The other architect behind the Gherkin

This article originally appeared on on 02/09/2011


He worked quietly alongside Norman Foster for years, but now Robin Partington is defining London’s skyline solo

You’ve probably never heard of him, yet his buildings are household names that tower over the London skyline. From the financial district to Elephant and Castle, Robin Partington is repainting our vision of the capital.

In the early noughties Partington led the team that brought us 30 St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin. He was also behind Elephant and Castle’s residential high rise, the Strata Tower – named by one magazine as London’s ugliest building – and is now reshaping Oxford Street.

Based on New Oxford Street, Partington’s 15-month-old practice – Robin Partington Architects (RPA) – is conveniently placed around the corner from its Oxford Street Park House project: a half-hectare, mixed-use development that will house offices, apartments and shops, due for completion next year.

Oh, and he’s designing Westminster’s first skyscraper too.

But despite such high-profile buildings, he’s deliberately shied away from media, unlike his former boss, the ‘superstar architect’ Norman Foster.He rarely does interviews.

Scale models pepper the office, taking up all available space. The boardroom feels like a workshop – with plans pinned on the walls and wood samples resting on side tables

As I climb the stairs up to the offices I’m unsure of what to expect, but once there I’m struck by the down-to-earthness, a complete lack of pretension.

Scale models pepper the open-plan office, haphazardly taking up all available space. It’s all a bit of a mess. The board room feels more like a workshop – with plans pinned on the walls and samples of wood resting on side tables. Things are being done here.

Fifteen months ago, however, Partington was doing things on his own. Having stayed at Fosters + Partners for 20 years – “the perfect finishing school”, he calls it – he joined rival firm Hamiltons, (now BFLS). He joined with the intention of “turning the practice around”, but found that after eight years he had done all he could and left to start up his own practice. It was October 2009; Britain was in the grip of recession, surely the worst possible time to start a business dependent on construction, dependent on growth?

“Of course people told me I was crazy,” he says. “There was no grand business plan, it was scary, but there were no points where I said I couldn’t do it, I just had to get on with it, I had no choice.”

Getting on with it has clearly worked. RPA has already grown to a team of 40 and has several major projects on the go, including the design of Westminster’s first tower: 1 Merchant Square – already dubbed the “Cucumber”. At 460ft, situated in the Paddington basin, the building, says the architect, will serve as a vital “urban marker” for Londoners.

As for the circular shape (which is similar to the Gherkin’s) this “offers a fantastic wind profile,” explains Partington. “Tall buildings on their own can send wind down to the ground that will blow you off your feet. When it’s circular, it’s slippery, so the wind just slips past it, making it very pleasant in terms of the urban environment at its base.”

As for the Gherkin, its circular design was chosen for different reasons, because its use is different. The Gherkin’s shape was, in part, designed to enable more office space. It has now become iconic: shouldn’t he have taken more of the credit? “No”, he says adamantly. There is no one person behind any building, he was merely “the conductor of an orchestra”.

At times Partington sounds more like a poet than an architect. Referring to the Westway dual carriageway and its relation to the Cucumber tower, he says: “It’s at the moment it comes into London and just calms down and kisses the ground”. The Gherkin is “a very feminine building, a very contented building; it’s a very happy building”.

Interestingly, Partington tells me that when Swiss Re approached Fosters, their brief was for something understated. Without being overt or attention grabbing, the global company needed a London headquarters that provided a “significant presence”.

That the result is the skyline-grabbing Gherkin is an ironic outcome that’s lost on Partington. Instead he refers to its civility. “Almost no matter what happens around it, with the Walkie Talkie, the Cheesegrater and everything else, it’s still going to be there: it’s a very polite neighbour.

“Even if you built the tallest building in the world next to it, it would not demean its sense of integrity.”

And for those who disagree, Partington has little sympathy: “If you don’t like a building, then don’t look at it. Don’t go to that part of London.”

Partington is completely in love with London, he tells me so a number of times. For him it is the perfect melting point where anything is possible, and architecture is the “art of the possible”.

“Most people misunderstand the role of an architect. As an architect you are the piggy in the middle, you are there to bring together a whole range of different disciplines.

“The art of the possible: it’s how you actually make things happen.”

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