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Former College Is New Home for Storied Bookseller

Exterior rendering of the Portland stone and brick structure was originally built for the Saint Martin’s School of Art
The Portland stone and brick structure was originally built for the Saint Martin’s School of Art. The bookseller Foyles restored the brick facade as part of its rehabilitation project. © Hufton + Crow

A central, light-filled atrium rimmed with stairways defines the eight-story building that houses the flagship store of the internationally known bookseller Foyles.

July 15, 2014—Upon its relocation in London last month from 113–119 Charing Cross Road to 107 Charing Cross Road, the flagship store of the renowned bookseller Foyles became the largest bookstore to open in the United Kingdom this century, according to the retailer. Boasting 200,000 titles located on shelves extending a total length of 6.5 km—approximately the distance from the Battersea Power Station to the Tower of London—and 37,000 sq ft of retail space, the claim is more than justified. To make the move, the bookseller purchased the building that formerly housed the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and transformed it into an open-plan structure defined by an airy, light-filled central atrium.

“The old Foyles was a very difficult building to run a 21st-century retail operation out of—it was actually five buildings knocked together, but despite Foyles’ best efforts, it was in desperate need of an upgrade,” said Alex Lifschutz, who as the director of the London-based architecture studio Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands performed the design work for the project. Lifschutz wrote in response to questions posed by Civil Engineering online. Remodeling the existing bookstore was deemed impractical, Lifschutz said, so the company decided to relocate.

The first Foyles storefront opened on Charing Cross road in 1906

The first Foyles storefront opened on Charing Cross road in 1906.
William and Gilbert Foyle began the company as 17- and
18-year-old brothers in 1903, selling their textbooks from their
parent’s kitchen table. Foyle Archive

The building that Foyles has moved into, a Portland stone and brick structure with large, distinctive steel windows, was built for the Saint Martin’s School of Art (which later became Central Saint Martins) and the College of Printing and Distributive Trades in 1939, according to Lifschutz. E.P. Wheeler and H.F.T. Cooper, both of the London County Council Architects’ Department, designed the building, according to material provided by the architects. 

“The art school building presented Foyles with a fantastic opportunity to modernize their retail operation,” Lifschutz said. Central Saint Martins, which has moved to a new location within the city, is famous in its own right, numbering among its graduates the designers Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, according to material provided by the architects.

To meet the needs of a 21st-century bookseller, the former college building was opened up “judiciously,” Lifschutz explained. “We removed all unnecessary clutter [within the building] and refurbished the floors, walls, and windows up to a certain datum, leaving the tops of the columns and soffit ‘as found.’” The removal work included non-load-bearing interior walls and partitions that had been installed on every floor over the decades.

More substantive work came as the design team joined together two light wells located at the center of the building. To do this, a full-height central core that housed restrooms on each floor of the building was removed, as were the light well walls, creating a large atrium and space for the new central circulation system, according to the design and access statement filed with the Westminster City Council, which has jurisdiction over planning in this section of London.

Illustration of the building’s original two light wells that have been joined together to form a full-height atrium

The building’s original two light wells have been joined together to
form a full-height atrium. The front and rear of the building are offset
by half a story and connected by short flights of stairs.
Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands

The building at 107 Charing Cross Road is unusual in that the floors at the back are offset from those at the front by half a story and are connected by short flights of stairs. “The half-level between each shop floor creates excellent sight lines and means that it is easy and attractive to go from one floor to another,” Lifschutz said. In addition to the half-flights of stairs that rim the atrium and connect the front to the rear of the building, glass-fronted elevators provide access to the four floors of the bookstore. 

“The challenge in this project is to create a place where there is plenty happening but also a place for quiet contemplation and research—a place with bigger spaces with popular fiction and smaller, more intimate spaces with ‘nerdy’ books,” Lifschutz explained, noting that the goal was “a bookshop where you can follow a number of different journeys [and] experience your own personal narrative.”

To replicate the browsing experience offered by the previous bookshop, which was indeed labyrinthine, numerous elements have been included to help customers discover new books, including flat display shelves that overlook the atrium and shelves that follow the lines of the stairs. “The shelves designed along the stairs resemble the adverts on the sides of the escalators in London’s Underground,” Lifschutz said. They are designed to encourage customers to move up and down the building as they browse, he said.

Foyles has become known as much for its events as for its selection of books. To draw visitors to the upper floors, spaces for gathering and for accommodating the events have been laid out. Visitors here will find a café and bar, a gallery, and a 200-seat auditorium.

An assembly hall and gym at the rear ground level of the college building that was two stories tall and later was bisected by a mezzanine level to create more studio space has been partially reclaimed. A section of the mezzanine level has been removed to create a larger, higher space that now houses the children’s department.

Interior rendering of the former college building, which now will house the bookseller's children's department

Within the former college building, an original assembly hall and
gym that were eventually bisected by a mezzanine level has been
reclaimed. It now houses the bookseller’s children’s department.
© Hufton + Crow

A three-story rear extension to the building has created a balcony on one side of the reclaimed assembly hall, providing increased retail space for books on each level. The new rear extension is clad in brick, according to material provided by the architects. 

The roof of the college building had to be replaced, and as part of that work two floors clad in zinc were added. The top three floors of the renovated building contain single-level and duplex apartments, according to material provided by the architects.

A grand entrance to the bookshop has been added on the ground floor. Rather than detracting from the architectural integrity of the facade, the entrance actually brings the facade more closely into line with the building’s original design. The college had bricked up the original shop front decades ago as floor space was added.

The Foyles bookstore occupies the lower four stories of the building. A 1,300 sq ft gallery space associated with the bookstore is located on the fifth floor, and the apartments, accessed by a separate entrance, are located on the upper three floors.

Foyles was founded in 1903 by William and Gilbert Foyle, who began the enterprise in their teens by selling textbooks from their parents’ kitchen table. The first Foyles storefront opened on Charing Cross Road in 1906.



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