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A destination for music, arts, culture and creators
Outernet is a new destination in an area known as Tin Pan Alley. I say new, it’s meant to be a reinvention of the historic destination where punk was born and music greats recorded. The catalyst for this was Crossrail, which included clearance within part of the site footprint and the demolition of the historic London Astoria venue just across the road.
It’s a ‘marmite’ development. Has some of the character been lost, is the scale wrong, do you like the look, is it too commercial and controlled? You can decide that for yourself.
But having looked around I was impressed with the engineering and ambition - like it or not, the design, delivery and end result of this scheme is impressive. Take your pick from the cantilever corner (which you are probably unaware of), the sheer scale of the immersive screens & displays which could be London’s answer to Times Square, or the fact that they literally picked an old blacksmith’s forge (Smithy) building up during construction because it was in the way of the piling and then put it back.
There’s an obvious issue with a development like this. On the one hand, this is a brand new venue which reinvents the area whilst still holding onto the musical heritage. On the other, critics will say that the site may as well have been flattened for something completely different, because the Tin Pan Alley of old is certainly not what is on offer today.
I’m of the view that things change and nothing lasts forever, however I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t really know Tin Pan Alley, so maybe I’m just less aware of what is no more. During the tour I was on, I heard Andy (Orms) talking about the site’s heritage and I saw his passion for the history that has clearly translated into design decisions. These were decisions which were relatively unconstrained by a light touch, high-level vision type brief.
Should we not be grateful that this is still a musical destination and that many aspects of the original buildings on Denmark Street and facades on St Giles Circus remain standing? Isn’t this just progress? Music is now digital and isn’t this the kind of venue(s) that are needed to push the industry and experiences forward?
The scheme is truly mixed use, including 250,000sqft of retail, office, hotel, recording studio and two live venues. It’s brought together under the ownership of one company, Consolidated Developments. In many ways, for this kind of development to happen, single ownership was probably needed. However it does play into the critics hands (back to the history), because now the usage and the operation of the whole area is under the direction of rule of a single organisation. An obvious contrast is the ‘managed busking’ that is allowed now, versus the very organic and relaxed Tin Pan Alley busking of years gone by.
I’m sure Consolidated Developments would point out other positives, such as the music and media theme flowing through all the uses, with the office lettings going to business that operate in these sectors and graffiti painted “session” bedrooms in the hotel.
If the jewel in the crown isn’t the above ground, inside/outside immersive atrium spaces, then is definitely is the 2,000 capacity basement music venue, Here, carefully slotted in-between all the constraints London had to offer (Crossrail, tube lines, stations, escalators). As you’d expect this is a cutting edge facility in terms of tech and yes, it includes another big screen… BOGOF?
Some elements likely won’t make money, but instead are positioned to draw customers in and to provide public benefit - the hope is that visitors linger, dwell and spend money in other parts of the ‘district’. Some revenue streams are also very flexible, for example the screens can be rented at a per sqft per minute rate, or could be part of a highly coordinated event bringing together multiple spaces and crossing digital, live event and F&B.
Construction of this major engineering challenge was placed in the hands of Skanska in 2015, a tier 1 Contractor familiar with not only building projects but also heavy civils. Ahead of Skanska’s arrival, early works were undertaken in 2010 (even before a planning submission) to strategically install deep 2m piles before the Elizabeth Line TBMs passed through in 2013. Once on board, Skanska had to install many tension piles to hold the new Elizabeth Line tunnels down and counteract ground heave as the large basement was excavated.
Talking of excavation, this project was another example of top down construction, where clever engineering and piling with plunge columns allows a slab at ground floor to be constructed, from which you can simultaneously excavate below and build above. The basement dig hollowed out a cavernous space for the music venue, but that needed some special works too. An acoustically isolated box had to be built within the basement space to ensure that train vibrations (not from the new damped Elizabeth Line, but from the rickety old Northern and Central Lines) didn’t get in, nor would vibration from lively events get out. Construction of the lid of the box in a box can be watched on this timelapse.
Then comes the ‘big lift’. Needing one of the largest mobile cranes available (750 tonnes) the team managed to pick up a building, move it to one side to allow piling works, and then put it back. Why go to all that trouble? Well the old Smithy is a heritage gem and the design wanted it for a key part of the scheme - so it had to stay. But it sat directly in the position where some of those tension piles were needed, so after careful consideration it was decided the best solution was to move it. How do you pick up a building? Well the key was to work much like underpinning, but to form a structural slab underneath the structure. Then the crane just lifts the slab with the building sat on it. The handy bit is the slab was designed such that when put back in position, it would form part of the new structure. Clever.
I don’t know the carbon metrics for the project, but I think it’s safe to assume they are not market leading (certainly when it comes to Embodied). This was acknowledged by Orms when they showed us around, but with the added note that this is a one-off venue aiming to provide central London with something it didn’t have. Is this justified, perhaps? We must also recognise that this was conceived quite a few years ago, before carbon was so ‘front and centre’, and it really is not your typical mixed use scheme.
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