Up for a night out


London’s Camden Market has its share of characterful drinking establishments, so to attract visitors to a new terrace bar crowning a historic building, playfully nostalgic design moves within a contrasting light structure were in order. James Parker reports

Camden in north west London remains one of the capital’s liveliest areas for nightlife, and also street markets. The long-established Stables Market near Chalk Farm station forms a key part of the area’s enduring, unvarnished Victorian brick identity, including ‘Makers’ Alley,’ a line of small retail units along Chalk Farm Road. Created as an independent market for traders, the market features an array of stalls and shops selling clothes, furniture and household goods. A new rooftop bar and restaurant designed by local practice vPPR in a prime position overlooking the market, is already part of the landscape.

Sitting at the north-west of the Regent’s Canal Conservation Area, the market is located in brick structures including capacious viaduct arches, and a total of four listed buildings. With the area’s construction being chiefly erected to serve the burgeoning railway transport of the 19th century, and associated horse-drawn vehicles, they include the former stables of long-established distribution firm Pickfords; the Grade II* listed ‘Horse Hospital.’ This monolithic structure, on the corner of two busy roads (and forming one side of ‘Makers’ Alley) was built for horses who pulled not only carts, but also barges along the adjacent canal.

The new Lucky Club cocktail bar has been created along the top of an imposing, externally rectilinear and internally curved wall adjacent to the historic building and railway line, adding both a contrastingly light form and a vibrant complement to the area’s F&B offerings.

The majority of structures surrounding the Stables Market were built as part of Camden Goods Yard at the end of the 19th century. The market itself has seen some recent redevelopment, setting the scene for the new, dark steel canopy; In 2006 a large indoor market hall was built in a yard between the Stables and Camden Lock Markets, and the following year the rear of Stables Market was redeveloped with two new four-storey buildings housing shops, food outlets, offices, workshops and storage facilities, as well as an exhibition space and a new pedestrian route exposing 25 of the existing railway arches. These pedestrian walkways, echoing the robustness of the Horse Hospital, make the area much more walkable for shoppers and other visitors.

One of the key features of the new lightweight steel and glass addition created on top of the overwhelmingly solid brick edifice (its 2 metre-thick walls necessitated by the need to cope with train movements from the adjacent railway), is a further continuation of the permeability realised up by the redevelopment of Stables Market. The bar, plus its terrace, provides a new ‘high line’ destination at the end of the quirkily attractive original cobbled slope, which was previously used to move horses between the two levels.

The new structure, facing onto the street on one side, and into the ‘North Yard’ of the Stables on the other, was constructed by DFL and Helm X for client The Camden Market Management Company, and developer LabTech. The knowledge of the area possessed by vPPR Architects was key to answering the brief for this locally important site; they have a “very strong connection to Camden, and care deeply about the neighbourhood.”


The project was deceptively straightforward; namely adding a lightweight, partly exposed curving steel canopy to the top of a historic brick building. However in order to meet the client’s goal of attracting visitors to the market up to the higher level, and create a contrasting and yet sympathetic enclosure for a welcoming new F&B destination, a meticulous and highly distinctive approach to the structure was the order of the day.

Jessica Reynolds, director at vPPR Architects, explains that the brief was for a light canopy that “responds to the rich contextual heritage of the site, and becomes a strong visual marker for this prominent urban site.” The new structure draws on the location’s heritage, with an undulating, sculptural steel pattern that subtly references its former use, and announces a new North London “hotspot.”

Heritage was the priority and the guiding factor, and this bar design – perhaps more than most – would be “drawn from its context,” says Teresa Erskine of vPPR. The architects worked closely with Nadina Reusmann, Labtech’s heritage director on the project, “who was basically a history book on the area,” says Erskine, as well as dealing with Historic England. “It was a very collaborative process, all consultants were appointed at RIBA Stage 1.”

The site was complex, as is typical in London’s Victorian-built urban blocks. It is long, narrow and irregularly shaped, “without a single straight line or level surface.” Therefore, although this helped enable a creative design approach, it also meant that a pragmatic structural solution was needed to ensure buildability. The new steel framework would need to be offset from the historic structure below, partly because of uncertainty on the load implications of the canopy on this historic brick, with it having been slightly reduced in 1990 with a garage addition on Chalk Farm Road.   


The architects went through two pre-application stages before the full planning and listed building consent was applied for, which meant that many of the design issues were ironed out at an early stage. “The design communication with the various parties was “quite fluid,” and therefore effective, says Erskine. “We were well prepared,” she adds.

Erskine describes the overall impression created by the resulting combination of a massive heritage brick wall and transparent, steel ‘crown’ as a “series of urban rhythms reflecting a busy street,” when viewed from a distance. However once you’re closer to the canopy, “abstracted horse heads” are revealed in bespoke-designed V-shaped steel columns along both sides of the bridge-like canopy that reference the dimensions of apertures which horses look out of in modern stable buildings. They are capped with ‘ear-like’ semi-circular steel roof profiles to create an overall impression which is a playful echo of the past as well as current facilities for horses; they meet each other creating ‘points’ which give the feel of a crown on the whole building. Crucially, the steel forms achieve a distinctive finish to the structure which will help visitors on the street below pick it out in a crowded urban context.

The new columns are arranged to align with the existing wall piers – “adopting the rhythm, while the roof rhythm responds to the massing of buildings behind,” explain the architects. The roof “flattens out” over the Horse Hospital, to signal its presence, and the four horse ‘heads’ on the street elevation point users to the entrance below. A further reference from the historic stables building opposite is given in the “ribbed” roofline created by the canopy, aligned with the existing building’s eaves to “play on the Victorian ornamental exterior dentils.”

