Opening The Gate
FaulknerBrowns' The Gate in east London is a sign of changing times, combining learning resources, local council services and a community venue For a relatively small building of 1100m 2, The Gate is trying to do a lot. So-called as a sign of its intended central role in Forest Gate, it is well-located as a community resource on a high street (Woodgrange Road).
Its presence is intended as a sign of regeneration. In it, FaulknerBrowns has had to weave together, not merely accommodate, the three main uses of the building. For most of its floorspace it is a learning resource centre, a better descriptor than library, reflecting that many customers' priorities are other than borrowing books to read, and that local authority Newham is committed to lifelong learning.
Resources do include books, of course, but there are also DVDs, free internet access, storytelling for children and more. The building is also a local outreach office for the local authority, providing a dedicated area for meeting council staff (with the risk of occasional confrontation, a hard one for the architect to manage). Not least, there are rooms that community groups can use. It is a redefinition of the community centre.
(You can imagine other services added on a larger site, such as health. ) The original building fabric that FaulknerBrowns took on was far from ideal. The Gate is converted from retail units plus the adjoining ground floor and basement of the 1960s block behind. This block was a telephone exchange, with low ceilings, the upper floors intended for conversion by others to key-worker housing. (This project includes a new small extension to the rear. ) The retail units are not great architecture but their waved roof does give them presence on the street.
FaulknerBrowns has glazed the street front to read as one building. A tree-image film applied to the glass helps with this, and is varied in image density to give greater privacy to the right of the entrance, which is the childrens' space.
One implication of mixing functions and enabling people to wander through the building is the concentration of security at the entrance. This works both as screening for book theft and as a reception desk. It may inhibit a few who are hesitant about crossing the threshold, the open arrangement of the remainder makes entrance more than worthwhile.
The entrance leads directly to the enclosed childrens' area, providing both security and a degree of acoustic separation for other building users. The architect's acoustic zoning is to move from the noisiest in the south (children) through the entrance, cafe area, teenage zone and, lastly, the adult zone at the north end. Generally, this works well. The cafe area is small and currently served only by vending machines, although it is hoped that a servery will be introduced at some time in the future.
But even at this scale its very existence and positioning help to instil a tone of informality and welcome to the building. So it is perhaps not surprising that when I was there the teenage and adult spaces were not agesegregated as in the plan - people were mixing freely and chatting quietly. It was neither the buzz of the street nor the frozen quiet of the studious book library.
This informality spills over to Newham's services centre, making it more approachable and any queueing less regimented. The screen wall required between learning resources and council services is clear glass.
The wall-opening that frames the council services is painted in the colours of the foods from this multi-cultural community - tomatoes, basil, turmeric and so on: something light-hearted before the rent discussion.
Natural ventilation was not realistic with this deep volume. There are exposed ventilation ducts across the ceiling but they are made less prominent by coloured areas of drop ceilings, which help define the zones and lessen the apparent effect of the overall restricted floor-to-floor heights. Rooflights at the rear of the ex-retail space also reduce the sense of enclosure. For flexibility, there is cabling throughout, using a very shallow punchedmetal system adopted for historic buildings.
FaulknerBrowns is best known for its leisure schemes but also has experience of university learning resource buildings and retail design, among others. That feel of 'destination' buildings, and the approach to the user as customer that comes from them, are evident here. The self-checking system for loans is akin to some supermarkets, with staff freed from their checkout desks to wander, offering help to customers.
Given the buildings the project started with, this was never going to be bijou architecture - but nor should it be, for this would distance it from its constituency. It needs to feel it belongs on this street. As one of the architect's smaller buildings, it is nevertheless a significant pioneering of community building. The community likes it too. Compared with the previous library, there has been an 800 per cent increase in visits, a 600 per cent increase in media issues and a significant lengthening of periods of stay.