Neu Architects have completed the alteration of the Assay Office, London, one of Britain’s oldest and most prestigious organisations, The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. The result is a sleek and contemporary £1.2m renovation of retail, office and leisure spaces within the Goldsmiths’ Hall, which takes the usage of modern, high-quality materials and is infused with the history and heritage of the 700 year old organisation.
The Assay Office, London tests and hallmarks precious metals for the country’s leading jewellers, and has done so for over 700 years - with the last 500 years from the same location: Goldsmiths’ Hall, a scheduled monument in the heart of the City of London. The Company’s generous support also set up the world-renowned Goldsmiths’ College, where young designers and artists study before going out into industry and the creative world.
About Neu Architects
Neu Architects – run by architect Ben Paul (ex-Grimshaw) and interior designer Silka Gebhardt (former Director of Brinkworth) which are now celebrating 5 years in the business this month. The London-based company has grown quietly and steadily; it is only now beginning to show some of its work in the public arena, including a private house in east London for television property presenter Kristian Digby (featured recently in The Sunday Times and Living Etc) and offices and classrooms for the Mary Ward Centre (as seen in various design publications at the beginning of this year). The company offers a range of creative skills and experience, from architecture to high-end interior design, and is proud of its hands-on approach in the creation and execution of high quality design. Neu Architects enjoy bringing design and new ways of working to the most unlikely places, as reflected in their diverse client base.
About The Goldsmiths’ Company
The Goldsmiths’ Company has been on this site since 1339, in a variety of buildings. The current (third) Hall building, designed by Phillip Hardwick, is a Scheduled Monument, whilst next-door neighbour St Paul’s Cathedral is merely a listed building! It dates from 1829 – 35 and is in the Neo-English Baroque style. The original hall on the site was a mansion, incorporating shops, owned by Nicholas de Segrave, which was replaced by a hall built in 1634 in the Palladian style by Nicholas Stone, the King's Mason, with advice from Inigo Jones. This hall was later used as The Exchequer by the Parliamentarians in the 17th century, before it was gutted in the Great Fire of London.
When the 500-year anniversary of hallmarking took place in 1978, the then Warden of the Company, I.R Threlfall, noted: ‘Few systems devised by man have been found continuously useful over so extended a period, and it is rare for any secular activity to be carried on almost without interruption on the same site for 500 years.’
Client: The Assay Office
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths
Architect / Designer: Neu Architects
Main contractor: Syntec Projects
Bespoke joinery Bruce Tipper
Corian Washroom Joinery
Glass Glass Designs ltd
Wallpaper Hand-printed by Bernard Thorp Ltd
Project cost: £1.2 million
Time on site: 7 months
How it all Started
Neu Architects had already completed a new, small satellite Assay Office in London’s jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden, for The Goldsmiths’ Company, when they were invited back to re-plan and optimise the disparate elements that made up the Assay Office at Goldsmiths’ Hall.
Client Dr Robert Organ of the Assay Office commented: "We had used Neu Architects to do our Greville Street operation and we were very impressed. Neu shared our ambitions for the project. They are very capable, but for us, the really important thing was that they cared and that their enthusiasm matched our own."
"This was a fascinating project for a fascinating client - and an amazing learning process along the way" added Neu Architects Director Ben Paul. "Not only was the scheme comprised of the varying spatial languages of retail, offices and leisure, but it also incorporated an extremely complex brief, which required examination of the spaces and operations within the Assay office, all against the backdrop of a scheduled monument and the incredible historical background of the client and the hallmarking process."
The concise to Neu Architects was to offer customers an outstanding, up-to-date environment that would represent the modern business of hallmarking. Not only did it have to offer customers a high-tech service (whilst improving the speed and efficiency of the Assay workflow), but also to imbue staff with a sense of pride in their workspace. Previous ad hoc alterations had caused spatial inefficiencies, with staff split across three floors, with circulation clashes resulting in poor workflow. All areas desperately needed to be reorganised and brought up to date.
