Coram Family: Monahan Blythen Architects Photographs by Tim James
Coram Family is a new name for an old institution, its ring of 1990s informality replacing the stuffy-sounding Thomas Coram Foundation. It's a resilient organisation with the knack of reinventing itself with the times. Established in 1739 as a Foundling Hospital, its early years were funded by many illustrious patrons including Hogarth and Handel.
Now, with the aid of Heritage Lottery funds, the institution plans to capitalise on its historic early connections by turning its headquarters in Brunswick Square, central London, into a museum showing its collection of Hogarth paintings and memorabilia relating to Handel's life.
The museum will also contain an exhibition of the history of childcare in the uk. While documenting the past, Coram Family is also looking to the future, and has recently converted another of its properties into a Children's Centre, bringing several institutions together to develop a holistic approach towards children's needs.
Charged with the task of refurbishing and extending the 1930s brick building just off Brunswick Square, the challenge for Monahan Blythen Architects (formerly cghp Architects) was to allow for interaction between different groups on the building, while giving each organisation its own distinct territory. The centre is now home to the Coram's administration and adoption services, healthcare facilities, kids (a charity for children with special needs), and a Parents' Centre which offers parents support in bringing up their children and training to gain access to jobs.
But above all it is a building for children, with pre-school facilities for 126 children ranging from babies to five-year-olds, and the immediate impression is of an environment designed with children in mind. The outdoor play area - which seems a little cluttered to the purist adult eye but probably looks like paradise to a small child - boasts multi-coloured rubber play surfaces, a bridge over a sandpit, and a patch of mud - 'they had to have an area where they can just dig,' Jim Monahan explains. A realistic notion of what kids want is given precedence over an adult's version of good taste: the sandpit cover, for example, is conceived as a giant sail, and plans are afoot to top it off with a skull and crossbones flag.
Administration space is housed on the first floor which has been gutted, refurbished and partially extended, while the nursery occupies the ground floor and the wavy-roofed extensions to the south which form a buffer space between playground and classrooms. Loosely divided by elephant-shaped coat racks designed by the architect, the extensions act as spillover space for individual classrooms, and can be used as communal space where children from different classes can meet. Clad in cedar, and with pre- patinated copper roofs, the extensions create a much cosier feel than the flat 1930s facades, and have the practical advantage that low points in the roof allow for high-level opening windows in the facade of the existing building, providing the inner classrooms with ventilation and light.
The next phase in the masterplan for the 1.2ha site will make the north- facing part of the building just as welcoming, with the creation of an entrance courtyard complete with decorative metalwork gates and an undulating mosaic seat/planter. A former swimming pool building at the corner of the site will be converted into a children's arts venue, with the courtyard itself acting as an open air performance space.
Having received tenders and purchased materials, Coram is currently trying to raise the £80,000 for landscaping to go ahead, but the space is already in constant use, and has the beginnings of a space for mingling, partly thanks to a colonnade designed by Monahan Blythen, which provides waiting parents with a space to shelter from the rain. It's a good practical move, but the colonnade lacks the robust simplicity of the cedar-clad extensions to the southern side.
Tapered timber columns anchored by concrete feet seem like an unnecessarily cumbersome means of supporting the lightweight transparent roof, and the effect is particularly jarring when the occasional column is turned upside- down with its thin end piercing the ground, as if to underline the fact that the concrete feet are redundant, and an infinitely more elegant column could easily have carried the structural load. Fortunately, the architect has adopted a simpler structural language for the two new glazed stair towers which lead to the administrative areas on the upper floor, relying on views into the nearby graveyard of St George's Bloomsbury and the treetops for dramatic effect.