Specifier's choice: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Indian Cultural Centre, west Kensington
Essex Goodman & Suggitt project architect George Stamatopolus talks to Sutherland Lyall about a scheme that benefited from the main contractor’s craft skills More than 20 years old, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan is the biggest Indian cultural centre outside India. In the mid-1970s, the bhavan had bought a war-damaged parish church a minute’s walk from West Kensington Tube station in west London and had turned the nave into the Mountbatten Concert Hall, an auditorium for traditional Indian dance. The centre is a kind of further education college, offering degrees and formal qualifications. In the ’70s and ’80s, George Harrison was a patron. Ravi Shankar used to go there for tea, and the Prince of Wales has been a supporter.
Over the years, the church’s ancillary buildings were extended as the need for space grew.
But by 1999 the site had reached maximum capacity. Late in that year the trustees appointed Essex Goodman & Suggitt to sort things out. Project architect George Stamatopolus explains that the practice has client connections with the Indian community - and for the past five years has been designing Indian cultural and community buildings. Currently there are three or four in prospect, one of which will by now have started on site at Oldbury.
Essex Goodman & Suggitt’s brief was to maximise the existing accommodation, insert an art gallery and guest suites for critics and teachers visiting from India - and add new classrooms. Stamatopolus says: ‘The brief was to set up a collection of spaces for such things as music, dance, language and general historical teaching, yoga and singing - all within the existing boundaries of the site.’
There were three other issues. One was disabled access, another circulation and the clarification of public and private space, and the third was the visual image of this important centre.
New image The existing buildings took the form of a long, two-storey block with a pitched roof, on line with the long axis of the church, plus a two-storey block at the back, where the ground is half a level lower. In front of this on the street line ran a flat-roofed, single-storey structure. The new building presents a fourbay, three-storey-high facade along this street front in a somewhat Eastern style, with a white Modernist entrance/stairway block at the south end and a visual transition into the Neo-Gothic of the west aisle of the church. It is not quite as straightforward as that, because the transitional element also accommodates part of the art gallery at first floor level and one of the visitors’ rooms at second floor level. The show elevation is really a screen wall, a kind of billboard announcing the cultural connotations of the whole centre: as the architects put it, ‘a formal and unified front to the centre, commensurate with its status in the community’. Internally, the detailing is consistently elegant.
At second floor level, the elevation is physically a screen because the square openings are just that, openings, with the windows to the guestrooms facing the street set back a metre behind. The back of this screen is painted a traditional pink, which is reflected ambiguously by the glass of guestroom glazing. Most of the new building is along the street, at first and second floor levels over the old flat-roofed block and into half the pitched-roof space of the long block behind.
The accommodation on the east side of the site is mainly classrooms.
Millennium help The trustees had a budget of about £850,000 and were successful in obtaining Millennium Commission funding for half of that. The contract was an IFC 98 form and the National Building Specification.
Stamatopolus says that, although the JCT Minor Works contract might have been appropriate, this was quite a complicated contract with rather more consultants than usual. With any other form of contract, it would have been difficult keeping up with everything. This was a community building, and a number of people in the community wanted to help out as specialist consultants and as donors.
There was an additional complication in the form of the Millennium funding.
Stamatopolus says: ‘We were regulated closely by the Millennium Commission. It had put up 50 per cent of the money and, naturally, it wanted proof, such as receipts, about the money that had been spent - and needed warranty contracts from us and from all the consultants. The commission attended the design meetings we called on a regular basis and it also had meetings with the client.’
Cooperation in construction The main contract was with Vascroft Contractors and, says Stamatopolus: ‘It went smoothly.’ This was not least because the contractor took a proactive view of the contract.
‘NBS is a bit pedantic but it helps tell contractor exactly what we want, ’ Stamatopolus says.
‘Even the mosaics [on the street facade] were specified and given a drawing. NBS works both ways, in encouraging named product specification and allowing the contractor to suggest products with similar performance.
Architects can reject these suggestions without explanation but in a harmonious contract, people listen to each other and here Vascroft was very helpful in suggesting alternatives which its own people could make - such as windows and decking.’
Gift horses Because this was a prestigious community project, there were variations on the architects’ original specification beyond this.
Members of the community made a number of donations in kind - ranging from the whole of the art gallery and the kitchens and fittings, to the carpet. Stamatopolus says:
‘We had chosen our own carpets but ended up with the donated versions from The Carpet Tile Company.’
The brick on the showcase facade is Ibstock’s Sevenoaks Laybrook. Stamatopolus says: ‘It’s a yellow stock and formally requested by the planners for this conservation area - to match the stone of the adjoining church. We had several meetings with the planners and they were very good and seemed very keen and happy to go with a contemporary look.’ The four bays are indicated by two-storey-high rectangular frames of limestone around the ground and first floor windows with a matching square frame to the openings on the floor above which, point out the architects, is a framing device similar to those found in traditional Indian architecture. Euromarble, a firm that Vascroft had introduced to the architects, supplied the limestone.
