The Department Store, Brixton, Gets a New Lease of Life

Squire & Partners has transformed Brixton’s old department store into a contemporary new office space to rival Google HQ – and you’re welcome to hang out in it. There’s a rooftop guest restaurant, a downstairs event space, and street-facing cafe, record shop and bar. The Resident finds out more…

Words: Georgina Blaskey

When London-based architects Squire & Partners decided to relocate its headquarters from King’s Cross to Brixton in 2015, it may have seemed an unusual decision. But an afternoon spent nosing around the shiny new office – The Department Store – it’s easy to understand how anyone with an eye for design, a sense of history and a love of collaboration would be unable to resist this development opportunity.

The building, launched in 1876 by James Smith, a local businessman from Tooting who won £80,000 when his horse won at Newmarket, was inspired by the opulence of the original Bon Marche department store in Paris. Smith embarked on creating an unrivalled shopping destination in Brixton, and the first steel-framed building in the UK.

After almost 50 years as a retail destination and a brief stint as a bomb shelter during World War II, the building went from office block to vacant site, when squatters moved in and left their legacy of street-inspired artwork.

At the helm of the development was Tim Gledstone, one of the firm’s four partners. Embracing the history of the building in all its guises, Squire & Partners stripped it back to its raw state to reveal a decayed grandeur and an extraordinary commitment to craft and detail by the original artisans of the day.

The practice sought to reveal and highlight these elements as well as exposing remnants left by more recent inhabitants (the squatters’ artwork harmoniously shares space with the 1906 Burmese teak floor), while adding a series of sensitive interventions to re-purpose the building as an inspiring workspace.

Collaborating with local artists and businesses has always been important to Squire & Partners, which championed Brixton as a Design District at the London Design Festival

The grand central staircase was revealed when an existing lift shaft was removed, uncovering decorative metalwork, carved mahogany handrails and green patterned tiles. The original double-height stained-glass windows have been brought back to life under a new timber-framed roof lantern, creating a bright, naturally lit staircase. There are also a series of external terraces where staff can catch a break.

Part of the legacy of this extraordinary development is to share it with the Brixton community, and collaborating with local artists and businesses has always been important to Squire & Partners, which championed the area to become one of the seven Design Districts at the London Design Festival and hosted a series of design events.

Monthly talks throughout the year connect local businesses to each other and projects involving neighbourhood schools are already well established. At Christmas, Stockwell Primary School designed lights for the ground-floor display windows on Ferndale Road.

With prime street frontage, Squire & Partners’ in-house modelshop reveals the process of experiment and making within the office, which can be seen from the street.

Along this stretch at street level there are also local businesses occupying a series of further creative and retail units, including a roastery for Volcano Coffee, Kaboola Kitchen, Pure Vinyl record shop and Canova Hall, an all-day local hangout to eat, drink and hot desk. Oh, and there’s a guest restaurant with rooftop terrace on the top floor that Squire & Partners is trying to get licensed to make it more widely available. See you there…