Earthy and airy

Rachel Haugh, one of the name-givers of SimpsonHaugh and Partners Group LLP (Manchester/London), has noted that there are two vital requirements for the design of a high-rise. One is to ensure it is well-connected on street level, and the other that it adds something to the skyline. This might be true in general, but in the case of the 20-storey complex “Belgrade Plaza” in Coventry, it is equally important what happens in between the bottom and the top.

Architectural background

The complex Haugh and Ian Simpson designed as part of urban regeneration of the area near Belgrade Theatre is situated in the northwestern part of the centre of Coventry. The city endured massive destruction during the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt in the 1950s and 60s in a tepid, reconciliatory style, combining concrete and brick. The Belgrade Plaza complex contains retail space at street level, 49 apartments and a variety of different types of housing for 600 students.

This complex obviously stands out due to its height in a predominantly low-rise cityscape, which is determined by the elevated ring road and the postwar reconstruction architecture of the centre of Coventry itself. In the direct surroundings of Belgrade Plaza, there is not only the theatre but also some scattered detached and semi-detached housing that survived the bombing in the 1940s. Simpson and Haugh have managed to blend their intervention into this rather disparate mix of buildings that forms the context they had to work within, and with. To mitigate the change of scale imposed by the high-rise, the foot of the tower consists of additional low- and mid-rise volumes, with a gridded pattern to further break up their mass.

Ceramic secrets

The entire facade of the new complex is cladded with ceramics made in Germany (Bavaria) by AGROB BUCHTAL: the lower volumes in an unglazed earthy red shade harmonising with the brick buildings in the area, the high tower with glossy glazed tiles which seem almost white with a subtle minimal blue shade. The effect of these light-hued ceramics and their reflective finish is that it makes the tower appear more airy, and lights it up, adding some welcome brightness to Coventry.

As already mentioned a main intention was to break up the mass of the buildings especially by a gridded pattern, realised by means of horizontal and vertical projections which not only give the facade proportion and make it appear more filgree, but also generate alternating charming light and shadow effects depending on the light incidence and position. For reasons relating to architectural stringency, there was no change in material, but rather these projections were also designed in ceramic in an effort to generate a homogeneous impression and to attribute the building a tailored ceramic appearance, so to speak. For this, AGROB BUCHTAL fell back on one of its explicit strengths, i.e. its great flexibility when it comes to project-specific customised production. Special dimensions and cross-sections were developed for the projections. Based on detailed drawings, the arrow-shaped panels for the intersections were manufactured precisely in the factory and cut to various sizes. Assembly is also based on an individual solution: the efficient KeraTwin K20 system entailing a combination of clamps and system rail.

The manifold opportunities offered by the extensive AGROB BUCHTAL range were applied creatively as another stylistic device within the expansive areas. By alternating the direction of installation (vertical or horizontal depending on the side of the building) and the expert use of smooth and sculptured three-dimensional surfaces with stripes or grooves, the massive areas are relativised and attributed an exciting rhythm. The result is a very special and – in the true sense of the word – “outstanding” ensemble of buildings which appears cool and unpretentious while simultaneously conveying a confident presence.