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exploring buildings

PEOPLE: It is a time of transition at the Hackney Building Exploratory, and director Nicole Crockett is spearheading developments. With funding already agreed, there are plans afoot to expand the centre's educational role

The Hackney Building Exploratory is one of those unstoppable good ideas that inspires enthusiasm in all who discover it. With CABE keen to see the project replicated, and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation about to fund a major education programme, the centre is taking off. The woman guiding it through the next phase is Nicole Crockett.

Housed within an old school building off the Kingsland Road in one of London's most deprived boroughs, the exploratory is no ordinary museum. Founded in 1994, it provides a unique way into teaching about the built environment. Its mix of hi- and low-tech exhibits include a huge threedimensional map of the borough made by local primary children and a replica of a now-demolished tower block. Crockett has been director of the exploratory for just over a year. Throughout her career, she has made a habit of getting involved at the most exciting time.

After abandoning plans to become an architect, and an unhappy stretch in academia, Crockett landed at job at the Arts Council's architecture unit in 1994. There she discovered an exciting new field - the promotion of architecture to the public. The unit had just acquired a budget of £220,000 and, under the leadership of Roy Coonan, she set about finding projects to fund.

It was through this work that she discovered the Architecture Foundation, which had just been awarded core funding.

With a team of just four, it had yet to hold the public forum debates that later elevated its profile.

'The Architecture Foundation had only been going for a few years and hadn't made the impact it has now, ' she says. 'There were various little projects on the go but no policy of funding architecture for people.'

The AF married her interest in arts and architecture with the social world, and, when she was asked to join 'it seemed like an absolute dream come true'.

The current funding crisis dogging the AF troubles her greatly. It would be 'catastrophic' if it failed to replace its core funding. 'It's been a leader in that field, ' she says.

During her four years at the AF she saw Lucy Musgrave take over as director and the centre begin to grow. The project she remembers most fondly was the roadshow in which she travelled around London inspiring local people to produce ideas for blighted sites.

Short of opportunities to move up, she moved into consultancy for a year, working for the British Council, the Royal Academy, the Venice Biennale and, finally, Hackney Building Exploratory. The research she did for the exploratory on population density and the development of the borough forms the basis for many of the exhibits today.

'It was a nice opportunity, ' she says, 'having been out of the academic research field for a while, to marry my new interests with some old skills I had hidden away in the closet.'

She was one of the exploratory's early converts and when its founder, Polly Hudson, decided to step down as director in the spring of 2000 she was first in the queue to take her place.

Luckily she had recently become a resident of Hackney - she lives with her partner and four-year-old son in Fassett Square, the inspiration for Eastenders' Albert Square.One strict rule of the centre is that core staff must live locally.

'It's pretty crucial that we are a part of the community, ' she says, 'The reason the exploratory works is because it focuses on the local area and there are very few places that do that.'

Hackney is a diverse, deprived borough and increasingly developers are asking the centre to get involved in local regeneration projects. While Crockett stresses the exploratory is not overtly political or campaigning, one of its aims is to empower people to take part in the changes.

'Our expertise is not in community consultation, ' she says, 'but a step back - in preparing people, building up their confidence, giving them the language and the skills to be able to participate on an equal footing with decision-makers.'

Its other mission is more directly educational. The exploratory is founded on the notion that the built environment is a rich educational tool 'lying on our doorsteps'. Used correctly, Crockett believes, it can help in the teaching of a whole range of subjects.

She adds that the absence of the built environment from the national curriculum at primary school level is 'pretty irrelevant'.

The curriculum is loose enough to find ways of including it through geography, history, maths, literacy, art or science. The challenge is to encourage teachers to take advantage of the opportunities and provide them with the materials to do it, she says.

'Our main concern is not necessarily to extend the national curriculum - because it's so absolutely packed as it is - but to prove that the built environment is a fantastic resource for teachers to use. The possible reason they don't use it at present is because schemes of work haven't been developed and teachers don't have time to develop them. So that's where our focus will be.'

The £40,000 Paul Hamlyn Grant will go towards developing those schemes of work and making them available on the Internet.

Before Christmas CABE named Crockett one of its festive five design champions, in recognition of her work so far.

With the centre now established, it is expanding its activities. But while Crockett will be working with CABE to replicate the model and taking an active part in the soonto-be network of architecture centres, her priority will be the continuing development of the Hackney centre.

The key will be to find a new home. 'We'd like to have a front door that people can walk off the street into, ' she says. 'We're a little bit hidden away at the moment.'

With so much on the boil, she is in no hurry to find the next challenge. 'I've got a lot to do. I think I'll be here for a while.'

Nicole Crockett can be contacted on 020 7275 8555 or visit www. buildingexploratory. org. uk

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