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Into the fold

Dellow Day Centre’s arts building welcomes visitors off the streets and provides a safe space for learning, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Tim Brotherton

There’s sometimes a thin dividing line between architects who cynically tart up their buildings by specifying expensive materials and products in conspicuous locations such as entrance lobbies, and those who discreetly lavish attention on carefully selected details. Gauged by their Arts and Activity Building for the Dellow Day Centre in London’s East End, which opened in November, Featherstone Young Architects belong in the second category.

It’s true that, working on a landlocked site, with windowless party walls on three sides, their design focus was bound to be on the west elevation, which faces the 1980s-built day centre on the other side of a small courtyard, but they should be congratulated on providing a unique, bespoke facade within an overall construction budget of £1,294 per square metre.

The centre, which is run by the charity Providence Row, provides essentials such as food, clothing and showers to homeless people in the deprived district of Tower Hamlets and in the City of London, helping to restore their health and confidence and fostering skills that encourage them to be independent. ‘We aim to get people off the streets and make sure they stay off,’ says Providence Row communication officer Dipika Kulkarni.

The new facility, which replaces a single-storey storage building, has a bike workshop at ground level, a centre for visual and performing arts at first-floor level and offices above, along with archives and storage at all levels. One of the main challenges was to design a building that would invigorate the courtyard space and establish contact with the main day centre building as well as Wentworth Street on the other side of the gated entrance to the north without sacrificing privacy, while still allowing staff to see what was going on inside.

To this end, Featherstone Young conceived the facade as a mask to project a strong, confident identity without leaving the centre’s users feeling exposed and vulnerable. The facade, with its faceted plan form, screens out views from the north, using solid panels as shields but providing views to the south and west through large areas of glazing. ‘We didn’t want the two buildings to stand dumbly staring at each other,’ says founding director Sarah Featherstone.

The facade’s setting-out on plan tilts and begins to fold near its centre, and this algorithm animates the courtyard, reinforced by subtle stepped transitions in the range of green hues of powder coating to its profiled aluminium doors and panels at ground- and second-floor level. The colour green is part of Providence Row’s, for want of a better term, corporate ID. Perforations in the doors and panels’ aluminium sheeting add textural interest and variety, which interacts visually with the fibre cement fixed and opening panels and the glazing on the upper floors; for the most part inexpensive materials that are nevertheless treated with great finesse in their detailed design and are nobly proportioned.

Viewed from the courtyard, the windows’ Iroko frames are concealed behind aluminium panels, and the opening fibre cement panels are integrated with their fixed neighbours and set out with precise shadow gaps. Generous doors at ground level are visually integrated with fixed panels and pivot to open up the bike workshop to the courtyard, encouraging the more timid to join in with the activities inside.

Internally, Featherstone Young have opted for flexibility by inserting timber floors as continuous horizontal barriers between spaces for functions that need to be acoustically separated. Openings in these floors could have used the stack effect to improve natural ventilation, which is restricted by the building’s single aspect, but the mass of the blockwork walls helps regulate diurnal temperatures and keep them at comfortable levels. Part M of the Building Regulations did not require a lift and Providence Row chose to invest in an additional storey instead, on the understanding that it would be possible to install one in the future.

The exquisitely sculptural funnel rooflight, with yellow finishes, will be a great divider for architects. The problem is that the office it illuminates has no external walls and, because the curved glass rooflight does not open, mechanical ventilation will be necessary if this is to be used as a habitable space. Many would have opted for one with a simple geometry, which might have looked mundane, but at least be openable. Featherstone Young chose not to make this sacrifice. The roofscape and visual qualities of the office were seen as too important. A minor extravagance in an otherwise disciplined but imaginative project.

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