A community centre in Newham is the first Olympic regeneration project to be completed and its influence will be felt far beyond its locality, says Andrew Houlton
Adams & Sutherland’s Chandos East Community Centre is one of the first buildings to emerge from the London 2012 Olympic regeneration process, and marks the beginning of a legacy resulting from infrastructural displacement as existing facilities are moved to make way for the Olympic site. This new building will accommodate activities for children, young people and their families provided by east London charity Community Links. It extends activities predominantly for the elderly available at the existing nearby Chandos Centre, and replaces a nearby building that has been demolished.
This new community centre has reached completion at a time when the value of strategic governmental design advisory groups, both at a central and local level, is being challenged by ideological shifts and funding cutbacks. Voices calling for industry-led initiatives seem to imply that current guidance from design experts somehow counters the successful natural flow of the development procurement process. Conversely, local neighbourhood involvements are being championed by central government as a way to untangle what it sees as burdening bureaucracy.
It is therefore inevitable that this development will become an exemplar at the heart of this strategic debate. The building was guided by Design For London, part of the London Development Agency, working on behalf of the mayor of London, who commissioned the project, along with Newham Council. Design for London seems to have engendered confidence in supporting the requirements of Community Links and enabling Newham to explore beyond the usual framework by choosing designers who would provide a well-considered project.
Community Links’ co-founder and senior adviser Kevin Jenkins has called the centre “the culmination of a decade of our thinking about community buildings”.
Arriving at the centre, having walked the discontinuous fabric of the open street, formed of Victorian cottage terraces, one is presented with a stretched, horizontal, dark-brown, brick facade with an elegant compositional flatness. The building is set back from the street across an arrival court and parkland. The architect explains that the space in front is landscaped as improved public realm, with a gentle topography providing a playful landscape and sufficient area below ground to install the horizontal array of pipework for the ground-source heat pump.
The facade’s public presence is gently affirming, without being overly strident. The choice of the brick is deliberately mute so that its overall massing blends with the backlands of sheds and the rears of terraced housing. Within the loggia, bursts of colour line the interior, echoing the green landscape of the forecourt topography and announcing some quality to the rooms and gardens within. The whole building facade, together with the front wall screen, reaches out across the width of the site between the adjacent concrete boundary fences. This lends proportional dignity to the public space between street line and the new building face. A light touch between the old and the new is achieved with a delicate tracery of galvanised gate and panel.
This development will become an exemplar at the heart of the planning debate
On the day I visited, the lightweight silver security shutters, the large lettering and the galvanised fencing and gate panels were glistening in the low, winter sun, complementing the mute brick of the thickened thermal facade wall. As the shutters were lifted, the entry loggia space quickly warmed and became a pleasant space to sit, offering a visual frame from which to view the new landscape and the everyday quality of the street beyond. Sitting on the fine wood slatted bench, looking sideways, affords a glimpse into the gardenscape, behind the facade screen wall, through an aperture of galvanised trellis panel. This architectural device mediates between the outer, public spaces and the more private secure interior and exterior rooms of the community centre. During the opening hours, the loggia is a welcome gift to the public street.
Colour is reserved for the reveals within the deep walls, not the external surfaces. This is intelligent engagement with the recent penchant for loud colour in community buildings, but resists the temptation of overuse, which with lesser discipline could mark the building as an attention-seeking object not particularly interested in its surrounding company.
The scale of the building and its roofscape is a response to its “backlands” context, but provides sufficient height to prevent intruders getting on to the roof and grounds.
“The result is a collection of forms, which are non-monolithic in relation to the surrounding London terraces,” says the practice.
The architect describes the interior as a campo, with an almost urban morphology. This is intended as an initial narrative, giving some spatial understanding, which is more than the consequence of the programmatic displacement of rooms. We can think of the campo beginning as a field, which then accumulates settlement around it, while also preserving the relationship to other fields – an interesting way to imagine how this building learns its place.
Rooms are organised around a central top-lit hall leading through a series of deep thresholds, past internal smaller spaces, services, sensory stimulation, a music studio, and storage, to the main activity rooms arranged around the perimeter. These rooms, each of which relates to one of the gardens, heighten an awareness of the temporal nature of natural light and the movement of the sun from morning through to late afternoon. The top lantern gives external form to the street, while also providing internal volume, registering the changes of natural light deep within the building plan. The deep reveals of the lantern reflect indirect light and thereby give drama to the entry areas.
There is simple good sense in the general arrangement. The architects refer to residents’ concerns about security – elderly users in particular worry about “youths”. This led to strategic decisions to locate all youth and training facilities to the east side of the building in order to reduce contact between these two groups. On the west side, where a shared garden was proposed, there are pre-school facilities and a quieter community room. The architect envisages older people and very young children might benefit from this semi-shared space.
This masterplan is concerned with stitching a torn urban fabric back together
The ground materials both inside and outside are very important to the sequence of spatial territories. There are material mats, which respond to the activities and hierarchy of site thresholds. It is a rich yet cohesive palette. A mingling of surfaces made up of utilitarian materials that find resonance in the way they are combined. There is an interest in the parity of texture or tone across surfaces rather than fragmented contrast. The brick surface of the thickened walls folds down into the loggia entrance and the figure ground of external doors to the gardens like a surreal, shadowy mat. This assists the building to make contact with its ground.
On arrival, the dark asphalt of the new approach drive gives way to a warmer expanse of bonded gravel, before a large mat of black bricks, which extends the entrance threshold, and introduces the territory of the building. On entering, a warmer surface of soft grey rubber provides some sound absorption to the shared entrance hall/café area. The perimeter public rooms are floored in linoleum and provide a different quality again to the changing light conditions throughout the day.
This community centre has grown out of an LDA-commissioned local masterplan prepared by Adams & Sutherland, which studied the wider Chandos Open Space, consisting of two areas of ground, and developed a strategy of recommended improvements, while re-evaluating the locations for a new playground and the new community building. The study placed emphasis on marking spatial territories, sometimes making them more porous by clarifying passages between places, or making them more defined. One example is the raised ground topography of the playground area, which the architect recently completed.
This is valuable work, especially as it is located alongside the looming mass of the Olympic Village. This local masterplan is concerned with the modest stitching together of a torn urban fabric. It is reasonable to see the influences of Peter Salter, former tutor in the mid-eighties of founding director Elizabeth Adams, and indeed the Smithsons, who are important thinkers for both Adams and co-director Graeme Sutherland.
Given this interest in the reinterpretation and reinvention of existing places, the practice’s design for the Olympic Greenway, which works with and adapts the “as found” condition of the northern outfall sewer constructed by Victorian engineer Bazalgette, could be significant. This greenway is in the process of construction, and should help to inform relationships for the large stadiums and pavilions as they learn how to adapt to a post-Olympic legacy.
There are modest yet significant lessons to glean from the Chandos Community Centre and its local area masterplan. The centre is yet to be occupied by its neighbourhood and, like all newly built centres, it will be interesting to observe how its occupants take possession. Cabe used to champion this in a formal “post-occupancy analysis” programme. One can only hope that in the new climate such ventures will still be deemed important.
Architect Adams & Sutherland, Client London Development Agency, Project management Capita Symonds, Structural and M&E engineer Capita Symonds, Cost management Gardiner & Theobald, Main contractor Lakehouse