History Restored for the 21st century: The Knightsbridge Estate Revitalized, by Richard Hopton

London was founded by the Romans in the 1st century AD. It is almost two thousand years since the first legionaries planted their feet on the north banks of the River Thames and since then London has grown from an inhospitable northern outpost of one empire, to the capital of another, and now a global metropolis in its own right. In that time, it has ridden the tides of history, weathering the highs and lows of fire, disease, war and political upheaval. Peter Ackroyd, London’s biographer, has written that ‘‘this labyrinth is in a continual state of change and expansion’’.

The story of Knightsbridge is part of this process, a tale of how one well-known part of London has survived, adapted, and prospered over the last two-and-half centuries. Its status as a world-renowned shopping quartier has now been enhanced by the addition of ultra-modern office and residential space.

The Knightsbridge Estate stands at the heart of the district, occupying a fabulous three-and-a-half acre site, elegantly sandwiched between Harvey Nichols in the east and Harrods in the west. Seen from the air it resembles a majestic ocean-going liner, her prow commanding the junction of Sloane Street and Brompton Road, the bustling centre of Knightsbridge itself.

Since The Knightsbridge Estate was acquired by The Olayan Group in 2010 it has been extensively restored and redeveloped. The restored Estate preserves the character of the area while equipping it with all the amenities expected of a 21st century destination. The most recent phase of the redevelopment encompasses 340,000 square feet of the northern part of The Estate running up to the junction of Sloane Street and Brompton Road; in the liner analogy, it corresponds to the bow section of the vessel. It is a mixed-use scheme which will provide seven flagship retail stores, thirty-three luxury rental apartments, 67,000 square feet of Grade A office space and a rooftop restaurant and ground-level café, all constructed to the most demanding modern specifications.

In his A Short History of London (2019) Simon Jenkins wrote that ‘the city’s fabric has been a continuous link between past and present.’ The redevelopment of The Knightsbridge Estate demonstrates the truth of this: by preserving the late 19th century architecture which characterised the area but reimagining and reconstructing the buildings for use in the 21st century, The Olayan Group has reaffirmed the link between London’s past and its present, between the area’s Victorian and Edwardian antecedents and its modern incarnation.

The restored facades of The Knightsbridge Estate along Sloane Street and Brompton Road may be Victorian and Edwardian but they themselves replaced the buildings of an already thriving part of London. Until the middle of the 18th century, Brompton was an outlying village known for its nurseries and market gardening, taking advantage of fertile soil to produce food for London’s ever-increasing population. The name of one contemporary nurseryman, John Hooper, lives on in Hooper’s Court, at the very centre of modern Knightsbridge.

By the end of the century, however, the character of the area had changed radically. From 1764 onwards, as part of a city-wide building boom, the market gardens disappeared as the Georgian terraces sprung up. One William Browne, who owned much of the land immediately to the south of Knightsbridge, was the first important developer of the area, although others followed. By the 1790s, Basil Street and Brompton Road were lined with terraced houses with rear gardens; the development of the area was now complete and it was a desirable place to live. As the Historic Buildings Report confirms: ‘The neighbourhood was generally respectable until the 1830s, when it housed nobility, gentry, artists and the professions.’

The arrival of the railway in the 1830s posed a threat to the area in the form of a proposed railway terminus on Knightsbridge Green connecting London to Birmingham, Bristol and beyond. In conjunction with a proposal for a large market building this scheme would have radically altered the character of the area. However, not for the last time in the area’s history, the developers were seen off by local protest.

By the 1860s, the urban environment around Brompton Road was in need of improvement as the quality of the housing stock became denser and deteriorated. By the 1880s, the freehold of this part of the Brompton Road had come into the hands of the Goddard family who began to rebuild. The architect C.W. Stephens was commissioned to design the new department store for Harrods in 1902-03. Its Brompton Road facade, a Baroque confection of swags and columns, beneath an elaborately ornamented pediment and dome, encased in terracotta, remains Knightsbridge’s calling card as well as one of London’s most recognisable landmarks. Stephens’s other best-known work is Claridge’s Hotel.

It was the rebuilding of the area in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th which gave the area the character it retains to this day. The run of distinctive Queen Anne-style gabled buildings – reputedly the longest in London – which lines the south side of the Brompton Road west from its junction with Sloane Street dates from this period. The principal buildings were the work of a variety of architects, although some of the narrower buildings appear to have been the work of builders alone. The building on the corner of Sloane Street and Brompton Road – a site formerly occupied by The Swan public house – was the work of architects J.W. Duvall Goodwin. It was altered in the 1930s by William Curtis Green to accommodate a new entrance to Knightsbridge Underground station. At the top of Sloane Street, Frank Sidney Chesterton, cousin of the author and poet G.K. Chesterton, designed the building at 4a and 5 for the butcher George Cobb in red brick with stone dressings in a mildly Baroque style. Cobb’s descendants traded from the building until the 1980s.

