Neu Architects Hit the Mark for the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

Neu Architects Hit the Mark for the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths

Neu Architects have completed the remodelling of the Assay Office, London, part of one of Britain's oldest and most prestigious organisations, The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. The result is a sleek and contemporary £1.2m refurbishment of retail, office and leisure spaces within the Goldsmiths' Hall, which uses 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 charitable arm also set up the world-renowned Goldsmiths' College, where young designers and artists study before going out into industry and the creative world.

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.

"We had used Neu to do our Greville Street operation and we were very impressed," said Dr Robert Organ of the Assay Office. "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, office and leisure, but it also incorporated an extremely complex brief, which required rigorous 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 hallmarking process."

The brief to Neu Architects was to give customers a superb up-to-date environment to represent the modern business of hallmarking. Not only did it have to offer customers a high-tech service while improving the speed and efficiency of the Assay workflow, but also to imbue the staff with a sense of pride in their workspace. Previous ad hoc alterations had caused spatial inefficiencies with staff split across three floors, and circulation clashes had resulted in poor workflow. All areas desperately needed to be reorganised and brought up to date.

"The brief was to create a modern, professional working environment that satisfied the functional needs to create a really efficient Assay Office," explained Dr Robert Organ. "Also, in recent years, we like to show our customers around the office and therefore we needed an environment that would reflect our ambition and provide a better experience of our services. We wanted customers to feel confident that when they brought their work in, it would be treated as if they were our own objects - and with some style. The Goldsmiths' Company is a very historic institution that has always been associated with excellence - both the building itself and the high quality of silversmithing and goldsmithing we provide. The Assay Office therefore needed to be consistent with this sense of excellence and to be sympathetic to the building, as well as being up to date."

Existing Site
Customers would arrive at the rear entrance of the great romantic Baroque hall, only to be deposited into a 1970's 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."

Proposal and Final Design
Neu Architects approached this project very carefully; they were embarking on making the most profound changes to the building since it was completed 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 had to be cleverly worked on to maintain the initial concept. Techniques such as printing, stamping, laser cutting, bending and shaping were used in the design to echo the hallmarking craft.

Neu Architects felt the new Assay office had to be a jewel to match some of the amazing pieces of work that have been hallmarked there such as Damien Hirst's, "For the Love of God" diamond-studded skull and Marc Quinn's "Siren": a 50kg gold statue of Kate Moss.

"Our proposals had to be submitted for a complex series of 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 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 is modern, but very much based on tradition and inspired by the Goldsmiths' incredible heritage," added Neu Architects' Co-Director Silka Gebhardt, "with particular inspiration taken from the company's leopard's head mark."

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 secure, 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 it," explained Silka Gebhardt. "This meant that it has a translucent quality and is flat to the touch, maintaining a sense of mystery to its appearance. The Assay Office logo and name are carved from the front so that they can be touched and felt, echoing the traditional hallmarking procedure." When the lights are turned off at night, both engravings seem to disappear completely.

The walls of the entrance space are clad in a bespoke Goldsmiths' 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 elegant 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 operate 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, allowing privacy for the secure areas 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 noticeboard 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, reflective and illuminated, in this area play off one another to create both spatial illusions and historical allusions.

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 in 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.

The second floor lost the former staff area and a new office and meeting room space were created in its place, accessed by a walnut lined corridor wall with deep doorways, which houses all the fire and lighting systems for the jewel of the building - The Livery Hall - below. The opposite wall sees the third use of the bespoke Goldsmiths' wallpaper (with the 4th usage in the new meeting room and the 5th in Robert Organ's private office). 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, housing 'hidden' cupboards, including a TV/presentation screen. The flooring here is carpeted (Broadloom 56 Silver Milne by Lionheart) and the freestanding furniture is from SCP.

The female toilets and changing areas on this floor were retained, but refurbished, whilst the previous (huge!) gentlemen's toilet was reduced, thereby creating enough space for a further new office for Robert Organ. This simple new office features a walnut veneer table (unifying finishes), bespoke Goldsmiths' wallpaper and a storage unit from KI Furniture, which Neu Architects adapted for the space with a new walnut veneer surround.

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.

"We noticed that staff in the workshop area liked to personalise their spaces with plants and family photos," Ben Paul explained, "So in the workspaces we put pinboard at eye level all around the edges of the space, as well as a trough between the work stations to house their own plants."

The new staff cafe is on the workflow route as it winds its way around the building. The glass screen acts like a cafe shopfront onto the busy "street" of activity that passes along the ramped corridor outside. The inset lights along one side play on the "runway" idea. Overhead in the canteen is reinstated skylight which floods the space with daylight, whilst a series of three Louis Poulsen satellite pendant lights add further light and reflectivity against the black glass installation beyond. The high-spec kitchen area features stainless steel units and bespoke Plexwood cupboards, matching the tables and benches in the space. Deep, chocolate-brown "Karlstad" sofas line the glass wall along the side of the space and a television, bookshelves and internet facilities are all housed at one end. Flooring is a dark, grained Artigo rubber.

"The staff area had been reduced in size and so what we replaced it with really had to be good!" commented Silka Gebhardt. "Our client asked for a canteen space to rival the high-street, and that's what we created. The final space was so well-received that within days, workers had brought in salt and pepper sets for all the tables and created a library space filled with their own books in the corner. It is treated with great respect and kept absolutely spotless!"

After inspecting the finished scheme, Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for English Heritage, was very impressed with what she saw commenting 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!"

Photographs: David Hiscock

Neu Architects

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