’s most iconic warehouses. In an exclusive feature for the launch issue of Warehouse Home, the internationally renowned designer recounts his remarkable vision for the transformation of Butlers Wharf and shares his passion for giving new life to the old Victorian warehouses he refers to as beautiful “old ladies”.
Photography courtesy of Conran and Partners | Words by Terence Conran | Edited by Sophie Bush
This feature was taken from the launch issue of Warehouse Home. To enjoy the publication in full click here.
The very first time I saw Butlers Wharf, I fell in love. I instantly knew that it was a fantastic development opportunity. Curiously, I spotted it from the river in the summer of 1981 on a cruise along the Thames for an office party. You have to remember that in those days Butlers Wharf was a pretty desolate area. There was little reason to visit other than for the views of Tower Bridge. But the moment I saw these wonderful derelict warehouses on the south bank of the Thames, the party was over for me. My mind was doing cartwheels over the possibilities, which were just beginning to formulate in my imagination. The next day, I raced over to visit the site. I was overwhelmed and quite smitten by the rough and robust Victorian industrial architecture. The waterfront buildings and the streets behind had been used to grind and store spices and the air was still richly fragrant with their smells.
We managed to buy the site for £3 million. But frankly that was the easy part. Our architecture practice, then called Conran Roche, created the masterplan for a mixed-use scheme combining new buildings with the sensitive restoration of the old ones. There would be homes, shops, restaurants, workshops, offices and a new Design Museum in a 1950s banana warehouse. We had difficulties with the planners, then the expensive and unpleasant realisation that the principal part of Butlers Wharf only had proper foundations at one end. Finally, there was the crippling recession of the mid-eighties. It was a very difficult and stressful time for us all and our full vision for the site was never truly realised. Although today Butlers Wharf is a financially successful development and a thriving part of London, I sometimes dream of what it could have been, both aesthetically and in terms of creating a unique community.
I still remember the howls of derision when I first announced my plans to open my restaurant Le Pont de la Tour at Butlers Wharf. I was repeatedly told that nobody would ever cross the river to eat lunch, much less dinner. I showed Chris Corbin and Jeremy King (Le Caprice, The Ivy, The Wolseley) the ground floor warehouse space where I intended to create Le Pont de la Tour. And apparently they spent the duration of their taxi ride home together belly laughing and saying “dear old Terence Conran has lost it.” Nearly 25 years later, and having hosted dinner at Le Pont de la Tour for the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair among many others, I think I can now allow myself a rueful smile, if not a belly laugh.
The practice of breathing new life into these beautiful “old ladies”, taking historic buildings and transforming them for new uses, has been one of the constant threads running through my whole career. In addition to warehouses, there have been empty garages, unused basements, an old printworks, a tyre factory and abandoned arches under a railway bridge in New York. Even in the early Habitat days some of the stores were located in previously disused spaces; a church in Tunbridge Wells, a 1920s cinema on the Kings Road and a Spitfire Factory in Chester. I remember for the first Habitat the landlord threw in the basement free of charge as he did not think anybody would ever have a use for it! At the heart of it, I suppose I am easily seduced by quirky, eccentric spaces, often off the beaten track. They may have been rejected as too difficult to develop by others, but they tend to offer cheap freeholds or low rents and, most inspiring of all, there is the opportunity to kickstart an area’s regeneration. Saving an old building, giving it a new lease of life and seeing an area thrive as a result gives everybody involved a degree of pleasure that an entirely new project might not perhaps inspire.
It might not be on the scale of Butlers Wharf, but I can honestly say the day I purchased Michelin House was the happiest day of my life. Designed by the Michelin engineers from their factory at Clermont-Ferrand in France, not architects astonishingly, it is a flamboyant representation of the achievements, hopes and aspirations of a company that contributed to the future of motoring and much more besides. A building like this would never be built in modern times. Not only is it filled with charming ceramic and glass details and embellishments, but it is also the first pre-cast concrete building in the UK with gently sloping floors, allowing tyres to roll from the rear of the building to the tyre fitting bay at the front.
The site of the first Habitat store was just over the road from the Michelin building and over the years I had fallen in love with the delightfully quirky Art Deco architecture. I dreamt about transforming it into a wonderful shop and, of course, a first class restaurant. I wrote endless letters to the Michelin headquarters in France asking them what they intended to do with the building as it appeared to be unused. One glorious day in 1985, I finally learned they were prepared to sell. I promised their Managing Director that I would restore the building to its former glory and that Michelin would be proud of the building when it was finished. I committed to repairing all the original features, including the stained glass windows, the Bibendum-esq light fittings and the damaged faience tiling on the façade. Michelin agreed to sell. Our enthusiasm had won the day. Michelin House was converted into a Conran Shop and a first class restaurant and oyster bar.
