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IT SHINES LIKE A GEM IN A CHAMBER OF HORRORS

BUILDING STUDY

Hawkins\Brown was established by Roger Hawkins and Russell Brown in 1989, and now has a staff of 78. It has a reputation for delivering social-cultural buildings and community-based projects in the UK.

Key projects include the Arts Faculty for the University of Southampton (AJ 28.11.96), the Sheep Field Barn Gallery for the Henry Moore Foundation (AJ 15.04.99) and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Oxfordshire, which opened last year (AJ 11.08.05).

Culverin Court, four storeys high with 20 small residential units, stands amid its neighbours like David fighting against Goliath.

The site is hugged to the west by EG3, a semicircular building which rises 10 storeys; in red-orange bricks it is overbearing in colour and monotony. To the other side, just across the road, there are eight storeys of social housing with yellow brick and clumsy balconies. The back is bordered by a run-down post-war building used by London Metropolitan University. But, strangely, despite its giant neighbours, Culverin Court is not dwarfed by them. Quite the opposite, it transcends the ugliness of its surroundings, shining like a gem in a chamber of horrors.

The whole site, sandwiched between Hornsey Road and Eden Grove, belongs to the Arsenal redevelopment project. Culverin Court is part of Hawkins\Brown's conversion of the derelict Victorian school, Mount Carmel, which runs alongside the large plot. The scheme's masterplan had been prepared by CZWG, who suggested Hawkins\Brown to the client Wilson Connolly for the redevelopment of the locally listed school in spring 2003.

The school, which had been built as a convent in the 1870s, had stood empty for 10 years. It consisted of two narrow wings, positioned in a right angle with a series of post-war extensions at one end. CZWG's original plans, for which Islington Council had given conditional consent, incorporated these extensions. But Hawkins\Brown decided to strip the old school back to its basic fabric. 'The later extensions had no architectural merit and did not hang together well with the old building, ' explains one of the project architects, Heidi Corbet. Instead, Hawkins\Brown suggested Culverin Court, a new free-standing building that would act as 'a mediator' between the school and the surrounding structures. Culverin Court was the practice's answer to the huge discrepancy between the height and density of EG3, which had been designed by CZWG, and the low-rise domestic scale of Mount Carmel. 'We were looking at various moderations between them, ' says Corbet. Their initial massing studies favoured a six- or seven-storey building, but the cost analysis concluded that a four-storey load-bearing masonry structure would be more cost effective because the client wanted 'a low-risk project'.

The palette of materials used for Culverin Court is simple but effective. To lighten up the north-facing front facade Hawkins\Brown used Eternit cladding, while it built the remaining sides in bricks, which are coloured dark aubergine and sourced from the Netherlands. The bricks are made of engineering stock and semi-glazed. The other project architect Harbinder Singh Birdi explains: 'Their colour mutates, depending on lighting conditions.'

They tinge the building with an almost silver glimmer from some angles and, most importantly, they provide a soothing relief from the sharp red of EG3 while harmoniously contrasting with Mount Carmel's London brick.

The main stairwell is clad in red cedar, a material that has been used throughout Culverin Court and Mount Carmel for outside passageways, balconies and roof terraces. 'We left the cedar untreated so that it would age gracefully, ' explains Singh Birdi. The cladding continues inside the stairwell, where it not only provides a warm atmosphere to the communal space but also exudes a delicious smell which gives the whole building a welcoming feel. 'Everything was kept simple, ' says Corbet, 'but we played with the positions of the windows and the balconies.'

The windows are staggered, as are the balconies - some are recessed and others are projected - animating the facade as well as bringing variety to internal layouts. In fact, it was this simplicity which allowed the architect to remain true to its original design during the lengthy planning and tender negotiations. 'There was nothing that was superuous, ' explains Corbet, 'so there was nothing that could be removed.'

