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Corby Cube, Corby, Northamptonshire, by Hawkins\Brown

Hawkins\Brown’s multi-tasking Corby Cube pulls off the risks it takes and may become the template for public buildings, writes Rory Olcayto

‘It is our view that a successful Town Centre should be closely built, without being cramped, and should contain an interesting variety of enclosed street pictures.’ This was the view of Denis Harper, chief architect of Corby Development Corporation in a 1952 progress report. But with no existing townscape to work with and little commercial interest in developing small, street-scale plots, ‘enclosed street pictures’ were hard to achieve.

Corby does have some interesting buildings. Fifties-built churches in brick and concrete, housing estates from the thirties, and the Strathclyde Hotel, a squat masonry tower on a raised deck above the town centre (even Ian Nairn, scourge of England’s New Towns, had a soft spot for tough, urban Strathclyde Hotel). But a strong sense of townscape, of navigating by skyline, a sequence of building-enclosure-open space, just isn’t there.

That is beginning to change. Corby is growing. More than £2 billion of public and private money has been spent in the past five years, and a new railway station is drawing commuters from London. New buildings have been commissioned for the Parkland Gateway regeneration project to create a civic quarter and town square on the site of the original New Town civic centre, including S&P Architects’ Olympic-size swimming pool completed in 2009 and Willow Place, an open-air Land Securities shopping centre designed by DLG Architects.

And now comes Corby Cube, an inscrutable, mirror-clad mixed-use block, designed by Hawkins\Brown and hailed as a budget-conscious template for new public buildings. With its programme of library, theatre, registry office, council chamber, studio space and a social service ‘one-stop shop’, it feels like a town within a town. It even has a high street, in the form of a wide ramp lined with bookcases, that promenades through the first two floors, encouraging you to explore its overlapping spaces and voids, or enclosed street pictures, as Corby’s original chief architect might call them.

The Corby Cube in the AJ Buildings Library

Images, drawings and data from AJ magazine building studies are free to view in the AJ Buildings Library for two weeks after publication

The strange thing is that the Cube was actually meant to be two buildings, commissioned to enhance Corby’s townscape qualities. Hawkins\Brown’s winning solution to Corby Borough Council’s 2004 competition brief for separate civic and arts buildings however was to propose only one. The benefits were threefold: capital and running cost savings, new relationships arising from shared facilities, and a bonus plot of town-centre land ready for development.

When I visited it was a bright sunny day, the library was packed, kids were rehearsing in the theatre and the council chamber was being prepared for a talk later that evening. It felt like a community building is meant to feel: friendly, busy, engaged.

You enter through the north-east corner into a double-height reception dominated by a line of circular concrete columns and a soaring concrete floorplate overhead. This leads to the theatre on your left and to the rubber-decked ramp, which doubles as the library with reading rooms and more shelves strung off it. The 80-metre ramp continues upwards to the one-stop shop, a bright double-height space overlooking the town centre on level one.

From here a shallow staircase rises to level two and a suite of offices with more offices and a members lounge stacked above them on level three. Corridors are wide, with vibrant red carpets. Glass-lined walls with lace curtains screen offices behind. The succession of large-scale volumes you encounter while looping through the Cube - the walnut-lined chamber on level two, the 450-seat theatre which drops down to the basement, the heavyweight concrete core, and the restaurant and open-air roof garden on level four - defy the senses; Corby Cube feels bigger on the inside.

Some buildings are clearly inspired by others. On first sight, this one resembles OMA’s Netherlands Embassy in Berlin. The context is all different of course - the embassy’s riverside urban block versus the Cube’s roundabout and fifties-built shopping centre - but its form, pinstripe elevations and cantilevered boxroom (a reading room off the library) all point to Rem Koolhaas.

Inside, the same firm’s Rotterdam Kunsthal, wherein various functions are served by an expansive ramp, provides the model for Hawkins\Brown. Despite the similarities with Rem’s exemplars - ‘He’s a tremendous influence,’ says director Roger Hawkins - the Cube, because of its programme, remains unique, another experiment in the town described by local author John Burnside as ‘a trendy architect’s cut-rate laboratory’.

Some of the risks were well worth taking: the remarkably user-friendly ‘library-on-a-ramp’. The roof terrace and its views across nearby ancient woodland. The computer-controlled windows in the ventilated skin, like heavy lids lifting, animating the sombre facades (the Cube is rated BREEAM Excellent).

Yet compressing so much public facility into one building - effectively privatising the spaces that could have existed between them - seems like a town turning in on itself, and a missed opportunity to reverse poor brownfield development. Furthermore, its new neighbours, the nondescript shopping centre and the metal-clad extruded oval pool, are not of the same calibre.

You could argue this mismatched ensemble lacks the simplicity and decorum of the original New Town plan, and falls short of Harper’s desire for an ‘interesting variety of enclosed street pictures’. Two buildings as thoughtful as the Cube could have set a different course for Corby’s evolving town centre. Nevertheless, the Cube is a remarkable achievement and one of the more thought-provoking buildings to complete this past year.

It could well prove influential. As government cuts take hold, which council leader will argue with the architect’s view that the Cube offers ‘a new paradigm for civic buildings in an age of austerity’?

Credits

Start on site February 2008
Completion November 2010
Gross internal floor area 7,700m²
Form of procurement Competition won in 2004
Total cost £35 million
Cost per m² £3,700 (building only) £4,545 (including undercroft and landscaping)
Client Corby Borough Council
Architect/interior designer Hawkins\Brown
Structural engineer Adams Kara Taylor
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Gardiner & Theobald
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Landscape architect Grant Associates
Project manager Mouchel
Main contractor Galliford Try
Construction Central
CDM co-ordinator PFB Construction Management Services
Approved building inspector North Herts District Council / Corby Borough Council
Annual CO2 emissions 42.5kg/m²

Readers' comments (1)

  • I really think you should be updating your articles about the Corby Cube. It should never be imitated!

    Read these...
    http://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/news/local/the-45m-cube-is-not-value-for-money-claims-report-1-4062097

    http://www.northantstelegraph.co.uk/news/local/report-on-cube-spending-goes-public-1-4061708

    http://www.corby.gov.uk/document/corby-cube-public-report

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