Last year Centre Point turned 50. And just 12 months ago the 33-storey tower looked its age.
A dull, smog and smoke-stained facade partially obscured by a scaffold mesh, neither time nor luck has been on this West End building’s side since it was built as a speculative office space by property tycoon Harry Hyams in 1966.
Since that original £5.5m build it has remained pretty much vacant thanks to Hyams’ fierce and unwavering belief that he could fill it with a single tenant. He couldn’t – and didn’t – for nearly two decades.
Rather than setting the benchmark for modern central London commercial office space, Centre Point became synonymous with “the other end” of Oxford Street, WC1, and a paltry smattering of occupier activity that eventually earned it the moniker “London’s empty skyscraper.”
But this year, as the building turned 51, signs of a very different future started to emerge from the shell of this former blot on the London skyline.
Following Almacantar’s purchase of the building for £120m backed by the Agnelli family in 2011, consent was given in July 2013 to convert the office building into 82 luxury flats and now, the first of those are available to view.
EG took an exclusive tour.
The first thing that strikes you about the refurbished building – apart from not having to risk life and limb crossing Oxford Street or Charing Cross Road to get to it, thanks to the exits at the new Tottenham Court Road station – is the interior.
Almacantar has worked closely with Rick Mather Architects and Conran & Partners on the design to embrace, rather than shun, Centre Point’s 1960s vintage.
From restoring or replicating the original tile patterns to an abundance of monochrome, its new style takes the beleaguered 1960s legacy and repackages it for a modern asset. And a modern buyer.
The result, accentuated by clever room dressings and old-school leather-cased record players, is something Don Draper would be proud of.
“It does feel very Mad Men,” says Almacantar project director Kathrin Hersel while on a tour of one of the £8m, three-bedroom flats. “All it needs is a whiskey cupboard.”
The dark and light theme begins in the foyer. Slate-coloured floor tiles contrast with the newly restored and polished white tiles of two original benches that have been moved inside after years on the street where they were open to the elements, and a tangled light installation by artist Cerith Wyn Evans.
The design style is the most prevalent in the flats, which are 50% sold.
“The buyers are 50% domestic and 50% overseas, with a lot of interest from Asia,” says Hersel.
“We have had quite a lot of young buyers in their 20s looking for somewhere near university or Soho, where they can easily go out, and also a lot of empty-nesters looking to move back into the city.
“The 7,223 sq ft, five-bedroom duplex penthouse, which hit headlines with its £55m price tag back in May 2015, is still up for grabs. But for a more modest investment, the one-bedroom flats start at £2m and the three-bedroom flats at £8m.
The latter take up an entire floorplate each, around 4,000 sq ft, and have both City and West End views.
Hersel adds that because of the two-core structure of the tower, and the fact there are 40 flats in each, even though there are four one or two-bedroom flats per floor lower down the building, everyone will only have one neighbour. However, there will obviously only be a view in one direction.
“I don’t think we have noticed a preference either way,” she says. “I thought the West End views and looking down Oxford Street would be more popular. But once people get into the building and look out over the City, it is just so iconic.”
She adds that the monochrome colour palette, starting with a dark entrance hall in each flat that leads into a much lighter living room and kitchen, was a conscious design decision to draw from the history of the building.
“Essentially, when it comes to the major growth and development of this area, Centre Point has always been here,” she says. “There has been so much happening around it that we wanted to mark the history.”
True, for the past five decades Centre Point has been there. But with such a non-descript history in terms of its performance as a central London asset, Hersel concedes that since work started on the project six years ago, a lot has had to be done to restore it – not even to its former glory, but to any sort of glory at all.
“The facade has been cleaned and that was the first big step,” she says. “Now this beige building has appeared and it actually looks fresh and modern. You can see it again now.
“The infrastructure and the way the building is now stitched back into the urban fabric has helped with that. You always knew Centre Point was here, but I think people overlooked it as the previous building because it didn’t add anything to the area and it was hard to access.”
This is no longer the case, thanks to its ground-level entrance and those aforementioned exits at the new Tottenham Court Road station and soon-to-be Crossrail terminal, though Hersel adds this has been a mixed blessing.
“In terms of interest and investment in the area, Crossrail is great and it will be really special for residents,” she says.
“But in terms of development, it was not easy construction-wise having the Crossrail build going on at the same time just next door. They weren’t quite going right under the building, but near enough. Liaising with that team took a lot of time and work for the project management team here.”
As for other challenges, she highlights the hurdles that arose working on a refurbishment project using original building plans.
Apart from the relative ease of starting a new building from scratch where you have a “blank canvas” and are “in control”, she points out that 50 years ago, plans were not what they are today.
“We have CAD and very accurate plans to work from these days,” she says. “But back when this building was designed, the lines were drawn in a way where a wall on the plan could look to be one thickness and it wasn’t until we got to it that we realised it was a different size.
“When we went to extend the lift course down into the basement, we thought we would be drilling through a few inches of concrete and when we got to it we discovered it was actually several feet deep.
“We think this was probably because when it was built there were concrete trucks coming in and out and rather than bother taking the leftover concrete away with them, they just kept pouring it into the basement.”
It’s all in the timing
Building-specific challenges aside, there is little doubt that with the imminent arrival of Crossrail, the future of what has long been written off as the run-down end of Oxford Street is on an upward trajectory.
With the likes of Exemplar’s Avenue scheme, Derwent London’s proposed Soho Place and Great Portland Estates’ Rathbone Square all springing up around the same area, Hersel is convinced the time for Centre Point is now.
“I genuinely think it’s all good stuff to see these other projects in the area,” she says.
“In terms of competition for Centre Point, we don’t see it that way as this is a very different project. It’s luxury residential for a start and most other buildings around here stop at 10 floors. We continue to 34 and it is pretty noticeable from up here that there really is nothing like this for quite some distance.”
The project will also include 45,000 sq ft of retail which will open next spring.
“There will be a lot of restaurants here, which will cement our position,” says Hersel. “The hope is that this will make this part of London somewhere that used to be a place people passed through… to a place that people will want to stop and spend time in.”
If the theme for the interiors of this new residential tower is a nod to 1960s monochrome, the hope for Centre Point is that its fortune will reflect the dark to light colour scheme.
From the transformation of a dingy facade to the creation of a well-performing asset, the future for London’s former “empty skyscraper” is certainly looking much brighter.