I think when you are inspired by a building and have an excellent design team around you then the results can be surprising and beautiful. I have always felt there is a great deal of synergy in the contrast between modern design and existing architecture. The Conran style has always been eclectic, mixing antique furnishings and flea market finds with the very best of contemporary style. I take great pleasure in putting modern furniture in period spaces as I think it helps make modernism more interesting. I think this approach can be enjoyed at Michelin House. However, the same applies to our interior design work and architecture. When you apply your own style and taste to a building and avoid becoming a slave to its history then you have a good foundation for creating something rather special. The key is finding synergy between the old and the new.
Shoreditch derives its special character from the way the old and the new rub shoulders. Both end up looking and feeling better for it. I think Boundary embodies this. That is certainly how I felt when I first clapped eyes on the Victorian warehouse and former printing works – I could not wait to start work. The building had been left unoccupied for many years and at first glance it was obvious that parts of its structure had become slightly dilapidated. We were aware it was a huge job we were taking on. But on closer inspection we discovered the original 1893 configuration had barely changed since its inception and the potential and creative opportunities immediately lifted our spirits. We preserved the most attractive industrial features and, in many ways, it was these that led the creative process. We restored the original brickwork, both inside and out, and made sure the vast scale of the spaces remained a key part of the architecture. The double height basement with pavement light wells and alcoves makes Boundary restaurant one of the most spectacular and inspiring places to eat in London. Meanwhile, the original sash windows provide an abundance of natural light for the hotel’s individually designed bedrooms.
There were so many challenges at Boundary, but every single one of them was absolutely worthwhile. Creating an environmentally friendly building in a Victorian printworks and insulating a 120-year-old building in a modern way is not easy. The main and most important element in this regard is the building’s bore holes. Working with the Environment Agency, two 120 metre bore holes were drilled below the floor in the restaurant. One collects water and energy from the London aquifer and the other returns the same untainted resource after it has been used to operate air conditioning, refrigeration systems, ice machines and various other equipment throughout the old building.
One of my favourite projects for D&D London was Old Bengal Warehouse. Built between 1768 and 1771, it was the first of the British East India Company’s storehouses on the Thames and would have been stuffed brim-full with spices, tea, cigars and port. Poet Laureate John Masefield once remarked that it held “the wealth of the world and London’s power”. Working on a building of such rich history and majestic beauty is the sort of project that really keeps you going. When D&D London purchased the Grade II listed Old Bengal Warehouse building and enlisted the help of Conran and Partners in renovating it, the whole team were thrilled. We designed four spaces that pay homage to the warehouse’s exotic, mercantile past. Today, it comprises New Street Wine Shop, Fish Market, New Street Grill and the Old Bengal Bar. I particularly like the interior of the Old Bengal Bar, which takes its cues from the more stylish of London’s clubhouses, by way of Brooklyn. The walls are raw brick and the ceiling is dark wood; deep red leather sofas beg to be sunk into.
Britain has such a rich and glorious heritage. And I feel particularly proud to have played a part in renovating and rejuvenating key elements of our nation’s industrial past. Gutsy and raw Victorian warehouses and factories have now been sensitively and imaginatively converted in most British cities. Many designers are, like myself, attracted to these robustly engineered buildings that truly reflect the energy and entrepeneurialism of the Victorian era. I have never been particularly enthused by the worst of Victorian opulence, but I think we have demonstrated that modern designers can take the very best of the period’s industrial creations and turn them into something positive and inspirational for contemporary life.
Butlers Wharf has changed beyond belief since I first caught sight of it all those years ago. I often wonder how different my life, and that of Southwark, would have been had we opted for a more conventional office party in a restaurant, rather than a river cruise. The regeneration has spread to other parts of the area and put Southwark on the London map as a destination for Londoners, tourists and businesses alike. On a warm summer evening, there is nothing I enjoy more than a stroll along the riverside. With the restaurants and bars of Butlers Wharf spilling out on to the terraces and the buzz of happy chatter filling the air, it really is one of the best places on earth, never mind London.
This feature was taken from the launch issue of Warehouse Home. To enjoy the publication in full, click here.