Customers would arrive at the rear entrance of the great romantic Baroque hall, only to be deposited into a 1970s world of a dimly-lit, post office-style counter to drop off their valuable creations for hallmarking. There was little customer focus in the layout and no sense of the 700 year history of hallmarking – or indeed any indication of the 21st century laser hallmarking and x-ray analysis technology that now operates in the Assay office.
Dr Robert Organ summarised the state of the existing site by saying it looked "tired and not particularly professional. The layout did not reflect the many changes that had taken place in hallmarking over the previous 15 – 20 years and the office lacked the functional elements of a proper modern office."
The Process of Proposal & Complete Design
Neu Architects approached this project very carefully, as they were embarking on making the most profound changes to the building, since its completion in 1835. The scheme needed to be a well-crafted, delicate and honest design that gave customers and staff alike something to be inspired by. The complex technical and historical brief has to be cleverly worked on to maintain the initial concept. Techniques such as printing, stamping, laser cuttings, bending and shaping were used in the design to echo the hallmarking craft.
Neu Architects felt that the Assay office had to be a jewel to match some of the amazing pieces of work that have been hallmarked there – from Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God’ diamond-studded skull to Mark Quinn’s ‘Siren’ (a 50 kg gold statue of Kate Moss).
"Our proposals had to be submitted for a complex series of planning permissions, given the Hall’s status as a Scheduled Monument, which entailed dealing both with English Heritage and the offices of Goldsmiths’ Hall itself", explained Ben Paul. "All works also had to be completed in stages, as the Assay Office could not stop working at any point – and the environment also had to be very clean at all times. The workshop deals with precious metals that are weighed at every stage of their journey to the nearest milligram. This made for a challenging series of permissions and phasing!"
“Our palette of materials was modern, but was very much based on tradition and inspired by the Company’s incredible heritage," added Neu Architects’ Co-Director Silka Gebhardt, "with particular inspiration taken from the leopard’s head hallmark.”
Neu Architects proposed an increased retail space at the public entrance to the building, with a new “Beach Glass" Corian curved wall that separated customers from the staff areas. The wall, lined in steel to be completely secured, had to be carefully detailed to prevent any damage to the fabric of the building. Its uppermost section is mirrored, creating an infinity effect with the newly restored ceiling bays (discovered after the suspended ceiling was removed) and maintaining the proportions of the original room.
From the entrance customers can see illuminated images on the Corian wall of both a life-sized leopard prowling across the floor and the stylised leopard-head logo of The Assay Office itself. “It was a challenge to carve our image of the leopard into the curved Corian from behind and then back-light i”, explained Silka Gebhardt. "This meant that it has translucence and is flat to the touch, maintaining a sense of mystery to its appearance. The Assay Office logo and name, however, are, in contrast, routed from the front so that they can be touched and felt, echoing the traditional hallmarking procedure." When the lights are turned off a night, both engravings seem to disappear completely.
The walls of the entrance space are clad in a custom-made wallpaper, designed by Neu Architects, using six historical varieties of the leopard head stamp. A Corian shelf on the right hand wall allows for leaflet display. The graceful pendant light in the entrance corridor is the Foscarini Caboche chandelier, whilst the flooring is in a limestone tile (Strata More Nylus from Strata Tiles).
All customers now arrive at a specially-designed black ‘Lacobel’ glass counter, offset to the right of the retail space. Staff operates a counter pass-through system for smaller packages, which pass directly into the packing space behind, constituting a major improvement to workflow. A secure airlock is provided for large packages and dedicated courier drop-offs. At the back of the counter area is a freestanding wall with the Goldsmiths’ logo displayed on it, allowing privacy for the secure packing area behind, whilst visually maintaining the form of this grand room.
