A royal smile

A new coffee house has been completed in Hyde Park, which sports a striking ‘biomorphic’ design in the shape of a golden stingray. Its architect spoke to Jack Wooler on the inspirations behind the project

Approaching the bridge across the Serpentine, the famous man-made lake in London’s Hyde Park, visitors heading north are drawn into an opening between the trees.

Sitting in this opening, a biomorphic shape arises in the distance, seemingly from the lake itself, its undulating brass-coloured roof capping a porous glass facade which displays the inviting activities of a small coffee house inside.

Its unconventional shape appears as though “a serpentine creature has jumped out of the lake, and evolved into a smiling stingray in flight, welcoming you to Hyde Park,” says designer Jonathan Mizzi, founder of Mizzi Studio.

The distinctive Serpentine Coffee House – commissioned by client Colicci (an artisan coffee chain) – is defined by its canopy, which seems to float independently above the glass structure below, “echoing a stingray’s flight though water.”

This highly individualistic design is at home among the art-rich surroundings of the park, providing visitors to this part of London with a new place to stop, relax, and enjoy the views around – housed inside a permeable, nature-inspired construction.

The coffee house is located just beside the Serpentine itself, which is in the centre of the park, and formed to look like a soft, naturally formed body of water. This emulation of nature which the coffee house backs onto was in fact a direct design inspiration for the ‘creature,’ alongside the practice’s ethos to create buildings “inspired by the natural world and natural processes.”

On the approach
When approaching this extension to the lake, there is a gradual “upgrading of earth,” says Mizzi, as visitors walk inwards, going from the tarmac of the road, to the tar and chip of the paving area, and then onto the coffee house’s grounds, which are based with an earthy and sandy flexible resin-bonded gravel, “immediately letting you know that you’re within a demarcated site,” explains the architect.

Passing through these grounds, visitors can then enter inside the envelope from three sides of the coffee house, which is surrounded with fully openable glazing to its front, left and right. Inside there is a fairly small front of house, around 30 m², which is flooded with natural daylight during favourable weather.

Users can then step upon the earthy terrazzo flooring of the coffee house’s interior, to be met with a simple and efficient solid walnut counter, offering items such as gelato, ice cream, coffees and teas – the counter itself offering visual interest in its triangular reed texture.

The walls behind the counter are covered in deep blue tiles, intended to “blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space,” alongside green leather upholstered chairs and marble surfaces which reflect the hue of the lake and the surrounding trees and flower beds.

Besides the chairs located in front of the counter, looking around through the glass envelope is further seating – which in fair weather can host over 60 people, the cantilevered canopy providing some shade and a small level of protection against the elements.

Once in the coffee house, visitors can view what Jonathan Mizzi calls the “dimpled underbelly of the brass smile.” He adds: “When you walk in you’re engulfed,” tells Jonathan, “like Jonah being swallowed by the whale.”

This view provides an “uplifting sense of reveal,” he says with the texture again proving reminiscent of nature – though this time in more of a tortoiseshell effect. Architectural precedents are not forgotten in the design however – it does not set out to be wholly individualistic. The interior offers a likeness to coffers you’d find in underground tunnels, or on the interior of the Pantheon’s dome.

The brief
Looking back now to the site pre-development, when the secluded spot among the trees hosted a less glamorous and visible kiosk at the rear end of the site, it was decided by the Royal Parks authority that a new addition was needed to revamp the site as part of a wider scheme across its parks.

The tender – for which Colicci appointed the catering contract – was to create a ‘fleet’ of kiosks and coffee houses for most of the Royal Parks – Green, St James’ and of course the Serpentine’s home, Hyde Park.

After a design competition was held, Mizzi Studio submitted successful plans, and were invited to join as design partner two years ago, having already developed a seven year, long-standing relationship with the client Colicci.

Part of brief for the group of buildings was that they would be “ambassadors, functional sculptures and way-finders within the parks,” and obviously to serve as a refreshment zone along the way.

Jonathan continues: “The brief was that every kiosk would respond to each site individually, and be unique – but, much like siblings, they had to share common genetic features which would holistically tie into a language and identity that you recognise.”

When Jonathan and the team at Mizzi first approached the Hyde Park site with this in mind, the key question he asked himself was: “Well, how can we optimise this site layout?”

The existing kiosk of course needed replacing, situated far back from the road in a kind of cul de sac, and not very visible. “What we did was we pulled our building right to the forefront of the pedestrian line, and essentially drew up a canopy extension to intersect with the paving line at its limit in order to maximise impact and visibility upon the site – pulling people in.”

When submitting their ideas for what this building would look like, the clients asked for a ‘blue sky’ option – giving the architects free rein to design a building as unique as its location – which was in turn accepted enthusiastically.

Design process
The idiosyncratic design – which is now in full operation – was not a random product of architectural fancy, but heavily inspired by its surroundings, function, and the principles of the studio.