The new building also visually communicates with another key nearby building, the Roundhouse music venue, with one of the V-shaped columns framing its iconic circular form. Erskine says that one of the reasons vPPR was approached for the project, in addition to the practice’s familiarity with the area and with Camden planners, was that they “love working with historic context and researching a site, and responding to that history with contemporary interventions.” Also, one of the “key geometry links” is where the diameter of the open pergola at the centre of the bar aligns with the rose window of the Horse Hospital. Finally, the vertical ‘slats’ within the V-shaped sections are designed to echo the apertures of the horses’ stables themselves, and help give the structure resilience against the wind loads that it might be exposed to.

In order to mitigate noise from the bar for local residents, a discrete acoustic glazed screen is inset on one edge facing the street, and “defining a small quiet exterior terrace that activates the corner,” says vPPR’s Jessica Reynolds. With the canopy following the building’s curved facade, its footprint is of an irregular shape, creating a variety of spaces for the bar, but narrowing dramatically at the central portion to around a couple of metres. It’s only fully covered at the two ‘deeper’ sections; the second of which leads to the larger, second ‘open’ section of terrace, on the corner beside the railway.

As part of the pragmatic, buildability focus of the design, the metal structure was designed in collaboration with structural engineer Meinhardt to be fabricated offsite and bolted together in sections onsite. This was also part of ensuring that a “high level of sustainability was at the forefront,” says Sanjay Patel, operations director at structural engineer Meinhardt, adding that Design for Manufacture and Assembly concepts underpinned the whole scheme.  The structure itself can be disassembled and assembled elsewhere in the future if required, and the bar’s composite decking material is made from 90% recycled materials.

The efficiency of the construction was particularly beneficial given the range of certifications and permission windows required from Network Rail which the construction programme had to work around, due to the adjacent rail line.

While not relying on the existing building for its structural integrity, the canopy also sits as a “legible new layer of history,” say the architects, rather than aping the existing structure in what could be a pastiche move. Instead, the blackened patina of the steel subtly references the dark steel and wrought iron historical features that exist throughout the market, tying into the industrial heritage of the site. It provides a slight colour contrast with the multi-coloured stock brick which was used for the pre-existing listed wall whilst connecting to the dark tones in the pier stone copings.

The V-shaped columns are also key contributors to the lean, elegant structure, transferring the load from the roof to the ground, and tying the roof sections down. Architect Teresa Erskine says the structural engineer was “delighted with the V-shape,” as they enabled the creation of a bespoke column due to its structural benefits. She adds: “It was great to settle on a result where the form equaled the function.”

Rather than add rainwater pipes, dark circular structural columns function as rainwater pipes – transferring the rainwater from the roof to below the decking. Another neat solution is how the facade uplighting has been included at the bottom of the otherwise frameless glass balustrade; other lighting and mechanical and electrical systems are exposed yet concealed within or behind the secondary decorative steel elements. The automated lighting (specified by Light Bureau) bestows the V-shaped columns a warm yellow hue, making them more of an attraction at street level. The datum line of the balustrade’s base aligns with top of the existing wall, “giving the illusion that the terrace is floating above the structure,” says Teresa Erskine, enhancing the lightness which is inherent to the structural design.

The unusually shaped site was both “long and tight,” says Erskine, so the bar space needed to integrate the services and spaces as much as possible to maximise floor area. But despite dealing with a range of structural challenges and the constraints of the site itself, the result has not compromised the aesthetic goals of a light structure.

Structural challenges

The systematic approach to designing a building ‘inside out’ has led to “intelligent solutions that have evolved out from the site constraints,” commented the architects. The “biggest constraint,” says Teresa Erskine, was the level change across the historic site, exacerbated by the 1990 removal of part of the wall on Chalk Farm Road, and amounting to a difference of around a metre. For accessibility and functionality reasons it had to be made level for the new scheme to succeed.

The steel frame is formed from hollow box sections in both galvanised and hot dipped finishes, and some areas of the canopy are braced by solid steel infill plates or cross bracing. The canopy is supported on a series of bespoke columns which transfer vertical and lateral loads to the foundations. The specialist bespoke columns consist of a top curved plate supported on a square hollow vertical stem, and all columns that meet the ground go into the foundations rather than being attached to the granite sets which cover the original upper level of the building.


The terrace is intended to be accessible to the general public, so the new canopy by vPPR offers shelter to bar customers, but more importantly perhaps, a strong visual landmark for visitors.  The space has reportedly been well received by both developer LabTech and locals so far, partly due to the care with which its acoustics have been considered as well as the overall subtlety of the design.

The architects have succeeded in creating a landmark ‘pavilion’ to uplift this northern edge of a rejuvenated part of Camden, in the form of a bar which provides a great experience of the city for users, and enhances rather than overshadows the historic form it crowns. At the same time, despite being a modular offsite steel solution, its structure doesn’t communicate a sense of repetitive or formulaic design, and feels bespoke and crafted, and therefore in harmony with the area’s relaxed artistic character. The meticulous overall design approach is matched by the careful choice of materials throughout, and planting, to achieve a contemporary yet sympathetic result.

Teresa Erskine sums up what the result of this structurally light-touch – but characterful and fittingly robust addition brings: “We’ve taken the story of the site, and we’ve tried to explain it in a different way.” Bringing some playful echoes of the past, and a commitment to vibrant F&B design that helps support this historic structure going forward, the project is a sign of Camden’s continued confidence.

Project Factfile

  • Architect: vPPR Architects
  • Developer: LabTech
  • Structural engineer: Meinhardt
  • MEP engineer: MJ Associates
  • Lighting designer: Light Bureau
  • Quality surveyor: RLB
  • Steelwork contractor: HelmX
  • Main contractor: DFL
  • Acoustic engineer: Big Sky Acoustics
  • Landscape consultants: Light Water Plants
  • Principal designer: Cameron & Payne