The planning and building of Culverin Court also reveals how a tight time frame, a change of clients (Taylor Woodrow took over from Wilson Connolly in May 2004), and busy contractors can work in favour of a building. When Hawkins\Brown had to file a new planning application, due to the fact it had completely departed from CZWG's original design, Corbet explains that the added time pressure 'worked to our advantage'. Preapplication negotiations with the planners started in September 2003, but the scheme only secured consent in February 2004. With just 14 months in which to finish the building, there was no time for the contractor to negotiate alternative materials - Singh Birdi believes this is one reason that Hawkins\Brown was able to use the dark bricks, 'which were twice the price of the ones that the contractor normally uses'.

The small scale of Culverin Court and Mount Carmel in comparison with the other projects on the massive Arsenal site also worked to Hawkins\Brown's advantage. 'The bigger jobs were more important, ' laughs Corbet, 'the contractors were slightly diverted', and sometimes just didn't have time to go into the details.

So much so that the contractor Laing O'Rourke subcontracted Culverin Court and Mount Carmel to Bryen & Langley, which specialises in listed buildings. Bryen & Langley was 'considerate', collaborating when changes had to be made rather than just executing them; and most surprisingly, Singh Birdi insists, it aligned the cedar cladding on the walls with the timbers of the decking on the balconies and walkways 'without being asked'.

The whole planning process was complex, says Corbet, as Mount Carmel is locally listed and an isolated site of a nearby conservation area, but Hawkins\Brown managed to barter. It repaired roof and brickwork with reclaimed materials from on-site demolitions and kept the old school's facade close to the original.

'We replaced like by like as trade-offs for new design details, ' explains Corbet. In the new double-glazed windows in Mount Carmel, for instance, Hawkins\Brown used the same moulding and design as the originals; and in return, it was allowed to use the same cantilevered glass balconies as in Culverin Court. Mount Carmel, however, is more luxurious with much higher specs for the interiors, including free-standing Philippe Starck baths which cater to the taste of the target group of young urban professionals.

Mount Carmel and Culverin Court might be detached and conceived with different residents in mind, but they are designed as one project. This relationship is communicated through their shared language of architectural features and materials, such as cedar cladding, timber-lined open walkways and glass balconies.

These details, and Hawkins\Brown's use of space, combine to make the buildings a strong unit so that, at least metaphorically, they rise above their neighbours. There is plenty of outside communal space, such as generous walkways and stairwells, which gives both of the buildings an airy feel. On the ground level at Culverin Court, for instance, the planning condition was to provide additional security, but instead of barricading the open passage with metal bars or mesh Hawkins\Brown installed an elegant glass screen.

To solve the problematic circulation in the narrow school building of Mount Carmel, the architects added open external walkways that also allowed them to increase the size of the units.

A small extension to one of the wings creates another courtyard which will eventually be used as a nursery (a planning condition).

The passageways and courtyards not only connect the units and the buildings but also open vistas on to their surroundings - small and selected details, as if a whole view on to the site would just be too overbearing.

Almost all units have an outside space, but most of these are overlooked by EG3. As they are surrounded on three sides by higher buildings, no at in Culverin Court is entirely 'private', though Hawkins\Brown has tried to address the problem by aligning the living spaces of the ats to the private courtyard between Culverin Court and Mount Carmel. In addition, bathroom windows are frosted and narrow oblong kitchen windows are positioned waist-high, letting in light but also providing a certain degree of privacy. Given that EG3 wraps around the site like an auditorium with each of the dozens of windows eyeing the stage of Culverin Court, some of the balconies and the living spaces behind them do still feel quite exposed.

Despite the constraints of the site, Hawkins\Brown has created a dramatic space by using the overwhelming dimensions of the surrounding buildings as much as possible to its advantage.

The approach into the communal space of the site, for example, is channelled purposefully through a narrow gap between Culverin Court and EG3. Having been forced through this cleft-like passageway, the landscaped courtyard with the rising turfed mound that lies behind it feels all the more open and light.

Culverin Court, and Mount Carmel, might be small in comparison to their neighbours, but they stand solid and proud among them.

In the battle against these giants they win unequivocally.

Costs

Cost analysis based on tender sum. Costs refer to gross internal area

SUBSTRUCTURE Foundations/slabs £57.12/m² Concrete oor slab

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