July 2, 2014
A bookshop, a landmark, and a legacy: meet the architect who redesigned Foyles Charing Cross Road
by Zeljka Marosevic
If ever there was a bad time to decide to build a major new bookshop in the heart of London, it was 2011. Britain was in the teeth of a recession, the trade was asking grave questions about the future of bookselling, and on Charing Cross Road, where this new shop was to be built, Crossrail, one of Europe’s largest transport and infrastructure constructions was under way, blocking off the main access to the shop’s location, and resulting in at least a 10% decrease in footfall.
Not a lot has shifted in the landscape since then. Britain is still feeling the effects of a struggling economy, Amazon and Hachette are embroiled in another battle that could spell a grim future for publishers and bookshops, and the Crossrail construction chugs on. And yet, almost miraculously, I’m sitting in a brand new Foyles café, up on the fifth floor of the new flagship, Foyles 107, with Alex Lifschutz, the architect responsible for this momentous new building.
Lifschutz is the Director of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the architecture firm which has designed some of London’s best-known modern landmarks, including the Hugerford footbridges and buildings for London Olympics, as well as developing the OXO Tower, and reshaping major areas of central London. The old Foyles shop, which occupied 113-119 Charing Cross Road, was also a landmark, albeit one that had slowly expanded into a labyrinth of book bays and ad-hoc displays, where even the most regular customer was always at risk of getting lost.
But a landmark it definitely was; in a recent blog entitled “107 Reasons to love Foyles” reason 92 read, “Occasionally it received letters simply addressed: ‘Foyle’s, Largest Bookshop of the World, London, England’”.
Lifschutz believed from the start in an “ecosystem for writing”, in which bookshops play a vital part. A sense of place, a physical point where this ecosystem could come together was an essential aspect of that culture, and a key consideration when creating a new Foyles flagship. But he also recognized that defining exactly how bookshops work is almost impossible. A mixture of things come into play: browsing, discovery, and serendipity—perhaps the hardest type of experience to attempt to design.
During #FutureFoyles workshop sessions—where industry figures, booksellers and customers were invited to discuss ideas for the new store—Lifschtuz became aware of the same phrase bring used repeatedly. People wanted “a great place”. But we don’t have many ways of saying “a great place”, says Lifschutz, comparing the conundrum to the number of Eskimo words for snow, or defining exactly what it is. He just had to try and create it.
As well as this, there were three parties to consider: the booksellers and the working conditions they require to sell books now and in the future, Foyles as a brand: it’s history, legacy and its reputation, and the building itself. And the building is always more intelligent than the client, Lifschutz adds.
Indeed, Central St Martin’s School of Art, the building that was adapted to become Foyles 107 was a “tough, workman-like building”. It housed studio spaces, teaching areas and a lecture hall, and was expected to be battered, adapted and refashioned by each new generation of young art students (Anthony Gormley, Katharine Hamnett and err Pierce Brosnan all had a go), just as able to hold prestigious graduate shows as to host the odd Pulp or Sex Pistols concert. As Lifschutz puts it, it was a “big warhorse of a building”, and it certainly gave them direction.
One feature of the old building is immediately apparent. As a panopticon, the floors of the building wrap around a central atrium, but the adjacent floor levels are unevenly aligned, so that one must always walk up or down as well as across to reach the next floor. It might feel a little strange at first, but Lifschutz is pleased by the effect this has of moving people up the building without their noticing. It’s an example of how he had to work with a building that already existed, giving into its flaws in order to make features of them.
The event space’s large glass outer wall creates a living advertisement for the shop’s busy program of events. Anyone seated in the café will be able to see readings and talks happening, and can be tempted to join in. And, equally, anyone coming to the shop for an event will be tempted by the offerings of the café. Lifschutz compares this interaction to how and why cities work so well. Cities, he says, are full of adjacents, where you are carried by from one offering to the next, where something known so easily leads to something new. He wanted to create that same feeling of serendipity in this London flagship.
Structurally speaking, the building was expanded out towards the back, and an existing central lightwell was drastically enlarged so that natural light now pours down into the atrium. Alvar Aalto’s Academic Bookshop in Helsinki was an inspiration, and you can certainly see the resemblance: the central atrium, the two big light wells and the wrap-around balconies, white against pale wood floors. But where the Academic Bookshop is stark, Foyles 107 is warm; you feel at Foyles that the urge to showcase bold design was not as strong as the urge to showcase books.
From the third floor we peer down into the hubbub of the atrium, over “lecterns” which display books along balcony ledges. Displays also run along the stairwells, imitating the poster ads that line the escalators in the underground. There are no walls within sections, Lifschutz tells me, because the bookshelves function as the walls, and they have been used to shape each floor and section area. As we move from the balcony into the book stacks, it suddenly becomes library-quiet. So too, enter the corner housing Ray’s Jazz, and jazz music breezes through the air; walk five meters away and the sound has completely disappeared. Among the many qualities of books is their ability to absorb sound.
As we wander through the building, I’m interested to see how Lifschutz, who designed the building and knows it literally inside out, is now enjoying watching the shop as a spectator. He’s clearly still fascinated in that question of “a great place” and is excited to watch how shoppers use the space, how they both confirm and confound architectural intentions. And then, as we move outside to admire the building’s original front façade, there’s a dash of serendipity that feels like design. Seated on the ground, leaning on the shop’s front, a homeless man is engrossed in a book. A hardback, no less.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.