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What the doctor ordered: Penoyre & Prasad’s Olympic Village Health Centre

Speed of delivery, response to context and design quality make Penoyre & Prasad’s East Village Health Centre an instructive object lesson in civic architecture, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Tim Soar

There are lots of reasons why the new health centre at Chobham Manor on the edge of the Athletes’ Village is a very good building. The obvious one is that the architect behind it, Penoyre & Prasad, is a good one, with loads of experience in the health sector.

That it was one of the last projects to start on site is another, in that there was more context for the designers to play with. Alongside AHMM’s neatly marked-out school and the various richly textured blocks in the Athletes’ Village, Penoyre & Prasad’s grandly civic brick construction confers a genuine sense of place. No question: this part of the Olympic Park is the most appealing and convincing in terms of townscape.

But it was the fast-track programme, 28 months from appointment to practical completion, that really ensured this building would be good, because, as project leader and partner Mark Rowe says: ‘Design thinking had to be done fast and decisions taken faster.’ That, and pressing ahead with design ideas without having to subject them to focus groups and stakeholders in the manner of typical NHS commissions, propelled the team confidently forward. (The undisclosed budget probably helped, too).

Externally, it’s all about the monolithic form – a corner-sited wedge overlooking a railway cutting – and the relentless brick facades and vertical slot windows. The brick, a German metric number with a ceramic finish (‘a real find,’ says Sunand Prasad) defines all three facades, although the west has a large portion of glazed aluminium curtain wall. This angular mono-materiality, particularly salient when set against the much larger village blocks, was inspired, initially at least, by the sandstone churches of Manhattan, which maintain their own against towering skyscrapers.

It may appear small alongside the village, but it’s still a fair size for a local health centre: 3,800m2 of NHS accommodation with an additional 1,500m2 for a Community Development Trust that will move in post-Games.

Internally, the big idea is a four-storey atrium, ‘a unifying heart for the disparate activities within’. Again, the expression is spare and simple: balustrades and balconies are expressed in timber and a lime-green rubber floor is used for all clinical areas. Around the atrium, a continuous ribbon of double-loaded accommodation – standardised rooms on each floor – provides the flexibility demanded by the brief.

For the Games, the centre has been kitted out with equipment to treat sports injuries. Physiotherapists, podiatrists, osteopaths and dentists see as many as 200 people a day. It’s also where dope testing takes place. But in legacy mode most of the floor space will be reassigned.

This is simple, ordinary, thought-through stuff – the kind of civic architecture Britain today should expect. There’s much for the health sector and those concerned with local authority procurement to consider. As ever though, the worry is we won’t learn a thing – especially so, given the unique circumstances behind the project. That’s why we asked Mark Rowe, who led the project so successfully, to explain the key lessons in full overleaf.

Penoyre & Prasad partner Mark Rowe on the design development of the East Village Health Centre

Speed and design

It took 28 months from our appointment through to practical completion of the building for the Games. That placed phenomenal pressure on all members of the team: design thinking had to be done fast and decisions taken faster.

We were pushed early and rapidly towards resolution of the form of the building by both the demands of the planning process and the Olympic Delivery Authority’s Design Review Panel. Our internal design process – mainly an evolution of multiple physical and computer sketch models – was more akin to how we would work on a short competition submission. It was tough, but I think it brought a clarity to our formal aspirations, which can sometimes risk dilution in the face of prolonged design periods and competing internal functional imperatives.

Due to the pace, we didn’t get the level of user engagement on this project upon which we’ve built our reputation at Penoyre & Prasad. In this context, that knowledge of previous engagement became even more important: we were empowered to take decisions in the best interests of the future building users. I think this allowed us to achieve a higher-than-normal degree of functional flexibility in the building, something that will be tested straight away after the Games, when the centre is reconfigured for it’s legacy occupation by the NHS.  

Context and response

As relative latecomers to the Athletes’ Village, we had the advantage of being able to see, and respond to, the more developed designs of the other architects around us, rather than the sketchy canvas of a masterplan.

From the outset we were very aware of how small our building was in relation to its neighbours in the village; we knew an appropriate civic presence would only be achieved through strong architectural expression.

The unique promontory nature of our plot, bounded on either side by massive railway cuttings, is suggestive of a plinth – whatever you build there is seen in splendid isolation as an object from all sides. I think it was this that provoked our first sculptural responses. Ricky Burdett jokingly referred to one of our initial sketch models as ‘Alvaro Siza’s first building in London’ during a Design Review Panel presentation: we took this as a compliment.

