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Off Broadway (Market)

Abstract and asymmetrical, Amin Taha Architects’ mixed-use development makes a flamboyant and frugal addition to its hip East End neighbourhood

Broadway Market, in the east London borough of Hackney, has everything young professionals could wish for: a bookshop, a delicatessen, a cycle repair shop (with café) that sells second-hand bikes and cycling helmets disguised as trilbies, an old-fashioned toy shop, and now, at its junction with Ada Street, a mixed-use development with inclined black rendered walls and a random arrangement of large, reflective windows by Amin Taha Architects.

The client, a friend of practice director Amin Taha wanted an inexpensive development with a gallery at ground floor level and flats above, and a utilitarian quality that would appeal to thirty-something professionals. The outcome has three two-bedroom flats on one side of a central staircase, and the same number of three-bedders on the other, with two retail units below.

Because there are less than 10 units, the local authority did not stipulate affordable flats. None are designed to Lifetime Homes standards, nor as accommodation for disabled residents, and the client did not want to pay extra for environmentally responsible design beyond the statutory essentials.

Guardings are strung like a harp between the staircase flights

The site is in a conservation area and Broadway Market, a parade of ground floor A1-5 units with flats above, is unusual because of the way it is embedded in a predominantly residential district. Hardly any of these units belong to chains, and the parade starts at a hump bridge over the Grand Union Canal at one end and is terminated by London Fields at the other.

The architect and planning theoretician Camillo Sitte might have referred to this as an urban corridor and, with its secluded, convivial atmosphere, it resembles a long external room. The planners did not regard Taha’s site in Ada Street as high-street development, but there was a height restriction – hence the flat rooftop – and they expected it to be ‘ground-floor-plus-one’. They got ground-floor-plus-three.

Embedded between buildings on either side of its Ada Street frontage, and with further development to the south expected, Taha’s addition deliberately stands alone and makes no attempt to ape its 19th-century neighbours in Broadway Market, where there is a pronounced horizontal line between shop fronts below and flats above. ‘We didn’t want the windows to align with the other buildings as this would have “connected the dots”,’ says Taha. Although European architects are understandably proud of their traditional urban heritage of streets and squares, perhaps the backlash against the type of Modernist town-planning which endorsed stand-alone buildings went too far.

Taha’s building has none of the traditional detail of the brickwork facades of Broadway Market, with no projecting copings or window sill drips, and this gives it an abstract quality similar to, but much more pronounced than, the white-rendered iceberg on its west flank. There’s an abstract quality in the distorted clock-face pattern of its windows, like a levelled-out version of Henri Matisse’s painting The Snail. There’s also a timeless, enigmatic quality, like a Giorgio de Chirico painting. It could as well be in outer Tokyo, and the narrow retail units and flats on its east side and meagre courtyard reinforce this impression. Rather than simply drawing on the genius loci, Taha’s addition, with its strong presence and subliminal refinements, actually helps to redefine it.

The Ada Street frontage is gently cranked on plan and, more noticeably, in its section and elevation. ‘You can soften the mass by tilting the facade,’ says Taha. The vertical windows sink into and contrast with these soft, matt, battered walls, and rather than absorbing most of the light that hits them, they variously reflect the sky and the warm hues of neighbouring brickwork, giving the facade life and a quality of realism that verges on the surreal. Alternating positions of ventilators in the large apertures add further animation. The specified window manufacturer’s products are available with black frames, and Taha took the opportunity to match them with the finish to the render, although at one point he dabbled in a colourful ‘paint-pour’ treatment.

Like the guardings behind the full-height opening windows, the gates at the main entrance to the flats and the adjacent cycle store door are bespoke, with black perforated metal sheet, which also forms the balustrade on the top landing of the staircase serving the flats. This staircase is treated with loving attention to detail and is meticulously set out. Its flights are precast concrete with fair-faced soffits, and this has made it possible to work to exacting tolerances, with 30mm gaps between these units and the skylight-washed blockwork walls.

