Baldry Gardens Health Centre, New Cross, London by Henley Halebrown Rorrison
The design of Henley Halebrown Rorrison’s Baldry Gardens Health Centre won’t make you better, but it will cheer you up, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Nick Kane
Some buildings are loaded with meaning. Others are simply the sum of what you see. Take Baldry Gardens Health Centre by Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHR). ‘It’s about the careful distribution of windows and the distribution of weight and brickwork,’ says architect Simon Henley. ‘Whatever other theory I may be thinking about, it is what it is.’
The health centre is a (much) smaller cousin to HHR’s Waldron Health Centre in New Cross, south London, and is located at the junction of Baldry Gardens, a tree-lined residential street. There’s a mix of social housing and near-million-pound semis, and the road joins Streatham High Road, one of south London’s major arterials.
There’s nothing remarkable about the architecture. The building is constructed of brick and block cavity wall with an intermediate structural blockwork spine wall to one side of its central corridor. When I visit on a blustery, wet November day however, its polychromatic brickwork – which mixes colours ranging from creamy pink to chocolatey brown – feels autumnal. But most of all, it feels friendly. There’s something about the proportions, the relationship with trees alongside its elevations, the recessed brickwork that denotes the entrance and the big window that highlights the staircase. It says, ‘Come in…’
But Henley does think deeply about more than how to compose elevations. The practice portfolio is rich with civic buildings, such as the Junction at Goole, North Humberside, which combine public and private functions under one roof, often with a limited budget.
‘We’re social and psychological animals,’ says Henley. ‘We live between two states – being alone and being in groups. We make architecture that can respond to those two emotional conditions. Spaces that can be used in solitude or by groups.’ And a closer look at the plan here, or rather the section, shows there is more to Baldry Gardens than form and texture.
Henley explains that the section dictates the logic of the scheme and that this is manifest in the elevation. The recessed windows on the first floors, contrasting with the flush windows at ground level, are for consulting and clinical rooms on the first floor. They are located upstairs, says Henley, in order to resolve the conflict between ‘daylight and dignity’. The main reception is also located upstairs and visible through large windows with a high frequency of transoms which evoke a 50s-era, civic aesthetic.
When we visit however, staff have the blinds drawn in the consulting rooms, because patients still feel exposed (you might catch a glimpse of someone from the top of a passing bus, or perhaps the upper floors of the neighbouring homes, but you would probably just see two talking heads).
The staircase that takes you to these spaces is one of the highlights of this simple, inexpensive building. It is accessed from a draft lobby on the ground floor and has a glazed balustrade set within a chunky wooden frame, and because this has a vertical dimension of more than one-and-a-half-metres (for safety), it has an alluring scale. ‘An Alice-in-Wonderland scale’, says Henley. It almost feels like a room itself.
FAT too, dignified the stairwells of its library in nearby Thornton Heath (AJ 16.09.10), with light and airy volumes and big feature windows.The trend is a clear response to CABE, which first encouraged architects to consider making staircases more visible in order to improve people’s health in 2004. Whether CABE should have muscled into Kellogg’s Special K territory is a moot point, but the architectural result is good one.
The dual aspect reception is bright and ventilated by mechanically controlled windows. It would not be a hardship to wait 10 minutes here for a delayed appointment.
On the ground floor there is a ‘group room’ which leads on to a hard-surfaced garden, which is enclosed by a single-storey-height brick wall (a buffer to traffic on noisy Streatham High Road) and a mix of staff rooms, offices and other utility spaces.
Back outside, the elevations reveal more the closer you look. The metalwork used in external doors, railings and louvres have subtle tones: salmon pink, creme and two hues of brown and windows are bronze anodised aluminium with a green glaze that complements the brick tones.
The facing brick (Ibstock Mill House blend) actually reflects the rich hues used locally and because it has been pointed flush with chocolate brown mortar, the overall monolithic form is enhanced. Henley indicates too, that the parapet, ‘is about a metre of wall above the flat roof. That’s important, it gives a different quality to the street presence.’ Whatever Henley was thinking about when he made that decision is not important. This building speaks for itself.