The rebuilding along the Brompton Road was accompanied by the opening in 1902 of the Hyde Park Hotel – now the Mandarin Oriental – then London’s newest and grandest hotel. At the same time, the area acquired some prestigious commercial tenants, including the renowned advertising agency J. Walter Thompson which arrived in 1899. The biggest boost to the area, however, was the arrival in 1906 of the Underground. The new station was designed by Leslie Green, architect to the London Underground. He was responsible for more than fifty stations around London, designs characterised by arched entrances and facades of ox-blood glazed tiles. The surviving stations at South Kensington and Holloway are good examples of his style.

By the end of the 20th century, the Edwardian buildings were starting to show their age. There had been some bomb damage during the Blitz but endless reconfiguration of the retail spaces and changes to shopfronts had devalued the aesthetic and commercial appeal of much of The Knightsbridge Estate. It was time for another comprehensive programme of renewal and with The Olayan Group’s acquisition of The Knightsbridge Estate in 2010, its moment arrived.

The redevelopment has been masterminded by the owner working alongside asset and development manager, Chelsfield, with the design brief in the hands of the architects Fletcher Priest. There was no disguising the scale or complexity of the undertaking: the sheer size of the project, the fact that the entire site lay within a conservation area, the proximity of the Underground station and the unavoidable necessity of working in one of the busiest parts of London all contributed their own set of demands.

The scheme as executed is both a restoration project and a creative redesign of the existing buildings. Keith Priest, co-founder of Fletcher Priest, said that ‘We were attracted by the opportunity to provide an elegant solution to challenging issues while enhancing the neglected historic architecture.’ Working with Donald Insall Associates, the architects did much research to ensure that their recreation of the original Edwardian schemes was as accurate as possible. The most obvious fruit of this endeavour is the cupola which now sits atop the facade above the Sloane Street-Brompton Road junction. Part of J.W. Duvall Goodwin’s original design, it was never executed, probably on grounds of cost. No. 33 Brompton Road, an undistinguished post-war design replacing the previous, bombed-out building, was demolished and the original design rebuilt. 

A key feature of the plan was the relocation of the principal entrance to the Underground station at the northern end of The Estate.  It was to be moved from its existing position on the corner of the junction of Sloane Street and Brompton Road to a new location approximately 100 yards to the west. This offered several advantages: to widen the pavement thereby improving pedestrian access and safety; and to return the ground floor of Duvall Goodwin’s building to its original function, creating a magnificent street-level retail space in a prime location. 

Each of the seven retail units has been created with the needs of global premium and luxury brands in mind, offering excellent ground-floor presence with potential for basement, first- and in some cases second-floor retail space and VIP areas. Behind the restored historic facades, the retail spaces within the new structure are high-ceilinged and almost column-free with provision for secure and discreet servicing to all of the units from a subterranean loading bay which will in turn reduce congestion and pollution in Knightsbridge itself.

The scheme’s mix of public and private benefit attracted widespread approval. Jeremy Lacey, Chelsfield’s Senior Development Manager, points to support from the planners at RBK&C: ‘They could see that what we wanted to deliver was really going to benefit the people who live, visit and work in Knightsbridge and were very supportive of our plans, which is rare for a scheme of this size.’

With planning permission in place, the entire northern end of the site was razed to the ground with the exception of the facade which was retained, thanks to the type of vast steel skeleton which has become so familiar all over London in recent times. Then the rebuilding began. 

One major challenge which confronted Skanska, the lead contractor, was the need to work within the existing network of underground railway tunnels and related shafts. The foundations for the new buildings consist of 578 large-diameter, 50-metre long piles which had to be driven into the ground. Inevitably, some were within the protection zone surrounding the tunnels and, in some cases, only an arm’s length from their outer skin. If this required great precision, the underground network also provided opportunities to bring disused shafts back into service as lifts and ventilation ducts. As a result, there will now be step-free access for the first time at a second brand new entrance to Knightsbridge Underground station located within Hooper’s Court.

Much effort and imagination has been lavished on the renovation and preservation of the original facades lining the Brompton Road. PAYE, the multi-award-winning conservation expert, was engaged to clean and repair the Edwardian fabric, sourcing its stone from the original quarries and accurately matching brick clays. Here and elsewhere, the architects have gone to great lengths to recreate authentic period architectural detail.

Now that the redevelopment of the eastern end of the project is complete, Burberry has become the first tenant of The Knightsbridge Estate’s majestic new store at No. 1, Sloane Street. With work on the project completing in stages, the ultra-modern office space at One Hooper’s Court is now coming to market while the luxury residential apartments at Knightsbridge Gardens will be finished next year. The regeneration of The Knightsbridge Estate is now almost complete. It has taken more than a decade and cost more than £150 million but has preserved its Edwardian architectural legacy and equipped it for life in the 21st century and beyond. London’s long story marches on, inexorably.