Gabriel Square: St Albans' stunning new development
PUBLISHED: 13:01 10 July 2017 | UPDATED: 13:28 11 July 2017
A major development in St Albans draws on modernist architecture and the garden squares of London. Pat Bramley explores Gabriel Square - a flagship project for a new developer - as it nears completion
A development of 52 townhouses and 28 apartments at Gabriel Square in St Albans revives a style of architecture first introduced in the grand garden squares of London. It’s a 21st century evocation of the Georgian, Regency and Victorian squares built in the capital between 1700 and the 1840s. And it’s in desirable company, London’s squares are as popular as ever – an eight-bedroom town house at Grade II listed Pembroke Square in Notting Hill went on the market recently for £35m.
The 80 properties on the three-acre St Albans site of Evershed’s former print works in the old part of the city are the first new properties built by Meyer Homes – a company formed by leading figures in the industry who have pooled their experience and talents. The scheme, which focuses on creating a sense of community around a central sculpted courtyard garden, has got off to a flying start, says Steve Walker, group managing director at selling agents Collinson Hall. ‘The general view is that it’s even better than it looks in the photographs. The national press were wowed by the quality,’ he says.
Meyer Homes has ambitious plans to build more than 4,000 homes of similar quality at sites across the south and south east of England over the next five years. The company has the backing of ‘substantial long-term global investors and the St Albans development will be its standard bearer,’ Walker says. The team engaged in building Gabriel Square, which will be completed in the autumn, includes award-winning architects, designers and contractors. The overall concept was divined by the modernist architects at Benson and Forsyth. The interior design was carried forward in the same vein by Conran and Partners, the international design studio based in Shad Thames, whose reputation grew out of flagship London schemes such as Centre Point and Greenwich Peninsular.
One of the advantages of Gabriel Square is its position. In one direction it is five minutes walk from the railway station where trains can get you to St Pancras in 18 minutes. In the other direction it is five minutes walk to the shops and amenities of St Albans city centre.
Simon Kincaid, director at Conran and Partners, who masterminded the project, says his clients were determined from the outset that Gabriel Square should equal properties in central London for quality of design and specification but in a setting within easy reach of Green Belt.
The development, with its fast commute, could have the edge on similar properties in prime real estate areas of the capital such as Westminster, Knightsbridge and South Kensington, comments Steve Walker.
‘Buyers from London have pointed out that the views here are over countryside whereas the views from similar schemes in Zone 1 are more likely to be over tower blocks.’
Another advantage for future residents at Gabriel Square will be the absence of parked cars to spoil the scenery – all vehicles will be underground, either in private garages or the basement car park.
The landscaped communal garden at the centre of the development will be a green oasis in the city environment. Manicured lawns will be bordered with play areas for children and enclosed paved courtyards with garden tables, chairs and benches for picnics. The grounds are all the more special because of the sculptures and wall art by 2016 Chelsea Flower Show Best Tradestand Award winner David Harber.
Each of the three pieces he has produced for the Meyer Homes development has a connection to this latest area of regeneration in one of the country’s most historic cities. His circular Taurus sculpture – with a hole in the middle looking a bit like a shiny doughnut – is made from corrosion-proof 316 marine grade stainless steel. The surface acts like a mirror picking up the reflections of its surroundings. The Taurus signifies a magnetic field – ‘In this instance drawing people into a shared environment,’ says the sculptor.
The wall art created from the same steel has a message of togetherness for future residents, inspired by the Gabriel bell from which the development gets its name. The bell is in the city’s Clock Tower, built in 1403 near the cathedral. It is the only medieval belfry still standing in Britain. According to one of the Gabriel Square sales team, ‘the original bell rang out to warn residents to blow their candles out before they went to bed.’ In line with this idea, Harber’s 21st century wall sculpture is a symbol of neighbourliness and resonance – reflecting the sound waves of a bell’s chime.
As for his beautiful sundial, the timepiece is accurate to within a couple of minutes, says Harber. ‘Each sundial we make will only function in the exact spot where it will be placed, otherwise it won’t work,’ he explains.
Etched on the ‘horizon rings’ surrounding the dial are inscriptions about time. One says: ‘Old Father Time stands still for none, this moment here the next he’s gone, and though you speak him ne’er so kind, he never lags one step behind, if then you’d forward be, you e’en must run as fast as he. Around the smaller ring is the homily: ‘Do not pretend to understand the universe – it’s a great deal bigger than I am.’
The sophisticated style of the houses and apartments surrounding the gardens is drawing in buyers of all types attracted by the modernity of city living, says the agent – upsizers, downsizers, first time buyers, local buyers and some from London and further afield.
‘Ten of the properties in the initial release were reserved within a few days of the sales launch. The first occupations are scheduled for October,’ Steve Walker says.
Designer Simon Kincaid’s recent commissions include the King’s Cross masterplan and the restoration and conversion of a Grade II listed Barbican tower into 72 contemporary apartments and penthouses.
‘Everything about the Gabriel Square development is high quality,’ he says, ‘Not just the practicality of the design but also the quality of the materials. The French limestone used for the exterior cladding is a classic material – that’s what inspired the palette for the interiors. The highly engineered glass roof boxes draw natural light into the buildings. The clean lines of the layout create a feeling of space vertically and horizontally.’
Everyone involved with the scheme talks with enthusiasm and pride about the skills that went into producing the first garden square in St Albans but they’re down to earth, not la-di-da. It’s evidently a huge joy and satisfaction for the designer to see the reaction on visitors’ faces when they walk into the showhouse thinking they know what’s in store.
‘People usually come with a pre-conceived idea of what townhouses are like, then they walk into our showhome and they’ll admit, “Oh I didn’t think you meant this.”’
Buyers in the market for a four-bedroom house have a choice of 16 designs. The interior layouts flow through four levels rising up to a roof terrace on the fifth floor. There’s also a three-bed option.
Those looking for an apartment or duplex also have a wide choice. There are two types of one-bedroom design, 10 variations of two bed style and two options for those looking for a three-bedroom apartment.
The general specification includes a bespoke Poggenpohl kitchen made to Meyer Homes’ specification. The standard spec also includes underfloor heating throughout, oversized internal doors and either an integral garage on the lower ground floor for houses or a parking space in the underground car park with apartments. Houses have an outdoor space on each level. Most three-bed apartments and all the two- bedroom duplexes have a roof terrace. Each flat has a private outdoor space on at least one level.
At the time of going to press, one-bedroom apartments were priced from £475,000, two-bed apartments from £635,000, duplexes from £725,000 and houses from £1.195m. Properties in this landmark location are exclusive both in price and in the physical nature of the development.
This is a daring modernist vision of a centuries old idea set in an ancient city that has seen prices rocket in the wake of London property hikes. St Albans has perhaps entered yet another league.