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Biker Walls

Architects' Journal, 22 June 2000

George Demetri on Zen and the art of low maintenance at Harley-Davidson

'An eye-catching red brick drum has gone up just behind the King's Road in Chelsea. It would have been two storeys taller, had planning permission been forthcoming for the construction of upper floors. As it is, F W Warr & Sons had to be content with a lower two-storey oval-shaped building as showroom and offices for its flagship Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership. It can't be too disappointed however, given the spatial attributes and enlightened mix of materials specified by architect Cullum & Nightingale on a building which is a tremendous improvement on Warr's former accommodation.


'Opened in December last year, the new 3 million building comprises a showroom at ground-floor level with office accommodation above. It is attached to an existing workshop. The option for extending the building vertically is open, although at present the roof is used for motorcycle storage. The showroom is expressed on the elevation by full-height glazing, broken intermittently by brick-clad concrete piers, while the office accommodation above enjoys full-height, solid 215mm brick walling punctured by windows.

'The building's dynamic elliptical shape is a result of the architect's desire to maximise the corner site by exploiting the full perimeter and creating a building which is as visible as possible from the King's Road. This has been achieved by creating a tall, double-height showroom with a 5.5m clear internal floor-to-ceiling height, and by the use of eye-catching handmade, orange-red bricks both inside and out. Chosen for their glowing colour even in dull light they seem to suggest a hint of warm sunshine.


'The construction is a bit of a hybrid, with a concrete frame up to first-floor level and from there up a steel frame to make for easy connections, should further floors eventually be added. From a finishes point of view, the aim was to match the legendary engineering associated with the Harley brand and to reflect what the architects considered to be the key characteristics of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle: a sophisticated, functional and honest expression of all parts, using the highest quality materials.

'Driven by a dislike of cavity wall construction, the architects plumped for solid 215mm brickwork throughout which they feel has given numerous benefits, such as the creation of more satisfying reveals and associated aesthetic and solar-shading properties. Furthermore, the introduction of solid brickwork in Flemish bond with its alternating stretchers and headers could more easily accommodate the variable outer radius of the oval building without recourse to special-shaped radial bricks.

'The faceted brick-clad concrete columns extend well back into the showroom - there is a deep 1000mm reveal. To demonstrate that brickwork to the piers is purely cladding and not structural, stack bonding has been used, with bricks and brick slips tied back to the concrete with steel ties and mesh. Topped by reconstituted stone cappings, the piers extend well above the first floor level on the front elevation, although this is purely for visual effect, as the concrete frame terminates at the level of the first floor slab.

'Brick, wood and concrete are the main finishes in the showroom - deliberately functional and unadorned. Chosen for their low maintenance and attractive ageing characteristics, the effect can be described as sophisticated rather than brutal. The warmth and texture provided by the handmade bricks form a startling contrast to the extensive shiny, smooth chromework on the motorcycles. The services and vertical circulation core are expressed partly by superbly finished bullnosed concrete at either end and partly by a central panel of 215mm thick floor-to-ceiling brickwork in Flemish bond.

'The ultra-smooth finish to concrete columns was achieved by using plastic tubes as shuttering, while the fair-faced, in-situ cast ceiling also provides interest, thanks to its elaborate profile. Similar to a folded plate-type structure, it has provided an alternative solution to downstand beams which would have subdivided the soffit and destroyed the spatial continuity of the showroom. Viewed in section, the shallow triangles are actually beams which become deeper toward the service core wall. The zigzag alternations provide interesting junctions where they abut the wall of the service core. Further excitement will come when motorcycles are suspended from the ceiling so as to fully exploit the light and airy showroom space.

'The other main material of the showroom is wood. It appears on the floor as lacquered tongued and grooved walnut, and was chosen on aesthetic grounds and for its ability to withstand the heavy weights of the bikes. More auspicious are the highly polished, walnut-topped sales counters - the largest of which weighs over a ton. These monumental, highly polished lumps of cantilevered wood are supported on a chrome-finned structure reminiscent of both motorcycle and automobile radiators. This is not just fortuitous; they double up as air distribution grilles for the variable volume displacement ventilation system and contribute to controlling solar heat gains through the tall glazed facade. The latter uses a special glass designed to reduce solar glare and external reflections into the mainly west-facing showroom.

'Refinement, quality and excitement are all manifest in this stylish new showroom, making it a superb setting for the glamorous icons of personal transport on display.'