High & I
The Eco-maniacs who believe in Tower Power
At an age when contemporaries dream of, say, integrated transport policies while drawing up plans for yet another flat-roof extension in Tufnell Park, Nadi Jahangiri and Ken Hutt are working on their first major tower block under their own steam. Yes, tower block.
As two of the hottest young architects in Britain today, the co-founders of m3 architects in Clerkenwell are doing as much as anyone, save perhaps their old boss Sir Norman Foster, to rescue those two words from opprobrium and suspicion.
And suddenly, it seems, the skyscraper's moment might finally have come after years in which, they were seen as monuments to man's inhumanity to pram-pushers and postmen, and their architects were demonised - like the ageing drivers of red sports cars - as men with huge egos and small todgers.
Nowhere, ironically, has there been more hostility than in the City, where the lifts did at least actually work and tended not to smell of wee, except after the Christmas party or a long board meeting. The very place where they had the money to maintain tower blocks in something like the shape that the architects had intended - that is, without multi-coloured fly curtains flapping on 26th floor balconies and without plastic statues of the Madonna sat facing outwards on window sills - was the place of most resistance.
All that, however, has had to change. The Corporation of London has watched as large financial institutions have been lured eastwards by its rival, Canary Wharf, and has now recognised that Baroque banking halls might make fine All Bar Ones but not trading floors. Earlier this year, it finally relaxed its attitude towards tall buildings. Pretty soon it will have the chance to demonstrate its new tower tolerance when Nadi, 37, and Ken, 34, finalise plans for a 108-floor tower in Aldgate, which will be twice the height of the NatWest Tower but will look as light as spun sugar. They are not ones to hedge their bets, mind, and have managed to find a site, if not yet a developer (they are still looking), wholly free of the normal restrictions on height put in place to protect the views of St Paul's. Good job, as this will be one of the top five tallest buildings in the world.
The tower, an elongated boat's sail, will contain offices and dealing floors, a swish hotel, posh flats, top-floor restaurant and - they've sold it to me already - 12 floors of shops. "You could say that it is going out on a limb height-wise," says Ken. Environment-wise also. For while a symbol, presumably, of the City's virility and status as Europe's financial capital, it won't have the same middle-finger-raised attitude to its surroundings as its more brutalist architectural antecedents. To say that it will be environmentally friendly is something of an understatement. It will be positively fawning. Instead of sapping energy from the national grid, its occupants will "hot-desk" - their computers will be powered by the building's solar-cell cladding.
But then it's not called Ecotower for nothing. "The name sort of says it all," says Nadi. Yes, there might be a certain amount of machismo in building that high, but that isn't all. "It happens to be a tower, but the key issue is not height. The vital aspect is that it has a considerably lower energy load than other buildings of that size." There aren't, of course, too many of those in this country, though there might be a few more following Ecotower's example. "It is a question of leadership and making things fruity," says Nadi. "I'm not being trivial, but the point at which lead-free petrol became mainstream was the day the Queen converted the Rollers."
There might also, in time, be more domestic buildings that pack in as much eco-consciousness, which is one of their fundamental design criteria, but not their "holy grail". Just imagine, Nadi says, if house-builders took on board their ideas and started putting up homes that created more energy than they consumed. "If you had three million homes producing a kilowatt each, you could get rid of a power station. Do you know that in Spain if you generate electricity they will pay you more than they would charge you for it. Sounds like German for free, doesn't it?"
Their designs might be a bit up in the air - 460 metres up, in the case of Ecotower - but they are architects with feet firmly on the ground. Say what you like about plans for 108-floor skyscrapers, they cannot be accused of grandiosity. Two years ago, they were just two in a crowd of 400 at Sir Norman Foster and Partners. Admittedly not any old practice. Though there wasn't much hope of them ever grabbing the limelight off the man himself, arguably the finest architect of our age, they were at least spared the tedium faced by contemporaries elsewhere. They helped him remodel the Reichstag in Berlin as the new home of the German government. Ken also led his architectural advance on Scotland and was director of the Millennium Tower project at the Baltic Exchange.
But then they gave it all up, the riverside offices in Battersea, the grands projets, the Pret a Manger sarnies - for two first floor rooms in Goswell Road with woodchip on the walls and thunderous traffic outside. They decided to go it alone with no guarantee, other than five years each at Foster and Partners on their CVs and their considerable technical nouse, that life would offer them anything more than mansard roofs and lateral conversions.
They must have either been barmy - or blessed with a premonition of startling success. In just two. years they have already helped design a new hotel for Anouska Hempel, doyenne of the depressingly minimalist Blakes and the (modestly named) Hempel. Despite the celebrity commissions - more of which to follow - they are more exercised by what's happening near home (Nadi lives in Highbury, Ken in Stoke Newington) than in the pages of Blueprint. "You can't be snobby about the work you do," says Nadi. He talks with as much pride about bread-and-butter domestic projects - in Cloudesley Square - as about the 92-bedroom hotel in Stratford that has just been given the go-ahead or the plans for a huge development on the Chicago waterfront. They also have designs on the universally reviled Guardian building in Farringdon Road, even if the Guardian Media Group don't know it yet. In their game of fantasy architecture - easy since the death of the drawing board and the advent of computerised plans - they strip the building of its grim ribbed concrete cladding and replace it with curved panes of etched glass to emulate rolls of newsprint.
The Camden Square clients came to them in shock, having been told it would cost £20,000 to refit their kitchen by one of the most reputable companies in the game. That didn't even include the cost of remedial structural work or removing the old kitchen. For less than that, m3 gave them a new kitchen and garden. "Cost," says Ken, "doesn't follow design pedigree. Residential clients imagine it's going to cost them an arm and a leg. But we believe very strongly that good design shouldn't cost you more but that it should give you more. Good design is making your budget work twice as hard."
It is also, very rarely, about making noses bleed. They would like to think it was the excitement of first seeing their plans for his hi-tech, flat-pack holiday home that brought on Stirling Moss's trickle. Perhaps it was the sunloungers, which rotate automatically to face the sun ("very Martini ad," says Ken), or the K9-style "smart butler", which will beg for commands the minute its master sets foot through the door. "What's it called? Yeah, that's it. Robo-slave or something," says Ken. "I thought it was a gimmick too far," says Nadi. "He thought it was hot stuff."
So he does. "They have gone way beyond what even I had envisaged," says the motor racing legend, although the connection between his excitement and nosebleed is "architectural licence". He would be no stranger to that; his Mayfair home looks how Tomorrow's World in the '70s envisaged the '90s.
What they have designed for him is a holiday home that can be packed up in four shipping containers and transported anywhere in the world (Moss goes looking for a site for it in Southern Spain this month). It can also be programmed by mobile phone, so that on arrival the bath will be run, the shutters raised and the lights turned on.
"If you're gagging for a cup of tea, you can even turn the kettle on by phone..." says Nadi. "Or if you fancy a swim, the pool is heated," adds Ken. "This is the thing, apparently, if you're a 70-year- old toff with a holiday home." says Nadi. "We simply couldn't have invented him."
A Chartered Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects