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NOT AS DIDACTIC AS ABILLBOARD, IT COMMUNICATES SOMETHING FRAGILE, DELIGHTFUL AND RARE

BUILDING STUDY

Established in 1998 by Deborah Saunt and David Hills, DSDHA has completed a variety of education buildings, including the RIBA Awardwinning Hoyle Early Years Centre in Bury (AJ 29.04.04). Current projects include a school in Guildford and a feasibility study for Parliament Square in London (in collaboration with Foster and Atkins).

The north London borough of Islington is irretrievably associated with Tony Blair and the early days of New Labour. Blair's home at the time of the 1997 landslide election victory was in Richmond Crescent in leafy Barnsbury, and Labour's new breed of voter lived, metaphorically speaking, right next door. The residents of this relatively central location were not from old money, but were the kind of cappuccino-drinking people whose working-class parents had made plenty from property. Their kids were not about to gamble that capital, and Islington rose in a couple of decades from shabby bohemia to safe and expensive Georgian London, one of the hotspots of the property boom.

It is pretty likely that the Blairs' children were never allowed to play in Paradise Park, the location of a new building by DSDHA. It is part of the hidden Islington, the bit that makes this borough one of the most polarised in London. A few streets away from the domain of the chattering classes live some of the poorest communities in the country - Islington is the UK's seventh-most deprived borough. And it is here that one of the earliest manifestations of one of the Blair government's finest initiatives has emerged - a Sure Start Children's Centre.

In this paradoxical borough, Paradise Park is a battleground. In 2001, East Architecture was appointed to carry out a framework plan for the park in the hope of resolving a conflict between Freightliners organic farm on the south side, which wanted to expand, and the Martin Luther King adventure playground in the east corner, which objected to the farm's plans.

Judith Loesing of East says: 'It was a class conict. The playground felt that the farm was for white middle-class people and that they were the real owners of the park.' East's plan has only been partially carried out, but it successfully resolved the competing interests of the various stakeholders, while creating new diagonal routes through the park and removing the overgrown vegetation along Lough Road and Mackenzie Road that made the site so intimidating. It had been a place of burnt-out mopeds, drug-taking and other illicit activities, while the farm cowered behind a high fence. The distinguishing feature of the playground's black timber building was the steel roller shutters which, as DSDHA partner Deborah Saunt told me, 'just said, you know, fuck off, we don't trust you'. It's a much more welcoming place now.

The extent of the mutual scepticism here is demonstrated by the fact that the new café (occupying the ground oor of DSDHA's building) is required by the planning agreement to serve tea and ordinary food rather than cappuccinos. You could see this as the first strike-back against Richard Rogers' dreams of piazzas with coffee bars as planning panacea - it had to be preserved as a place for locals to have a cuppa.

Part of East's reconfiguration of the park proposed a Sure Start centre at the corner of Mackenzie Road, a controversial measure given that this borough has the smallest amount of open public green space in London.

Sure Start is a programme of local ante- and post-natal care; a new type of community facility - and a new brief for architects, with its unique and changing composite of users and interest groups. DSDHA's Paradise Park building has a nursery, crèche and café on the ground oor, and on the first a maternity health centre and office for Sure Start staff and other council workers. Women (many of whom are very young mothers) can come here to visit the midwife, learn how to change a nappy, find out about the benefits of breastfeeding, or simply use the café.

The architectural expression of these centres is, at the moment, pretty undecided. Or, to be kind, eclectic. They're not exactly institutions and don't demand the civic gesture of a library or town hall. Nor are they medical facilities - those who run them tend to be against the medicalisation of motherhood. These are facilities provided and run by local people for a cross section of local families, so they should be public and open, but reassuring.

Also, perhaps more than any other brief I can think of, these are buildings for women and their children - few men will pass through these doors.

DSDHA, working with green-wall consultant Marie Clarke, has designed a building with the first large-scale green wall in the UK. Around 30 different plants, including strawberries, thyme and a host of flowering plants, adorn the facade. Some sections are growing beautifully; others look a little bald, mostly through mistakes in maintenance. The wall is a panelled version of the technology used by Jean Nouvel for his Cartier Foundation and Musée du Quai Branly. Those prestigious projects have more of a sense of a continuous planted surface. At Paradise Park you can read the black panels that make up the facade, with their steel cages holding together the planting system. The screen is very deliberately detailed not to meet the oor - there is no pretence that the building and ground are in any way continuous.

A wide steel mesh holds a layer of black plastic foam, behind which a layer of insulation acts as a reservoir. Integrated between the panels is a network of irrigation pipes that are turned on at the end of the day, making the facade drip with water. The run-off is recycled through gutters to a large underground tank.

The system works as a rainscreen, with a watertight facade behind.

Saunt drops a reference to Venturi. 'It's a billboard, ' she says, 'To me it just says: fiparkfl.' Despite its function as a gateway to the park, I'm not so sure. The aspiration here is not about advertising but more a dialogue with users of the park. Something about the apparent fragility of the wall implicates users and passers-by in the upkeep of the building, as does the unprotected glazing at groundfloor level. But the aesthetic pay-off is huge.

Substituting the banal materials of most community facilities with plants, black render and glass gives this building a grandeur that is rare in such an institution.

Behind the facade, the building is as sophisticated as it could be for the money. The main access to the nursery is through the door in the green facade, and a continuous black floor leads straight through the building to a secure garden at the back. The ground-floor plan is tight but pleasing, with the nursery occupying the leg that runs along Paradise Passage to the north-east. The change in level is exploited to give the children inside commanding views down Mackenzie Road.

A kitchen in the centre of the plan serves both the nursery and the public café, but these spaces are necessarily separate. The café has a touch of glamour about it, with its shiny and matt black surfaces making this facility seem distinctly un-municipal. The crèche is fine, seeming far bigger than it is because of generous ceiling heights, although an external sunshade (which was dropped as an economy measure) would be a welcome addition.

On the exceptionally hot day I visited the building, the room was so warm as to be unusable.

Upstairs there is a large, open-plan office space, a small room for the midwife and another function room. From the outside the building looks as if it should have a terrace above the cantilever, but it doesn't. DSDHA's early drawings showed this space occupied, but local groups objected, fearing it would become reserved for the champagne-swilling privileged few. This (again beverage-related) scepticism cuts to the heart of the problem of public buildings in communities like this. How do you make architecture with high aspirations for an audience sceptical of typological gestures? Local people here clearly saw the balcony as implying a hierarchy with themselves at the bottom.

This building is intended to let the community choose how it wants the park to be. The green wall, if it is a billboard, imparts this. It is a small and idealised bioculture, but one that appeals on different levels, to the senses of smell and sight, and to the mind. While not as didactic as a billboard or a Neo-Classical facade, it does communicate something fragile, delightful and rare.

By and large, the building is extremely successful, the bravura gesture of the facade diffusing complex issues of class conflict. And the café's effect on the space around the building has also created an unofficial lobby of the park - joggers warm up on the adjacent terazzo benches and kids lounge underneath the overhang even when the building is closed.

My one major objection relates to the space above the cantilever which still looks like it should be a balcony, even if it is now mute and unoccupiable. Surely there is a way of expressing occupied external space at first-floor level that would diffuse the knee-jerk inverted snobbery that keeps balconies for toffs?

If politics can rest on the difference between tea, coffee and champagne, the resources at an architect's disposal should be able to resolve these issues. Defeating the scepticism of neglected communities sometimes means doing it anyway - the balcony should have been made public, and the people of Islington, elevated metaphorically by this fine building, could have been literally raised up to survey their domain.

Costs Costs refer to gross internal floor area.

Cost analysis based on tender sum.

SUBSTRUCTURE Foundations/slabs £219.84/m² Piled foundations with ground beams and precast concrete suspended ground-oor slab

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