The letters perched atop the penthouse apartment at Centre Point are the closest London has to a Hollywood sign. But they’re not the original letters – they’ve been reinvented to maximise on the view out from the two-story penthouse. Centre Point was bought in 2011 by property company Almacantar and redesigned as 82 private residences, with a duplex penthouse apartment at the very top — and that meant those letters were blocking a fair chunk of the 360° view. For a solution, Almacantar turned to design practice Speirs + Major. “It’s the crowning piece of the building, incredibly visible throughout London,” says Spiers + Major associate partner Clementine Fletcher-Smith. “It’s quite iconic. I was born and bred in London, so I’ve been aware of the sign all my life, but it was only once we started working on it that I realised just how far away you can see it.”
While we’re accustomed to them now, the letters weren’t always there. Wilem Frischmann, one of Centre Point’s original engineers, reminisces that it took a 15-year battle with planning authorities to allow the tower-top sign to be installed. “When we finally got agreement to go ahead, I personally oversaw the installation of the lettering. There was a risk of people getting electrocuted if they were to lean out and touch the letters, so we had to take great care,” says Frischmann.
Now it’s hard to imagine the tower without the letters, so the architects working on the building’s redevelopment sought a solution that celebrated the original sign while helping Centre Point transition into luxury residences. “When we first looked at this building, one of the key elements to address were the Centre Point letters,” says Tim Bowder‑Ridger, senior partner at Conran & Partners, which led the transition into residential. “We took those letters down and redesigned new ones that use the same font, but we created them out of mesh, so that when you’re in the penthouse you can actually look through them.”
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It was harder work than that simple explanation suggests, with attention to detail paid to every element. The letters spelling out Centre Point were originally giant light boxes, made from solid Perspex and lit with neon from the inside. The font is bespoke, created to balance the architecture of the building. The lettering on Centre Point is directly derived from Optima, but it’s been slightly tweaked – with the concave stroke terminals removed, for example – for aesthetic as well as technical reasons, says typographer Bruno Maag. It’s not easy to form fussy fonts in giant sheets of Perspex, after all.
But there’s more to the design of these letters than pure function — they were created to balance the building’s exterior. “The bold weight of Optima creates a strong contrast between vertical and horizontal strokes that are beautifully juxtaposed against the strong horizontality of the building grid,” Maag says. “The high contrast, flare serifs and generally soft forms provide a nice counter to the strongly angular architectural features in this landmark building. In all, the features in the type provide a welcome femininity, nicely offsetting the testosterone-fuelled architecture.”
While the font remained the same, different materials were needed to build the new letters to allow a view out from the penthouse without flooding it with light, letting the resident feel like they are living behind the equivalent of the Hollywood sign. “Our brief was to match the visibility and typographic style of the current sign, but to make sure that the lit effect, while it’s visible from afar, doesn’t impact negatively on the apartment behind the letters — either by blocking the view or projecting unwanted light into the apartment at night,” says Fletcher-Smith.
Practically, that meant recreating the letters in outline and filling them with woven mesh, allowing a view through. “Our plan then was to illuminate the outline of the letters in such a way that the light would also graze across the mesh, creating a certain amount of solidity when viewed from the outside,” says Fletcher-Smith. “But when viewed from the penthouse terrace, because we would only illuminate the outer surface of the letters, you would only see the dark inner surface, so you could get a much better view out through the mesh.”
That required sourcing the perfect weave of mesh and visiting manufacturers to test how light spilled across the material, as well as finding a more sustainable lighting system that could survive life atop a 34-floor development, while still being flexible enough to bend to the shape of the letters. “It’s something that traditionally would have been done with cold cathode, but we’re doing it with LED, which is much longer‑lasting,” says Fletcher-Smith. “It’s a very innovative design — I certainly haven’t seen anything like it before – and I think it has resulted in an even crisper version of the original.”
Indeed, by balancing the needs of the penthouse inside Centre Point with recreating the iconic sign known by all Londoners, Almacantar and its designers have made the letters atop the tower into something more. “It becomes a piece of art for the space,” Bowder‑Ridger adds.
And that’s what’s happened to the old letters. The original signage was carefully removed and each letter handed over to a different artist to rework, including Richard Wentworth, Conrad Shawcross and the late Nancy Fouts. Then, the artworks were auctioned in benefit of youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, raising £88,000.
The work replacing the iconic letters is reflective of the Centre Point redevelopment itself, taking a historically protected icon and reworking it with design at the forefront. The building is Grade II listed, meaning Almacantar had to safeguard exterior architectural elements while reinventing the interiors as luxurious and modern residential spaces — just like the letters, it’s an icon, revived into its best form yet.
–For more information, see centrepointresidences.co.uk