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Grand entrance

The oh! art centre's commitment to accessibility goes far beyond it's 40m-long wheelchair-friendly entrance ramp

Bethnal Green is a funny old place.

Emerging from the tube station there's a real sense of city hustle and bustle; a real market-trader buzz. Its thriving street scene means that everyone says it's a great place to live, but I don't know many people who actually aspire to live there.

However, from the tube, it's a short walk past Christmas wrapping paper sellers, plastic trinket stalls and shops selling meat and two veg, cor-blimey trousers and a bit of how's yer father before arriving at Bethnal Green's community centre. Oxford House on Derbyshire Street has just been refurbished and rebranded to cater for its growing community arts programme, and henceforth it is to be known as oh! art (Oxford House art).

Oxford House has had an interesting history. Established in 1884, it was the first 'settlement' from Keble College, Oxford University whereby the graduates, tutors and those planning on entering the church demonstrated their religious belief through social action - mixing with the unfortunates and learning about the poor and downtrodden. In a classically non-ironic quote of Victorian philanthropy, Henry Scott Holland, Canon of St Paul's, stated that 'The more you believe in the incarnation, the more you care about drains.'

So Oxford House became a house for education, charity and social work in the area and, for all the social-Darwinist undercurrents, managed to establish the building as a centre for social clubs, evening classes and lectures as well as a variety of local entertainments. Today a secular organisation, it incorporates similar social activities and community functions although it is now representative of a much broader community. However, the poor conditions remain as, situated in Tower Hamlets, it is within the second-poorest borough in Europe, which has the highest unemployment statistics in the country and, at 44 per cent, Britain's largest ethnic population.

The original building, which was accessed down a 'rat-infested' alley, housed a decrepit 100-seat auditorium among other things. The Somali community, for which the building had become a home-from-home, had effectively abandoned it. Therefore, to create a new lease of life both for the building and the area, it was proposed a new entranceway be created - reconciling four entrance levels - and providing the opportunity for a grand gesture around the entrance ramp.

'Access' as far as the architect was concerned, meant access to the displayed art, as well as 'ease of physical access.'

Stage payments

The architect for the scheme, All Clear Design, has developed a reputation for dealing sympathetically with all aspects of accessibility and this scheme has put its experience to the test. Part of the brief was to ensure that the building be as inclusive as possible - serving a wide range of interests and disability groups. It also required that such disability-access design be carried out as unobtrusively as possible, so that what might be classified as disabled 'adaptations', would be done with decorum and discretion.

The scheme was budgeted at £2.8 million (inclusive of fees), but apparently the Arts Council slashed its allowance to £900,000 at the last minute (insisting on matched funding to make up the difference) and requested that the scheme be phased to show that the architects could carry it off.

Despite this, the story had a happy ending and the overall scheme has just been competed, incorporating flexible performance spaces, rehearsal studios, galleries, artist's studios, dressing rooms, cafe, teaching rooms and ancillary accommodation.

The new auditorium seats 180 people and because the tube line runs barely 10m away from the building, the excavated area had to be constructed as an acoustic 'box-within-a-box' - fully isolated on neoprene springs.

Ramp arts

As an art space in the most general meaning of the word, the architect insisted that the local community be able to experience (access) as much of the arts as possible. By creating a 40m-long entrance area housing a ramp (to avoid lifts or stair-lifts which break down), the architect has encouraged the client to bring its arts into the heart of the building and ensured that everyone passes through it to get to other areas. This type of placement, says project architect James Holmes-Siedle, 'calms the beast of more difficult users', referring to some of the more rumbustious youth who frequent the building.

This grand, naturally lit space is constructed with heavy steel sections to take additional suspended art loads; even aerial ballet performances have been accounted for. Admittedly, when I was on site, the underside of the dog-leg return was a little ungainly, but it had yet to be fitted out.

Tasty designs

'Disabled access is the weft to which we weave our designs, ' says HolmesSiedle. He reminded me that only six percent of all disabled people are wheelchair users and is therefore keen to move away from the ramp as a core element in the disability strategy for the building.All sensory impairments have been considered, and All Clear Design constructed many sample panels to reflect them: to include as many people with disabilities as possible. Holmes-Siedle trained as a psychologist and incorporates much of this expertise in his architecture.

Sensory sample boards were created to free the thinking of the design teams, even to the extent of them creating a notional 'taste map' of the building. 'This sensory exercise, ' says Holmes-Siedle, 'was interesting, in that (taste dictated that) we ended up with more natural finishes and more welcoming materials.' It doesn't, however, mean visitors should lick the walls to find their way around.

Employing artists to add to the scheme, All Clear found partially sighted Alison Jones led the field and employed her to create a 'colour palette' for the interiors. This has been based on spices, developing the sensory use of colour and 'reflecting both the historical location for the importation of spices and the community spice-base.' Earth colours predominate.

Holmes-Siedle says that he has always been interested in how people use buildings. By developing this inclusive, sensory-based strategy, he wants to alter people as they walk along, 'like in an Edwardian fantasy', we can watch the volumes change and react to aural, visual and tactile modulations. The bottom line, for Holmes-Siedle, is that we get more out of a building, even if only on a subliminal level.

Architect's comment

Access, in its widest sense, is about more than just disabled people, and disabled people are more than just wheelchair users. oh! art aspired to make art accessible, and this meant creating a non-threatening, inviting and exciting new venue that would attract traditional and new arts audiences in the heart of the East End.

Our starting point for this was consultation. Four hundred hours of user consultation shaped the form of the new design. No less than 45 groups from Somalis, Bengalis, traditional East Enders, disabled users and arts' organisations were consulted.

Architectural legibility is a key to access and all of the facilities can be viewed from the entrance space.

Colour and lighting keys the spaces and draws the eye to the entrances.

Surfaces are natural and warm to the touch, with a change in texture from a slate tile, to wide Iroko planks.

Movment on the ramps make a 'boardwalk'noise identifying the spaces through sound and materials, which were actually chosen using a 'taste'map for a journey through the building.

Access for all is so much more than ramps and WCs, and this building is a test-bed for a more subtle approach to creating accessible arts buildings.

James Holmes-Siedle, All Clear Designs Tel 020 8400 5093 or visit www. allclear. co. uk

CREDITS

CLIENT Oxford House: Kim Adams

ARCHITECTS All Clear Designs: James HolmesSiedle (project architect), Jane Hanna, Emma Burnett, Aliki Pritchett, Kiran Ubhi

ENGINEERS Alan Conisbee Associates M&E Atelier 10 QS Boyden & Co

ACOUSTIC Paul Gillieron Acoustics

CONTRACTOR Dollman Ralston Construction

CONTRACT IFC 98

START DATE February 2002

END DATE June 2003

FUNDING Arts Council England, English Partnerships, European Regional Development Fund, Bridge House Estates Trust, Tudor Trust and 'other charitable trusts and foundations'

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