Henley Halebrown Rorrison’s Akerman Health Centre is socially considerate architecture grounded in the assumption that it can make a difference, writes Jay Merrick. Photography by Ioana Marinescu
According to John Betjeman, GE Street’s St John the Divine church in Lambeth, built in 1874, was the finest place of worship in south London. But he would have cried on the humid, talcum-powdered shoulder of his poetic muse, Miss Joan Hunter-Dunne, had he lived to witness the 1994 installation of contemporary gargoyles and grotesques on the church where John Ruskin once prayed. Caricatures of the Queen and the Prince of Wales, homunculitic and bloat-faced, look southwards across an urban scene whose post-1960s redevelopment is an all too familiar example of contemporary place‑unmaking.
The Victorians didn’t treat this fillet of London much better. In the mid-19th century, most land on Lambeth Wick Estate was controlled by Baron Holland, who fostered a speculatively built, haphazardly set-out garden suburb characterised by Georgian-style villas: offensive trades were prohibited and exterior joinery and metalwork had to be painted every four years.
Today, at the southern end of his old domain, lies the Myatts Field North regeneration zone, masterplanned by PRP Architects; and a few metres outside its eastern edge, we find a long, three-storey oblong clad in very roughly textured ivory brick. The building’s bold clarity of line recalls JJP Oud’s Hook of Holland public housing of the 1920s. The Akerman Health Centre, designed by Henley Halebrown Rorrison, is an 80m long by 16m wide concrete-framed building with a section like a chunky cross. The relationship between plan, section, and functional segmentation could not be clearer - nor could its BREEAM Excellent energy use rating.
The Akerman is both object-architecture and an object-lesson in spatial, functional and ground plane efficiency. It also provides us with an episode in the long-running tragicomedy otherwise known as British urban redevelopment. The plotline is always the same: the deployment of architectural intentions - whether intelligent or prostituted - is caught up in the contorted systems of urban evolution. The rare creation of admirable architecture either magnifies the tawdriness of aspirational projects around it, or acts as an obdurate promise of change for the better.
It is not enough to say that the Akerman is an admirable model for neighbourhood health centres, and there should be more buildings like it. The Akerman is ‘political’ architecture: its form was specifically conceived to radiate a strong presence; the design was impelled by the assumption that architecture can change the physical and social patterns of daily life in the area beyond the building’s curtilage.
In 2006, while discussing with Simon Henley his mixed-use transformation of EW Pugin’s 1865 St Monica’s School in Hoxton, I broached the topic of Richard Roger’s Urban Renaissance. ‘Brilliantly stupid,’ Henley said. Brilliant, because of the alluring sweep of its vision; stupid, because of the happy-clappy consumerist vibe that cloaked its potential divisiveness.
The Akerman was conceived as a hybrid building whose plan and massing took their cues from both St John the Divine, and the ordered facades of London’s Georgian terraces. The result of these two apparently conflicting inspirations is a building of precise composition that is effectively classless and typeless. The massing, details and materials are arranged with considerable finesse to respond to significant contextual issues.
Henley has won a small contextual battle in an urban no-man’s land. The Akerman’s long western facade is within a few metres of the eastern edge of the North Myatts Field regeneration zone, and Henley wanted the building to contribute to its porosity. This is a salient of socially considerate architecture whose cruciform central ground floor plan sets up a nominal east-west public realm connecting Tindall Street to the east with the path across the forthcoming Hammelton Green pocket park to the west.
Furthermore, by aligning the building off-centre along its north-south axis, an unexpectedly wide planted pavement - 6.5m at its broadest point - has been formed, and this allows the porte-cochère entrance to project well clear of the main elevation, emphasising the connection with Myatt Road directly opposite.
‘The Akerman is as much about remaking a bit of the city as it is about a building,’ explains Henley. ‘The building reminds you of your role or place in society. This is not a public building for congregation. It is a symbol for an institution that is seen as benevolent, and it manifests the institution in the city as a monument: a healthy reminder of the NHS that’s timely, because it’s at this precise moment that the government is dismantling it.’
He describes the east facade as ‘repairing the southern half of Patmos Road and framing the east side of Hammelton Green’. The design, he adds, ‘is really about pure geometry’. But the design is also about fugitive metaphors. Henley describes the ground floor reception area as a transept. ‘It has a modest spirituality, as you ascend the staircase,’ he suggests. ‘You are there, alone, under the natural light that falls through the concrete cross piece at the top of the building. It gives significance to the otherwise banal experience of going to a doctor. It’s what triggered the nave-and-aisle section. And, if you want to rise to three storeys above the ground floor you have to take the edge off the east side of the building. But this gives order, because, as soon as you slice that part of the section off, you have to do it to the west side.’
This creates a set-back in the facade at second storey height, which reduces the Akerman’s sense of mass, as seen from the new housing estate. Henley contrived a loggia segment across part of this facade for the same reason.
The building’s length and cruciform section have allowed it to be functionally and programmatically divided in the simplest of ways. To the left and right of the ground floor reception-cum-transept are a flexible-use suite, and meeting rooms set back in the plan behind wide perimeter corridors.
On the first and second floors, the central portion of the west side of the section contains the two double waiting rooms for the four GP surgeries, overlooking Hammelton Green. The clinical rooms are arranged along the eastern side and in the end segments of the western side. ‘In effect,’ explains Henley, ‘the architectural hierarchy on the outside is borne out in the first floor piano nobile and the second floor interiors.’ The top floor contains an open plan office, meeting rooms, various staff rooms and a roof terrace. The projecting second storey roofs are planted with sedum.
The Akerman’s details are pleasing. The roughly surfaced bricks very nearly suggest weathered limestone. The three bands of windows on the long elevations are deeply recessed on the ground floor, slightly less so along the first floor and flush along the top line.
Artworks, sourced via Modus Operandi, have contributed significantly to the character of the building: its ‘podium’ is a Cor-ten steel screen with artwork cut-outs designed by Daniel Sturgis. This wraps around the exterior of the ground floor and vents the car park under the building. Paul Morrison’s painted frieze on the upper walls of the transept are softly toplit through a concrete cross piece.
The words ‘Akerman’ and ‘Health’ are raised in supergraphic type on three of the facades. In HHbR’s oxblood red, Ed Ruscha-like perspective, the words are as heroic as Aneurin Bevan’s legendary declaration in 1948 that: ‘no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.’
The supergraphics, which recall the lettering above Lubetkin’s Finsbury Health Centre, can not only be seen by the royal homunculi affixed to St John the Divine, but also from the North Myatts Field regeneration zone where, in due course, residents will move into the true built facts of PRP’s sub-tropically coloured visualisations.
Jay Merrick is architecture critic at The Independent