Generally, the village is a series of continental city courtyard blocks. Our triangular plot gave us the chance to truncate the typical grid form and open up the heart of the site and the building itself, thereby creating a strong visual axis with the health centre’s civic partner, Chobham Academy by AHMM.

Sitting on the main road linking the Olympic Stadium with Leyton, our building will serve both the village and existing communities after the Games so we were conscious that its dynamic form should acknowledge that pull in both directions. As such, the building appears as an object in torsion, exciting architecturally and a subtle allusion to the athleticism of the Games themselves.

Material and surface

More than ever in this ‘age of austerity’ we feel the need to give our civic buildings a real feeling of solidity and a sense of permanence, which reflects their importance in the communities they serve as well as in wider society. In addition, the way we had always discussed the health centre as a sculpture had led us towards an idea of that form achieving greatest impact by seemingly being hewn from a single monolithic block of material.

Although we started out developing a system of precast concrete cladding on this basis, it became apparent that the panelisation implied by such an approach was perhaps fighting against this key idea. A number of logistical factors were also pushing us towards a more conventional construction approach and it felt like the right choice to switch to brickwork at an early stage of the design development.

By using the 200x100 metric brick module to create an almost arabesque tracery of mortar joints (which draw the eye vertically as much as horizontally), closely harmonising the mortar tone, and by working hard with the engineers to minimise the impact of movement joints, we think we achieved the sense of surface continuity to which we originally aspired.

The pale, white tone of the clinker brick – achieved by the addition of Staffordshire porcelain to an already-light German clay – meshes well with the hues of adjacent brick and concrete residential blocks. We were contrasting with form; we didn’t feel the need to contrast with colour as well.

Now that I see it finished, the colour, ceramic-like finish and module of the brick are evocative of the interiors of East-End pie and mash shops, Neapolitan pizzerias or modernist healthcare buildings – in all cases driven by the practical imperatives of durability, hygiene and cleaning. 

Elevations

South elevation The south elevation, which faces the street, is all about engagement and the most dramatic articulation of the roof form addressing communities to east and west. Below this, the front of the building lifts its fringed brickwork curtain to reveal a double-storey classically inspired arcade, which both physically allows the public realm to enter its curtilage and emotionally invites the passer-by to enter, or just take shelter.

We wanted the glazed shopfronts to enliven this arcade, with views to the activities within at ground level but some privacy afforded by gold, silver and bronze painted units above. The inflection of the frontage itself and the roofline above aims to lead the eye to the main entrance of the health centre.

West elevation The truncated block allows glimpses into the heart of the building through the courtyard and atrium, which itself becomes a gentle, glowing lantern at dusk. The act of cutting diagonally through the building also leads to the accentuation of the dramatic prow forms, set up in the first instance by the sculptural roof line.

East elevation Looking east across the railway, the Chobham Farm site and onwards to Leyton, it was our intention to create a more restrained facade – from here the overall form of the building appears less dynamic. Away from the main street frontage we introduced a playful ‘jumping up and down’ of vertical window slots (photo, p.30) to break up what might otherwise be a somewhat relentless manifestation of the rigorous clinical planning flexibility within the building. 

Quality and delivery

Throughout the process we found a commitment to design quality running through the project team. The Olympic Delivery Authority, its own planning authority, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), CLM, Lend Lease (and its advisers Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands) all brought a commercial-sector zeal for excellence that we do not always see in public-sector procurement. So, in that sense, we were given the room to deliver quality without having to fight as hard as is sometimes required.

At an early stage we were put under some pressure on area and questions were asked about the perceived profligacy of providing a staff club, complete with its own roof terrace. But once we had the chance to explain the knowledge-sharing and relationship-building benefits these informal meeting places can bring to co-located services, the concerns quickly fell away.

I’m glad we successfully negotiated the highly subjective and potentially fraught area of colour with so many parties – of course, this relates to the vibrant yellow flash of soffit, boldly signalling our street-front arcade, and the bespoke lime-green rubber flooring.

I’m struggling to think of any major design losses. During pre-contract value engineering we did omit a wonderfully engineered steel staircase from the atrium but the understated white solid replacement springing up past the ash timber screen is more successful – it could have become too busy in that space. Perhaps my only significant regret is that we didn’t keep the light bronze anodised finish to the atrium’s vertical brise soleil – the ‘metallic’ powder coating just doesn’t catch the sunlight in the same way.

Looking forward, we know next year’s successful design stewardship of graphic, signage and furniture packages will be critical to the legacy building, creating the best possible environment for visitors and staff alike.

AJ Buildings Library

See full project data, photographs, plans, sections and details for East Village Health Centre by Penoyre & Prasad

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