A design for life: The quest for impeccable interiors at Gabriel Square
PUBLISHED: 10:50 10 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:23 10 May 2018
The Gabriel Square development on London Road, St Albans, is almost complete, but getting here hasn't been easy. Jan Janecek, who led Conran's design team, tells Richard Burton how they did it.
Jan Janecek is showing me the kitchen. It’s a Poggenpohl, but with a twist; newly fitted, unused and brochure perfect. Casually, he grabs two sides of the island unit and moves it a few inches.
“No services,” he says, straightening it up again. I think he says surfaces and run my hand across the worktop. But, of course, he means what he says; no power points or plumbing, the cables and pipes that would normally secure it into position.
“It must be my German accent,” he jokes. But there was no misunderstanding how this fitted into his thinking. Even in the kitchen he wanted flexibility of space.
“An extra 100mm in any direction can make all the difference,” he said. “It’s about how you see your lifestyle.”
And as I was to discover, there’s been an awful lot of attention to detail in bringing to life, not just the redevelopment of what many will remember as the old Eversheds print factory site, but something that raises the bar in terms of making a city centre renowned for its period mix, seriously cool.
All of which of course is why he and his team from Conran and Partners were brought in by developer Meyer Homes in the first place.
Fresh from the Barbican where he worked on bringing uber-trendy apartments to the Grade II-listed Blake Tower, they arrived just as the construction work was coming to a close.
They spent days strolling around the city, getting the buzz of places like French Row and soaking up the calm of the cathedral lawns. And, of course, they ate out and spoke to people around them, taking time to build a picture of life in St Albans.
Those impressions – and the striking external concepts that came from the drawing board of architects Benson & Forsyth, resulted in a colour palette; one which took inspiration from, for example, the sandstone of the cathedral and posed the question, how can we translate that? Or, in his words, find the “vernacular context”.
“We were getting a feel of the atmosphere and energy,” he said. “We’d noted how people dress and occasionally took a peek through a doorway here and there. We soaked it all up, along with the richness of the architectural fabric.
“We, basically, looked at the area and the amenities and worked to harmonise that, taking the concept of the space outside and continuing it through to the inside; taking the heritage of the modem classic concept of the architecture and moving it forward.”
All that became apparent as we strolled our way around the four floors (plus roof terrace) of one of the townhouses, its French lime-clad walls shimmering in the late afternoon sunshine over the newly-unveiled central garden square.
As did more of that detail; evident in so many ways, such as the way the kitchen wall units don’t join to the end to create a traditional L-shape and the white Corian surfaces, when seen from the floor above, appear statement smooth and continuous.
He points to the niche under the corner unit, created to house the toaster and the espresso machine, reducing clutter and maintaining those lines.
There’s even a clever visual separation between the cojoined floor-standing and wall units to improve the view of the side elevation from the courtyard.
Like I said, Poggenpohl with a twist. The +Segmento handleless units are still every bit the white lacquered superbrand, but just not off the shelf. “The challenge was how far we could push them to reflect our design,” says Jan. “But they were on-board and fine with it.”
The detail continued as we moved through to one of the bathrooms; notable for its all-in-one sink, shelf and facia unit.
Jan runs his hands along the corner edges of the Laufen basin; they’re slightly rounded, “not sharp, more tactile”. And there’s no flush handle to jar the eye. Instead, there’s a button on the side wall that pipes air into the cistern.
We pause at the staircase, a light wood and glass where the balusters would be, and he urges me to look up and down, getting a clear feeling of vertical space, created to compliment the horizontal; the length and breadth of the ground floor, at the “axis” as he calls it.
“You come in and feel you can breathe,” he says.
But creating that involved more than simply widening the stair core, something that, in itself, meant post-completion changes.
He felt the doors either side of the hallway segmented the layout too much so he decided to have them removed, the openings widened with doors sliding back into the walls to give a more open-plan option.
“We had to sell the idea to the client but they understood,” he said. “The openings were already cast so it made us very popular! It did take longer but it created what we wanted. And it was worth it, as you can see.”
That, of course, meant ripping open 52 townhouses, already complete and ready for the finishing touches? He shrugs and smiles at that. “But it was worth it.”
Detail again. Some would say, mere detail, because in the bigger picture, the whole scheme represents a brave and quite radical departure from what you’d expect in a typical dormitory town attracting commuter types expecting perhaps to revel in the Roman heritage.
It was born out of the growing desire to bring a taste of the city into the suburbs. The result is an extraordinary development of townhouses and duplex apartments, set around a garden square that wouldn’t be out of place in a postcode that includes a stretch of the Thames.
Occupying a site big enough for a small football stadium, it peeks discreetly over terraces that flank London Road and Alma Road, close to the fittingly art-deco Odyssey cinema.
Meyer Homes have referred to this as a game-changer for the local market and a desire to make a bold statement.
About 40 per cent of the homes are currently sold or under offer, many of them to locals, and the first residents have already begun moving it.
Steve Walker, director of estate agent Collinson Hall, the agency marketing it, said there had been a wide range of viewers and all had been “wowed” by what they had seen.
“When you’ve been living with a project like this for so long it’s easy to become complacent but it’s telling that someone who joined our sales team recently said she hadn’t seen anything like it in any new development,” he added. “She was blown away by it.”
Conran director Simon Kincaid said his vision was to create an experience akin to “something you’d find in Zone 2”.
He described it as “something that feels very integral, that allows the inside and the outside to be connected. Something well considered, with a sense of generosity in the right areas.”
And does he feel they’ve achieved that? “I certainly think so. I don’t think people will feel they’ve had to compromise by moving out here and not living in King’s Cross.”