Besides the intention to create an amphibious creature, forming “an extension to the lake,” the existing architecture in the park significantly influenced the practice’s plans.

“Being in one of the Royal Parks,” says Jonathan, “whatever we did had to reflect and complement the architectural merit of the buildings around.”

This is easily understood, the park being awash with culture and monuments; as Jonathan puts it, it’s “a real Mecca of creativity.” The coffee house is located beside the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain for example, and just across the bridge from the Serpentine Sackler Gallery – not forgetting the numerous sculptures that surround these spots.

Located between such famous and artfully conceived waypoints, Jonathan realised that they “really needed a building that sits well within them.”

To enact this, the team wanted to use state of the art manufacturing and design processes to create something that crucially reflected its function, which is essentially a cafe and coffee house, and looked far and wide for design inspirations.

“We looked at the art of tea houses, and the Japanese architecture of pavilions and pagodas,” tells the architect. By keeping it aesthetically rooted in London however, this inspiration did not overwhelm the design: “The roof actually has a lot of principles of traditional architecture – you’ve got a classic dome at the front, which morphs into the eaves of a pagoda.”

This roof sits upon a pavilion which, as opposed to private Japanese tea houses, is fully glazed for transparency and lightness, “to give you the sort of uplifting flying canopy, that at the same time sits harmoniously with the design because it is transparent.”

Horizontal mullions were however introduced within the glazing to give visitors a bit more intimacy and privacy when siting inside the coffee house.

“It’s a very fluid, futuristic looking design,” adds the architect, “but with very traditional architectural features.”

Materiality & structure
Structurally, the building has six columns and a box frame, with which the practice worked alongside Arup to achieve.

Another party acting in the project was manufacturers of the roof, mouldCAM – which has proved to be the most recognisable feature of the design.

“We wanted to create a brass or copper effect here – heritage materials that are a customary theme in architecture,” Jonathan details. “We tried to bring that element of nobility to the site, alongside an earthy materiality – we were very conscious that we didn’t want to do a gleaming polished church; we wanted it to feel like it’s been existing on the site for a while.”

The practice looked at patinating brass on the roof to remove the ‘gleaming’ factor, and also to see the human element of hand finishing the whole 100 m² roof. Eventually, the team decided on the final design which, while appearing to be solid brass from the outside, is actually constructed of glass reinforced plastic (GRP), but hand painted with a gel formed of 75 per cent brass dust to give it the desired effect, and retain a human touch.

The construction of this roof is a feat of engineering in its own, with not a single bit of steel or rafters necessary to hold it up.

“The structure is fully inherent of its shape,” the architect explains. “The dome takes on the compression forces and leads it to the two columns at the front, and the rear has two reverse arches which sit upon the two columns at the back.”

The shape of the building itself helps provide structural strength, with the carbon and glass fibre providing extra support and tying the building together in a bespoke shape which defines the design.

“I think that is what’s so liberating as a designer currently – you can really create very free forms of expression through computer-aided design, and then almost 3D print it,” says Jonathan. “It’s completely file to factory – it’s an exciting time to be experimenting.”

Another interesting aspect of the structure is its 270 degree glass wall, which can be opened at any point. This provides huge amounts of natural light, which is also supplemented by an arched clerestory window behind the counter, which lets light in from the back.

When the daylight is no longer sufficient, LED lighting has been run along the interior beams of the structure to provide extra illumination, making the ceiling “really glisten and glow.”

The insulation of the GRP roof is actually provided by the rigid foam itself. “Traditionally you insulate buildings with rock wool and rigid from insulation,” the architect details, “but we’ve essentially moulded the whole roof out of an insulation property material.”

Welcoming sustainability
All of these design considerations and material choices have added up to provide the park with an “immersive architectural resting, refreshment and contemplation point,” which reflects and responds to the park’s Grade I listed landscape.

The Serpentine Coffee House is already proving to be a functional and successful part of Colicci’s ‘fleet,’ serving Hyde Park well as its family of kiosks do in the remaining Royal Parks.

Like the others, it responds effectively to its environment, and places sustainability in high regard – in the Serpentine for example the use of carbon fibre removed the need for lots of steel and an elegant roof design reduced the materials necessary, and its sister buildings were made from sustainably sourced oak.

According to Jonathan, this ecological design at the Serpentine has already been very well received by the public and the food and drink retail industry: “It’s had a great reception so far – especially within the industry – it’s already had quite a few award nominations, and generally when I’ve been there and spoken to the locals, they’ve said it’s been a big upgrade for them.”

He continues: “The concession is for 10 years, and the building has been engineered for 50 years, but we hope that it will stay there forever.”

Most importantly perhaps, Jonathan concludes, the client is happy, and revenue is up: “It’s proof that if you invest in good design, it can reap financial dividends.”