London-based architects Nex- unveil new restaurant and roof garden in Chelsea’s Duke of York Square
Nex-’s much anticipated restaurant building on Duke of York Square – a new leisure destination in the heart of Chelsea - has opened its doors. Designed for Cadogan, the building forms the final element in the redevelopment of the square. Housed within the space is Vardo – a stylish new restaurant by the team behind Caravan Restaurants – and the building also incorporates a new rooftop garden, enhancing the public realm in the midst of the bustling King’s Road.
Nex- were commissioned by Cadogan following an international design competition that sought a new and distinctive restaurant which could be a focal point for the square. Nex- looked to add further value by creating a dynamic and sculptural building that respects and enhances its prestigious surroundings, while incorporating new public space and greenery.
Nex-’s point of departure was a Grade II listed wall – originally part of an earlier military asylum on the site but which stood slightly incongruously at the edge of the square. The new restaurant’s ambitious spiralling form is defined by a slender off-white concrete wall that curls upwards from the square, and conceptually offers a contemporary continuation of the historic wall. While large openings housing the main restaurant space can be seen as a classically-informed colonnade, its impressive form and sense of movement nevertheless give the restaurant an unmistakably contemporary character. As a piece of architecture that offers pleasing views when approached from all sides, the completed building is a graceful addition to the square with an intriguing and welcoming presence.
The sweeping curves of the large plate glass windows within the colonnade mirror the modernist façade of the Grade II* listed Peter Jones department store nearby, while pioneering technology continues that spirit of glazing experimentation. A bespoke steel frame prevented the need for horizonal mullions, thus preserving the purity of the building’s design. Moreover, the panels within the three wider openings are retractable, completely opening up the ground floor space during fine weather and allowing the restaurant to spill onto the surrounding Duke of York Square, while the roof continues to provide shade.
Although similar retraction systems have been installed outside the UK, all have used straight panels. This makes the restaurant the first example of a retractable curved glass system in the world, while celebrating a mechanism that is as strikingly simple as a weighted sash window, sliding down gracefully into a basement trench.
A gently curving staircase, contained within the outermost limb of the building’s spiral, leads to a stylish roof garden above the restaurant. Open freely to the public and accessed independently from the space below, this garden is a generous ‘gift’ to the neighbourhood where people can sit or spend time among the canopies of surrounding trees, raised up from the bustle of the busy square and road below. Timber decking offers a welcoming external finish to the roof garden, while large planters embedded within the spiralling shape of the building, see the introduction of diverse and luscious herbal planting, promoting biodiversity and creating a comfortable environment. Soft external lighting makes it a particularly effective space at night where people can find new connections with their historical surroundings.
Nex-‘s elegant and sensitive approach to the building’s exterior is also reflected in the interior spaces, as the ribbon-like outer shell culminates in the concrete service core at the heart of the restaurant, continuing the high-quality, minimalist finish. Within the space, delicate structural arches emphasise the airy spaciousness of the restaurant, and replicate the patterning found in the smooth, polished concrete edges of the external building form. This contemporary cohesion can also be seen in the refined choice of terrazzo flooring, a seamless continuation of the subtle material details found across the project.
The material-focused interior is complemented by the intricate craftsmanship found in the ceiling. Ash wood slats are carefully arranged to celebrate the building’s spiral form, adding a sense of movement to the space, and even following the path of the stairs down to the basement. The large glass windows flood the restaurant with natural light, while small spotlights embedded between the ceiling slats - alongside delicate fabric choices for the curtains - enhance the comfortable, warm glow within the open-plan space, and contrast with the tougher concrete and steel surfaces elsewhere.
Building upon Nex-‘s refined approach to the internal space, the interior fit-out of the restaurant to reflect its food concept was completed by Box 9 design and Rebecca Richwhite, in partnership with Laura Harper-Hinton, co-founder and creative director of Caravan Restaurants. The fit-out of the 100-cover restaurant - which is named after the beautiful Romani travelling wagons or ‘vardos’ of the 1800s - is inspired by the raw canvas of the vardo itself, including natural woods, stones, fabrics and plant life.
Downstairs, an intimate private dining room continues the restaurant’s interior fit-out concept, featuring elements such as built-in seating, wood-panelled and quilted walls, and vintage lighting. The basement level also contains the restaurant kitchen, WCs and plant – including the trenches for the glazing mechanism where its large steel counterweights are housed.
Despite its relatively small scale, the restaurant is the result of an extraordinarily thoughtful design process. The glazing system alone amounted to around 2,500 hours of research and development by Nex- and manufacturers and experts across Europe, while the design for the precast concrete wall segments was tested many times to ensure its slender 150mm profile could carry the building’s loads. Attention to detail is evident throughout – in the polished reveals of the window openings, the layout of the radiating timber soffit in the restaurant, or the specially designed retracting cills that prevent objects falling into the glazing trench.
The restaurant uses a semi-passive system to maximise performance and minimise energy use. The public areas are designed to be naturally ventilated throughout the year – either with the windows partially or fully retracted in fine weather, or with a 50mm opening at the top at other times for natural ventilation. An air source heat pump supplies heating in colder months. The precast concrete structure with its planted roof garden has a high thermal mass, while the glazing system has good environmental credentials and exceptional airtightness levels thanks to a bespoke sealing system. With its dedication to sustainability, the building achieves BREEAM ‘Excellent’, in turn becoming one of the greenest restaurant buildings in London.
Alan Dempsey, director of Nex-, said:
"As a practice, we strive to create architecture that connects people to the places around them, and it has been a pleasure to work alongside Cadogan and Caravan in translating this vision into a new leisure destination in the heart of Chelsea. With the restaurant now opening its doors, and the public rooftop garden already full of life, we’re excited to see the how the building transforms the Duke of York Square, uniting the area’s rich heritage with a contemporary new dining space and unmissable public space overlooking the bustle of the King’s Road."
Hugh Seaborn, Chief Executive of Cadogan, said:
“It is a privilege to be able to champion inspiring and innovative architecture. The new restaurant on Duke of York Square respects and complements its heritage surroundings, while representing the best in contemporary design. We’re delighted to welcome this new landmark for the King’s Road.”
The launch of VARDO within the Duke of York Restaurant comes in line with a culinary revival taking place across the King’s Road area. At the Sloane Square end, the first Costes Hotel outside of Paris will launch in 2020, next to the Royal Court Theatre, and will include a chic rooftop restaurant. In addition, the development at 196-222 King’s Road will include an art house cinema, rooftop restaurant and large new pub – joining The Cadogan Arms. These culinary hotspots add to the already rich offering of the area including Kutir, Adam Handling Chelsea, Rabbit, The Ivy Chelsea Garden, Sticks’n’Sushi and Bluebird, among many more.