An offset on plan of only 10mm between flights, leaving clearance for 3mm diameter stainless steel tension cables at 50mm centres which form the staircase guardings, strung like a harp between springy laser-cut frames at ground floor level and a V-beam at roof level with an integral gutter between the polycarbonate rooflights.

Stainless steel eyelets, forming guides for these cables, and brackets for the cantilevered CHS handrails are fixed to the faces of the precast flights. The landings are finished with screed and grout, and they span between the stairwell walls, so there are no awkward downstand beams. Because the budget was tight and procurement was Design and Build, the blockwork is not fair-faced and the riser cupboards in the staircase do not, as intended, read as a simple, continuous black wall – there are too many vertical joints. But at least the key-clamp balustrade proposed by the contractor was rejected.

The interiors of the deep-plan flats do not shy away from this hardcore minimalism, eschewing skirtings, false ceilings and radiators. Ceilings are precast fair-faced hollowcore planks, carefully installed with canvas straps rather than chains to prevent damage. It would be difficult to install downlighters without a bodged conduit detail. Floor surfaces are polished, power-floated concrete with embedded underfloor heating pipes, which provide thermostatic control in each room, but the client insisted on a varnished finish which is inconsistent with the soffit treatment.

Gypsum board wall linings have 10mm shadow gaps where they meet the floor and ceiling, and Taha also designed cabin-like kitchen units and fitted cupboards with concealed lighting in the recesses at their junctions with the ceilings. ‘We didn’t have much control over detail,’ says director Richard Cheesman (who, interestingly, worked as the contractor’s novated architect while Taha remained ‘client side’), but although sanitary fittings are very basic, the interiors are nothing to be embarrassed about, and are enhanced by the way their windows frame external views.

The project was on site for just nine months and although the contractor chose a share of the overall profits from the development in lieu of payment for preliminaries, overheads and profit, the cost of £850 per square metre is still remarkable. Taha’s commitment to the project helped to make this possible. ‘We had to draw everything up, if only to give us something to argue with, even if we ended up painfully losing time and money,’ he says, but you sense that he prefers this to the embarrassing alternative of bastardised conceptual design completed by others. Some astute decisions also helped. Apart from inclined timber framing to the battered walls, there are no columns: most of the vertical structure is load-bearing blockwork, and this expedited construction. Its insulated render has an additional layer of reinforcement at ground level and, although some would prefer the resonance of three-part render, no one could deny that it sounds and feels like what it is.

‘For us, it’s just sensible building – you have to spend £3,500 per square metre to get architecture with a capital “A”,’ says Taha, perhaps thinking of other projects in his office or Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI in Rome (AJ 19.11.09 and 30.09.10), which he worked on. But on the levels of design and technology, which are always at one in the best architecture, Ada Street succeeds precisely because of its extraordinary economy of means.

Readers' comments (2)

  • The plan shows flat screen TVs on walls against the bedrooms of the neighbouring flats. I hope the soundproofing is good! Surely the preferable option is to place living-rooms next to each other, and bedrooms next to each other.

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  • There is much I find interesting about the construction of this building I am very curious to learn how the issue of sound reverberation within the communcal stairwell as required under AD'E' has been dealt with given surfaces within this space appear to be entirely 'hard'. This is not explained. The only possibility of incorporation of absorptive surface according to the section illustrated would appear to be the panels fronting the services riser and the ceiling of the ground floor entrance area. I note there was an acoustic consultant on the team so perhaps there is a clever solution we should all know about as WE currently seem to find ourselves unable to pursue material expression in such spaces. (I did attempt last year in the context of a highly specific small building for 'other residential purposes' to argue to Cornwall Council for a relaxation in the 'requirement' on the basis my client wanted an almost 'monastic' environment. I included within my argument the proposition that arguably people behave more quietly in a reverberant space than in an acoustically 'dummed down' one where the absorbency can actually make it feel more comfortable to be noisier. This cut no ice though and in came the ubiquitous absorbent panels! Although I am sure we all appreciate the general need for noise reduction in the communal parts of shared residential buildings it does seem a pity there can currently be no variation in acoustic conditions of such spaces, taking away on of the parameters for 'experiencing architecture' in such instances.

    Tim Williamson RIBA - Exeter

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