Drawing board: The White Building, Hackney Wick
Director David Kohn and project architect Tom McGlynn discuss how they are converting a redundant print works on the fringes of the 2012 Olympics site into an arts centre with Expedition Architecture
How did the project come about?
Tom McGlynn: The project was originally conceived by Design for London to convert a former industrial building on the edge of the Olympics site into a local arts centre. We won the commission through a design competition in 2010 but there was a six-month delay while the project passed from DfL to the Olympic Park Legacy Company.
Eventually, the building will be managed by Space Studios, a charity that provides affordable studio space for artists and we have been working closely with them on the design. The mixed-use programme includes a provision for a café and group studio on the ground floor and an event space, gallery and various studio spaces on the first floor.
David Kohn: The refurbishment will help give Hackney Wick a public face. The former industrial area has become home to one of the largest concentrations of artists in Europe. However, the majority of this industry is hidden from view behind warehouse walls. With all of the development happening in and around Hackney Wick, the White Building will connect the studio world to the public realm and draw in locals and visitors.
TM Although there are several great galleries in the area, such as Mother Studios next door and Stour Space nearby, it was still a challenge to gain change of use from industrial to D1 but eventually permission was granted in February 2011. Despite close proximity to the Olympics, we have been keen to ensure the White Building remains part of Hackney Wick, and have been sensitive to the local context and concerns over development.
What’s the site context?
TM The building is in Queens Yard, just on the edge of Tower Hamlets and about 500m away from the Hackney borough border, and is located on White Post Lane, next to one of the entrances to the Olympic Park. It is right next to the Lee Navigation canal.
Our building, known locally as the White Building, was built in the 1940s as an extension to the Clarnico sweet factory and is approximately 660sq m with a north-south orientation. Most recently it was used as a print works and became empty last year. It is considered a Building of Local Importance.
What condition is the existing building in?
TM It’s not in a great state right now. It’s heavily graffitied inside and out, having had a number of break-ins and squat parties, but structurally it is sound. It has two storeys with a 4.5m floor-to-ceiling height downstairs and a lightweight pitched roof with rooflights above the upstairs space. The downstairs is characterised by a series of concrete columns.
What approach are you taking?
DK There’s a modest budget but a lot of ambition and we have to make sure that everything we do counts. For example, where we’re carrying out structural changes we’re making them work decoratively too. We can’t touch the roof structure on the first floor because of asbestos so we’re introducing bracing that becomes quite a graphic element in the space.
We’re proposing a suite of small things that have a strong narrative contribution to make. We are looking to find a few key moments in the project where we can work with the local makers — maybe on fabricating the facade sign, and the interior storage cabinets for example. In this way, the project will have tentacles beyond the limits of the building that extend into the local economy.
TM Architecturally, the moves are simple and done in a way that is respectful of the building’s character while giving it a new lease of life. Our main interventions are internal. We’ll be stripping the building back to its shell, inserting new divisions, insulating it, and bringing in new finishes that are sympathetic to its industrial past, such as blockwork walls and steel-framed windows.
The competition brief suggested placing the gallery and café on the ground floor with studios upstairs, but we felt the columns would compromise the gallery space. So we flipped it and put the gallery upstairs along with smaller, east-facing studios and an events space overlooking the Olympic Park. Downstairs, we’re positioning a big residency studio in addition to the café. We’re keeping service zones to the back of the building, which allows us to re-use the existing drainage infra-structure. We’re introducing a mezzanine for admin use by a café tenant.
The brief didn’t spell out what kind of artists would be using the studios so it was key to design in flexibility such as double-height spaces for sculptors and insulated studios for sound artists. Space Studios wanted to offer something different from its other studios to potential artists so we’ve ended up with one very large studio as well as smaller ones upstairs. The intention is for the arts centre to interact with the community. The downstairs studio will be large enough to cope with a class of school kids on a visit. During the Olympics, the hope is to use the space for events with the potential to also hire out some of the studios for TV crews, generating income to support the future of the building.
What kind of character will the refurbishment bring to the building?
TM The building will remain industrial to ensure it fits in with the surrounding context. There are games going on inside —
we are creating spaces that feel urban. The café, for example, is like an urban courtyard with blockwork walls and glazed openings that respond to the existing fenestration. It will be a microcosm of the building’s urban context.
There are also lots of little moves to bring joy to the building. Downstairs the construction is quite raw but we’re lining the ceiling with draped canvases to improve the acoustics, for example.
Upstairs, there are light-weight steel trusses that have a lovely quality to them. Between them, we’re proposing hanging colourful netting filled with sheep’s wool insulation. This is one example of our collabor-ation with Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture,
which specialises in sustainable architecture.
DK Rather than fixing up the building — where there is a danger that we can’t fix it enough and others will quite reasonably un-fix it — we’re redistributing the existing building in the new. For example, we’re re-using some of the weathered glazing. In this way, fragments of graffiti remain in the building and are a delight.
The architecture is very aware of its role of being background. It’s not trying to be the subject of the experience of the building. We fully expect anyone who moves in to do a lot to it like at the Flash restaurant at the Royal Academy, where other designers put layers of interventions on the walls, but there was still an underlying rigour to the architecture.
What’s the timetable for the project?
TM We’ve just gone to tender and hope to start on site in the new year in order to be finished by spring/summer 2012. At the same time, Muf is looking at the canalside landscape and its connection to White Post Lane. This area could be used as an informal performance space with links to the studios and the café.
A response to the existing structure
The architects are inserting two, 4.5m-high blockwork walls into the ground floor to create the café area. This will be punctuated with glazed openings that respond in dimension and character to the proportions of the existing metal windows.
The blockwork will be fair-faced in a sandy colour rather warmer than the standard grey, but will otherwise be fairly austere, creating an intentionally exterior quality to the space.
“The idea is that they’re like exterior walls so have the character of a courtyard,” says David Kohn. “We’re trying to blur what’s informal public space and what’s interior space.
It has a matter of fact formality that’s a bit like a building facade and that’s part of the character.”
The architects are hoping to salvage some of the existing window panes that are being removed from the exterior and reintroduce them within the new internal glazing as a nod to the building’s history. Similarly, some of the best of the large quantity of internal graffiti will be retained within the café.
The walls will be combined with the original concrete floor, which will be cleaned and sealed.
Architect David Kohn Architects with Exploration Architecture, Client Olympic Park Legacy Company, External works Muf architecture/ art, Structural engineer Alan Baxter Associates, M&E Capita Symonds, Cost Cyril Sweett, Project manager Capita Symonds
Interview by Pamela Buxton