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Secure by design

Architects upgrading a notorious council block had to factor in security without treating residents as potential criminals

It has been 18 years since the murder of PC Keith Blakelock and 16 years since the stitch-up of Winston Silcott, Mark Braithwaite and Engin Raghip.

The names - especially of the first two - are indelibly marked on the memories of those old enough to remember the height of Thatcherism and are inextricably linked with the riot at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham.

The name of Cynthia Jarrett, the black woman whose death sparked the riots of 1985 following a police raid at her flat, can be added to the tragic history of this bleak north London local authority sink estate.

Broadwater Farm is not what Londoners call 'an up-and-coming' area.At the time of the riots in 1985, unemployment was 60 per cent. It is now reportedly down to 28 per cent, but the Guardian has reported that there were 'pockets' of 70 per cent unemployment as recently as two years ago.

Pevsner's The Buildings of London:

London 4: North describes the estate, designed by Haringey's own Borough Architects' Department in 1966, as system-building of coarsely detailed plain slabs, with crudely steppedback balconies. It consists of more than 1,000 households in five storeys of flats over a raised-access shopping street. The guide adds that 'cosmetic decoration, removal of some of the walkways and other alterations have done little to dispel the bleakness and artificiality of the original concept, fenced off from the adjacent park and isolated from the more neighbourly surrounding streets'.

Bernie's grant

After the riots, the council rushed through funds to build a community centre in a vacant area between the estate's stair towers. It is a basic two-storey box, containing offices and meeting spaces surrounding a basketball court. Criticism that this poor-quality building was a sop to residents after the riots seem credible when you realise that the basketball court is 3m too short, effectively barring the local team from the national league because it cannot welcome away teams on to its substandard court.

Opened in 1987, it was affectionately known as the Bernie Grant Centre after the local black politician, but the name was never officially adopted, after he was given the cold shoulder for arguing that the police had got a 'bloody good hiding' during the riots. (A mixed-use scheme by Rivington Street Studio Architects will, after a diplomatic rehabilitation period, have Grant's name attached. ) The centre fell into disrepair and disrepute, becoming a seedy drinking den, snooker hall and a base for all manner of illegal activities; excluding many of the community members it was intended to accommodate. After two centre managers had left with ignominy, Nancho Galvez was drafted in. Originally from Chile, the story goes that he marched into the centre, confronted the 'anti-social elements' and ran them out of town. No one seems to know exactly what went on that fateful afternoon but the building has been relatively stable since.

Enter Blackwell + Friend, a young Camden-based practice founded in 2002, which was approached last year by the Broadwater Community Centre Trust to start a renewal process.

Flexible friend Blackwell + Friend is only too aware of the need for decent architectural accommodation as, at present, its offices comprise a couple of portable buildings perched on the roof of an office block near the tube station.

Its first commission has been for a £600,000 learning centre for the estate, slotting it into the main body of the original community centre.

Even though Galvez recognised that an extended basketball court should have been the priority, he is not the sort of person to look a gift horse (in the form of education grants) in the mouth.

In March 2002, Blackwell + Friend began to develop the scheme in partnership with, among others, Learn Direct, the College of North-East London, Haringey Adult Learning Services, and the estate's residents' association. The brief asked for a building to provide impartial advice and guidance, IT facilities, courses and additional 'learning opportunities'. Because of the grant mechanism, no architects' fees could be paid until the contractor was appointed. As the client had no resources, 'a lot of charity work had to be carried out by the architects', says partner Adrian Friend.

The practice started work 'on a nod and a wink' that the money would be forthcoming.

The finance agreement stipulated that the tender had to be 'not a penny more, not a penny less' than the budget allocation, says Friend, and with the client lacking resources to pay for a quantity surveyor, negotiations with the contractor were sometimes fraught. The implications of such machinations on the cash flow of a small practice can be devastating. In this case, it took six months from initial feasibility study to contractor appointment. Work started on site in November 2002.

Safe and secure

Two things dictated the architect's approach. The first was the client's insistence that suspended ceilings be eliminated to ensure that drugs could not be stashed in ceiling voids. The second was the architect's desire to get rid of the heavy-duty, industrial roller shutters that peppered the site - on all internal, as well as external, doors.

While security was evidently necessary, the architects wanted to erase the visual memory of the riots - 'to move away from a security aesthetic'.

The shutters also brought the sense of external depression - of boarded-up shops and hopelessness - into the community centre.

To assist the regeneration, where possible, the new works were built by local unskilled labourers, who attended a training programme managed by the contractor, Mansell.

The client's practical anti-drugs requirement was resolved by providing a pyramidal ceiling space, which doubles as a flow enhancement for the natural ventilation. The heat from 60 computers is channelled up the eccentric sloping soffit and through automated natural ventilation chimneys set within the original roof cladding. This cuts energy costs and fills the IT classrooms with light and a feeling of openness. It has also satisfied the architect's desire for a less oppressive feel.

This was further assisted by removing roller shutters, constructing glass screens where possible and introducing colour. The entrance lobby to the IT centre is now closed off with timber laminate folding shutters, which comply with the need not to forego security altogether. But the appearance of exclusion - of a siege mentality - has been greatly reduced.

During the day, these screens are folded back into wall recesses to reveal floor-to-ceiling height toughened glass panels. Each IT classroom is partly walled in glass, giving a clear view through the entire suite - a dramatic change in the aesthetic of the building, which now respects the occupants rather than treating them as potential criminals. This simple 'welcoming'mechanism has been very well received by the building's users.

Views into the sports hall have also been enhanced, while providing an environment that is acoustically insulated from the existing sports facilities.

The architect noted that during the contract works, the contractor's radio couldn't be heard over the noise coming from the surrounding areas; now, sound separation is at an 'acceptable' level, given the varied range of activities going on within the building.

The learning centre - a name that could be derived from the architect's learning curve - is the first phase of a wider enhancement of the community centre. The second and third phases will depend on Lottery applications totalling £4.5 million and will aim to maximise the development of the youth sports teams. Perhaps then the basketball players will be able to run an extra couple of paces without hitting a brick wall.

CREDITS

CLIENT Broadwater Community Centre Trust

ARCHITECT Blackwell + Friend

PROJECT ENGINEER Arup

MAIN CONTRACTOR Mansell Construction Services

PROJECT VALUE £600,000

FUNDING Department for Education and Skills

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