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A South London Poser? by Simon McCormack

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Unusual without being wilful, this south London community building poses questions about how we build and how architecture engages with those that use it. The project won an RIBA National Award this year for RCKa, who were also named RIBA London Emerging Architect of the Year. 

With a quicksilver surface and simple rectangular volume, TNG Youth and Community Centre is a bold yet enigmatic newcomer among the post-war residential blocks of the Wells Park Estate in South East London.  Clear polycarbonate cladding reveals wall construction of timber framing and silver foil insulation, provoking curiosity and slight professional unease:  questions are asked in this project and the answers refreshingly uninhibited by convention.  The building is located at right angles to the sloping main road, its entrance facing the lower end of Wells Park and separated from the neighbouring pub to the rear by a netted ball court. As you pass from the external concrete ramp and steps through the deeply recessed entrance, the interior space unexpectedly expands: you are met with tall ceilings and dramatic multi-height spaces on three levels, interlinked by an informal stair and surprising vistas that constantly shift and re-form as you move around the building.  Designed with a care and discipline that communicates respect for those using it, the building is a safe haven, providing a calm and relaxed environment, rich with casually theatrical spaces. In contrast to the cool, silvery exterior, internal spaces are imbued with the warmth of lightly stained engineered timber panels. Entering TNG inspires a sense of freedom:  this is an institution which offers choices and possibilities.  The reception desk is discreetly located to one side, inviting the visitor to make their own assessment of what is on offer.

Architects RCKa, working closely with Lewisham Council, were instrumental in the initiation of this £3.5M project, which attracted funding from the government’s Myplace scheme. They have demonstrated great skill in integrating the views of over 30 stakeholders; including Millwall Football Club youth outreach programme, church groups, local youth theatres, and the Centrepoint homeless charity.  A steering group of local young people, actively engaged in the design process, came up with the title ‘The New Generation’ (TNG). The brief that developed out of this process brings together diverse spaces: a hall, climbing wall, recording studio, youth forum, health clinic, training kitchen, cafe, winter garden and outdoor ball court.  Despite the tight brief, the building retains a flexible un-programmed quality.  The architects had the sense to design a building using an engineered timber system resistant to value engineering. Without the application of these political skills there would not be a building to discuss in any terms, let alone one that touches on the essence of what makes socially engaged and yet aesthetically refined architecture.

A didactic note sets the tone for the construction: a preoccupation with materials and construction underpins the aesthetic, creating an effect that is sometimes more ‘interesting’ than ‘beautiful’.  Large irregularly distributed windows punctuate the facade, while an opening onto a small terrace overlooking the park hints at the interlocking volumes of the interior. The winter garden, a dramatic slot of space, lines the entire 3-storey rear facade.  Robustly detailed in sawn timber framing with clear polycarbonate cladding and a paving slab floor, this versatile space has been earmarked to grow vegetables, but works equally well as a break-out space or exhibition gallery.   

TNG feels like a building that has been thought through from first principles. A simple box like volume clad in sinusoidal profile corrugated panels; the exterior encompasses a curious amalgam of the fragile and the robust: translucent polycarbonate sheet, at high level and in protected areas to the rear and polymer-reinforced Ductal concrete panels cast to the same profile elsewhere. With the delicacy of porcelain, the smooth white surface of the concrete challenges any sense of defensive construction.  At high level you can see the sky through parapets walls clad on both sides in polycarbonate.  The appearance of the corrugated profile constantly transmutes in response to the changing light, whether shadow cast across or beneath the surface; reflection off foil-backed insulation, or the absorption of ambient light and colour. Further refinement is added by the carefully considered junction between adjacent panels:  butt-joints with a compressible foam packer and slim aluminium cover strip instead of the usual laps.

Of course RCKa are by no means the first architects to adopt a polemical attitude to construction or social engagement.  Lubetkin and Tecton, made an attempt, albeit unsuccessful, to remove the ubiquitous reception desk from Finsbury Health Centre (1938), an institutional building which, like TNG, is easily understood by users.  Innovative articulation of walls in Otto Wager’s 1904 Vienna Post Office includes the expression of rusticated masonry as thin stone panels bolted to an underlying substrate.  RCKa’s inversion of conventional expectations is subtly disconcerting:  the Ductal concrete cladding panels form a plinth that is also clearly hung from the structure.  Above this floats the polycarbonate, an insubstantial echo of the concrete. Visual frisson is achieved not through wilful effect, but by a logical exposition of construction.  At TNG, an ‘unfinished’ quality evokes Frank Gehry’s early work, using cheap products like plywood, chain link and corrugated metal sheet in projects, such as his own house in Santa Monica (1971).  Facing Wells Park, the entrance elevation of TNG, with lateral steps and a doorway framed by a stepped composition of contrasting materials recalls Aalto’s library for the Polytechnic at Otaniemi (1969).  Like Aalto, RCKa enjoy materiality in construction and a willingness to use this to make patterns; they deploy the natural warmth of timber to create a sympathetic environment for human occupation.

Instability of identity is an unusual and intriguing quality in architecture, but one which seems to define TNG. It is a building that balances different and ostensibly contradictory readings: monumentality and informality; solidity and transparency; tradition and novelty; the fixed and the provisional. This ambiguity is the outcome of careful judgement and empowers individuals to interact with the building in a way that suits them.  Empathy and respect for the users of TNG tempers RCKa’s professional preoccupation with tectonics.  If the architects pose questions, they also provide answers. 

Sources:

Visits to the building

RCKa website http://www.rcka.co/index2.php?page=portfolio&item=51&type=community

BDonline Ellis Woodman 19 June 2013 

http://www.bdonline.co.uk/tng-youth-and-community-centre-by-rcka/5056498.article

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