Opposite the public counter is a black glass panel, bearing the leopard’s head crest and the name of the Assay Office. This was printed from the back onto the glass and then sealed to ensure robustness. Where the old retail area had an untidy notice board for pinned-up announcements, communication is now via two screens inset into the black glass panel, one of which also allows customers to scan their receipt ticket to get an update of their job progress (with the screen returning when idle to info-screen mode). The combined elements in this area, whether reflective or illuminated, play off one another to create both spatial illusions and historical allusions.
The new meeting room is the first ever dedicated meeting space for The Assay Office, which had previously had to book space in the main Hall for private meetings. One wall is covered in black American walnut veneer, also housing ‘hidden’ cupboards, including a TV/presentation screen. The flooring here is carpeted (Broadloom 56 Silver Milne by Lionheart) and the freestanding furniture is once more from SCP.
All offices were moved from the ground floor to the second floor, liberating space for the packing area to come together for the first time to a single area on the ground floor. The new accounts space has a dedicated meeting room, which features the bespoke Goldsmiths’ wallpaper, along with black American walnut flooring and bespoke cabinetry.
The sash windows in this area were refurbished, with the former secondary glazing removed to allow the reinstatement of the original timber shutters, providing additional night-time security. In order to expose the existing historic ceilings, the 1970s suspended grid ceiling was removed, which meant that all services had to be carefully concealed and incorporated into the new scheme. For example, the packing area has a series of set-back bulkheads, which provide lighting, smoke detection, CCTV (one camera per workstation!), fresh air supply and a sophisticated air-conditioning system – mechanical air circulation had to be carefully designed to prevent drafts affecting the very sensitive weighing balances.
On the third floor, the main testing, hand marking and press marking areas have been overhauled and renewed. The laser-marking area in particular now has much greater capacity. Use of laser-marking is growing due to its precision and flexibility.
After inspecting the finished scheme, Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for English Heritage, was impressed with what she saw and commented that the works “have been done to a very high standard.”
"The space is clean, functional and adaptable" concluded client Dr Robert Organ. "The public areas and staff rest areas are highlights and the leopard’s head wallpaper and Corian leopard are unique features. Our staff are looking after their new areas very well and have obvious pride in them. They obviously see the value in their new environment and want to maintain it well. Interestingly, since the work was completed, we have had some exciting new work in that we have never had before!"
Hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection and consists of a series of stamped marks that means that an article has been tested and guarantees that it conforms to the legal standards of purity. The word derives from the 15th century, when makers would bring their work to the Goldsmiths’ Hall to be tested and marked for its fineness. Currently by law a hallmark must consist of at least 3 punch markets: the sponsor’s (or maker’s) mark; the metal and purity mark and finally the assay office mark. It can also have a date stamp and other more traditional marks, if required.
Hallmarking came to Britain from continental Europe in the 13th century – and from France in particular. The standards were set for Parisian goldsmiths in 1260, followed by the order in 1275 that each city in France should have a particular mark. In the 14th century a maker’s mark and date letter system were introduced.
The strength of the British system has always been its simplicity, combined with the durability of The Goldsmiths’ Company of London as the main authority responsible for the implementation of hallmarking from the year 1300 onwards, led by ‘guardians of the craft’, who later came to be the Wardens of the Company. The leopard’s head mark (aka ‘the king’s mark’) was first introduced in 1300 for the sterling standard. Although it has been changed, updated and even temporarily replaced at one point, it has become the acknowledged mark of both Goldsmiths’ Hall and of London. Platinum was added to the spectrum of hallmarked metals comparatively recently – in 1975 – and palladium is to be added in 2010.
Main photography on the project was by David Hiscock.
David Hiscock is – to quote a Sotheby’s catalogue entry from March 2008 – "one of the most rounded artists working in Britain today and one of the more important ones. He has major reach in at least three different worlds. Having always run his own fine art practice at the same time as maintaining all the while a leading position as a star of commercial photography, he is immeasurably important as a teacher."
Additional detail shots are by Ben Paul and Silka Gebhardt.
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