The architect behind Bonhams' cutting-edge headquarters gives Hugh Pearman a guided tour
Alex Lifschutz bowls up on his Brompton bike, smiling broadly. The award-winning architect has come to show me his transformation of Bonhams New Bond Street headquarters, which is in its final frenzy of construction the day we meet. He does not disappoint: this is a very clever project, inserting a large, handsome new building into the heart of the London art world. Bonhams is suddenly a very different, and very stylish, well-equipped place.
Having cut his professional teeth working for Norman Foster on one of the leading buildings of the late 20th century, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank HQ, Lifschutz set up his own firm, now Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS). The practice was involved in a series of South Bank projects including Oxo Tower Wharf, the pedestrian Hungerford Bridge and the latest new building to emerge from Lifschutz's practice – and attracting a lot of favourable attention – is the ambitious JW3 building in Finchley. The elegant low-slung liner of a building is inclusive and outward-looking, and described as "a home for all who are interested in Jewish life".
Lifschutz, who is married to the author Monique Charlesworth, trained first in sociology and psychology at Bristol University, then switched to architecture studies at London's famously avant-garde Architectural Association – where he later served as president. But he has adroitly avoided typecasting. His busy west London studio designs offices, arts and community centres, street furniture, shops and department stores, you name it, always with flair and a touch of pzazz. Lifschutz designs for rich and poor alike, and all the while he has never seen any reason why modernism shouldn't be fun as well as good. Which is why the new Bonhams has a touch of upmarket theatre about it.
"This was the original saleroom," says Lifschutz as we start our tour in Blenstock House, the 1938 Art Deco building on Blenheim Street that has served as the main entrance to Bonhams while the rebuilding work went on behind. "It's a modest building, but we started here in order to free up the rest of the site. The idea was that every move we made would make the thing better."
A glance at one of the sketches he has brought with him reveals that this job is akin to a Chinese puzzle. To renew this assortment of spaces – something he has been quietly getting on with over a number of years – means you have to shuffle everyone around while keeping the place operating normally. That's not easy anywhere, but it's especially difficult in this characterful, landlocked location. But Bonhams very much wanted to stay on this prime site it took over in 2001 when it merged with Phillips, its great rival from Georgian times.
Lifschutz warms to his theme. "The auction business is very much a cross between warehouse and office," he says. "The item comes in, it generally sits by the people who are going to look at it, assess it, photograph it, value it and write about it. Then it goes to the auction, and then it's gone. So you need quite generous spaces." We leave the building and take a right down New Bond Street.
Lifschutz points out the ultra-slender 1906 facade of the building that gives Bonhams its 101 New Bond Street address. It's a classic slice of Edwardian commercial London, scarcely more than a room wide but five storeys tall and using every trick of architectural ornament to get noticed ("Narrow, boastful" as the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner had it). At first I can't see what Lifschutz has done here. Then we enter the building and I have the full coup de théâtre: the building is hollowed out, right up to its roof, a pure white space with undulating walls and concealed lighting. It's a way of making a grand, memorable entrance out of something initially unpromising.
This brings you to the middle of the new salerooms, of which there are three, one on top of the other, with the traditional carpeted walls for picture hanging, in a colour resembling imperial purple. The staircases are very dark blue steel carapaces with oak linings. Above the ground-floor saleroom is a mezzanine 'skybox' and meeting room for clients wishing to see how a sale is going. All three salerooms have generous ceiling heights, making them airy, attractive spaces. You can hang motor cars, even planes, from the ceiling if you wish, while the floors are strong enough to take the heaviest sculptures. And – here's the big move – a whole new façade on to Haunch of Venison Yard, with a bank of glass lifts bringing daylight into the heart of the building. This for Lifschutz is the key: having previously had 1906 and 1938 facades, Bonhams now also has a 2013 one, a striking new presence complete with café to animate this previously little-frequented area.
All this is built over an impending Crossrail station right next to one of the busiest streets in London. But Lifschutz has the knack of making the fiendishly complex seem utterly simple. "There you are," he says, pausing to slap the contractor on the back and tell him he's done a damn good job. "That's it."
We retreat to a nearby café for a gossip. "You should take a look at some of the other auction houses round here," he suggests. "They haven't got anything like this."
Hugh Pearman is the architecture critic of The Sunday Times and editor of the RIBA Journal.
In praise of the new
If you care about cities and buildings, you have to believe in change. The parts of London everyone loves – Bloomsbury, Belgravia, Pimlico – were built by developers. One of the very first was Nicholas Barbon, whose buildings were constructed after the Great Fire of London, connecting the City and Westminster. He was also the author of A Discourse of Trade (1690), in which he explains that buildings are "the most proper and visible distinction of Riches and Greatness because the Expenses are too great for Mean Persons to follow". Nice thought.
Our concept of the past is not fixed but evolving. The vision of our past changes as often as that of the future. John Cage put it well: "The past must be invented / The future must be revised."
We need new buildings because they are signs of growth and optimism. Only dead systems stop evolving, and who wants to live in a dead city? The National Trust suggests that a great building existed at a single moment in time and should be maintained at that moment for all eternity. But you don't finish a building or a city; you start it.
Cities must be dynamic. The best have layers and textures and contrasts. The best offer citizens and visitors fears and challenges, thrills and surprises, not cosily curated and meticulously footnoted historical experiences.
Venice and Florence are examples of what happens when no new buildings are allowed. Change is forbidden, so the Pearl of the Adriatic and the City of Flowers have become museum-ified. Venice has resisted every innovation except tourism – the one that daily accelerates its deterioration. Florence's problems might be lessened were it a city where new building and business were allowed, giving the citizens pride in their present and a hope for the future, rather than insisting on imprisonment in the past.
One of the greatest truths about cities is found in Lampedusa's magnificently melancholic The Leopard. In a decaying Palermitan palazzo we hear the unforgettable sentence, "If we want things to stay the same, they must change." So cities must make new buildings. The alternative is to acknowledge defeat and embrace despair.
Nostalgia, remember, was originally a psychiatric disorder. Of course, that does not mean all new buildings are good. In my opinion, a lot of new buildings aren't. But the solution is not to resist every change in the city with a sullen negativism similar to the obduracy of an Amazon tribe offered plumbing.
Instead, the sensible thing is to encourage conscientious change. Design is all about the care and forethought that go into any project. We need more design awareness, not less new building. We need to develop a critical language and an environment of thought where mediocrity is impossible. And one in which developers compete not just for a fast buck, but in a contest for popular beauty.
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist and curator. His most recent book is Ugly: The Aesthetics Of Everything (2012).