With the exception of the brick-andblock main facade, much of the structure is timber frame with an external walling system for the link block which has an external sand-based render supplied and applied by Perucchetti Associates. Stamatopolus says:
‘This was a quicker and cheaper building system than brick.’ Single-ply roofing was specified, and was installed by Sarnafil.
Stamatopolus had specified a favourite manufacturer of pine windows. But, he says:
‘Vascroft said it could do the double-glazed windows (some of which have frosted privacy films) at an equal specification and it mentioned that we could go and see how they are made and choose vents and gaskets and handles, and their colours and position in the windows - simply because we could talk to the chief joiner and make changes. It’s so nice to have this freedom: we don’t normally have time to have samples made and revised and remade’ - which this direct contact made possible. The clincher was that ‘the windows were made much faster than usual. We’ve since found that people who’ve used Vascroft tend to specify them again, ’ Stamatopolus says.
The internal joinery was by Vascroft’s own craftsmen, including internal doors in high-quality ash veneer, and an ash, oak and walnut reception desk. ‘Vascroft’s people did an amazing job, ’ says Stamatopolus. There are three external doors, two at the main entrance in single-glazed aluminium, which fit in with the Modernist style of this section, and the third leading from the kitchen and catering area. This is a timber door designed in a traditional Indian manner, with raised and fielded panels.
Getting a handle Stamatopolus says, of bathroom fittings: ‘We usually go with Armitage Shanks’ WC fittings, because they are easy to specify, have been around for years and are very good on the phone for specifying. Not least because the client was keen to use them, we specified D Line from Allgood for hand-dryers and toilet-roll holders and dispensers.
Otherwise, architectural ironmongery was from John Planck because it has worked with us for a number of years. It provides a very good service and has an abundance of ironmongery types. This was helpful because door handles, for example, had to be accessible for the disabled. John Planck also helps us with schedules, and its office is just round the corner from ours.
Tough underfoot The architectural team specified Flotex vinyl from Bonar Floors for corridor flooring and for classrooms used for wet activities such as painting. Elsewhere, it specified Forbo Nairn in several different designs. The gallery floor is 6mm laminated beech by Tarkett Flooring and was laid by STS Flooring. The Millennium people were interested even here.
Stamatopolus says: ‘We had to get written statements from Tarkett about its wearability.’
There is a small area of external teak timber decking and the architects had specified a supplier. But, explains Stamatopolus: ‘During the construction period, Vascroft pointed out that it had its own carpentry department - and so we were happy to change.’
Manual labour Unusually, because architects seem to view plasterboard as a generic product, the architect specified British Gypsum. It is partly a matter of habit and partly of performance.
Stamatopolus says: ‘We have specified British Gypsum on every job I’ve worked on here at the practice, not least because it has a very thorough manual, The White Book.’
The architect’s clients are clearly happy with the project and have commissioned Essex Goodman & Suggitt to carry out more work on the site. Stamatopolus says: ‘The church itself is a beautiful space. We have been asked to change it into a state-of-theart theatre, and we are starting in 2003.’
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Allgood 1600 Armitage Shanks 1601 Bonar Floors 1602 British Gypsum 1603 Euromarble 1604 Forbo Nairn 1605 Ibstock 1606 John Planck 1607 Perucchetti Associates 1608 Sarnafil 1609 STS Flooring 1610 Tarkett Flooring 1611 The Carpet Tile Company 1612 Vascroft Contractors 1613
CREDITS ARCHITECT Essex Goodman & Suggitt: Ciara Ryan - director in charge; George Stamatopolus - project architect QUANTITY SURVEYOR Lester Gregory STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Pindoria Associates SERVICES ENGINEER Centre Line, Essex FORM OF CONTRACT IFC 98 TOTAL COST £850,000 START ON SITE August 2001 COMPLETION ON SITE May 2002 CAD PACKAGES USED AutoCAD lt Corel XARA MANUFACTURERS, SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS ironmongery John Planck; doors/external timber doors Vascroft Contractors; external aluminium door JMW Shopfronts; WC fittings and fixtures Armitage Shanks; carpets The Carpet Tile Company; vinyl flooring Flotex, Forbo Nairn; plasterboard British Gypsum; decking Vascroft Contractors; external stone Euromarble; bricks Ibstock; roof membrane Richardson Roofing; external render Peruchetti Associates; mosaics and internal tiling Wor ld ‘s End Tiles; reception flooring Euromarble; gallery flooring STS Flooring; gallery lights Centerline