The east London studio has started a much-needed conversation between two 1960s civic Frederick Gibberd buildings, says Rupert Bickersteth
Architecture and research studio DK-CM carried out significant work in Barkingside town centre from 2012 to 2014 for the London Borough of Redbridge. Final handover took place at the end of last month with the completion of a kiosk and public WC. The project sought to enhance and unify the significant, and Grade-II listed, library and leisure centre designed by 60s civic architect Frederick Gibberd.
While well designed, Gibberd’s concrete structures do feel quite imposed, and there has been a void surrounding them in Barkingside’s otherwise busy urban environment. The challenge for DK-CM was to upgrade the space these buildings occupy to make it distinctive - a space that encouraged habituation. As DK-CM director David Knight says, ’The space didn’t reflect the quality and intensity of use’.
Opening up access to the square and library from Craven Gardens – the road running behind the high street to the east – means that, as the school day ends, the previously wasted concrete acreage is flooded with kids. They can now cut through from the schools on the east of Craven Gardens, and from Forest Road to the north-east, to the library or leisure centre or on to the delights of the high street itself.
The space didn’t reflect the quality and intensity of use
Barkingside High Street is really your introduction to the character of this north-east London suburban town. You find your way there through a couple of residential streets from the station in the south that are not without note. The station – in zone 4 on the Central Line – has a grand Arts & Crafts feeling with carved wood platforms and a red-brick ticket hall. Before reaching the high street you also come across the large glossy Barnado’s HQ, adjacent to Dr Barnado’s pioneering Orphan’s Village – still intact from its 1870s foundation and currently being redeveloped.
The flavour of suburbia particular to Barkingside is apparent on the unexceptional high street that is reassuringly devoid of ‘to let’ signs. A healthy smatter of charity and pound shops is complemented by independent and unpretentious cafés and beauty salons. The Fulwell Cross leisure centre is a comparatively tall building that sits right on the high street at the northern end. A bus stop outside further cramps the space against the road.
As a pedestrian, you are funnelled along the narrow pavement – your vision very much at street level – and then suddenly come out upon the newly established Ken Aston town square, which is named after the notable Redbridge local and World Cup referee responsible for introducing the red and yellow cards into association football. I have to admit that my travelling companion and I both stopped in surprise. After having pottered along what could have been any bustling but unremarkable high street, we were not expecting a vista of concrete orthogonals and quite such bold 1960s Modernism. It brought the illustrations of Escher to mind – and we reached for our phones to Instagram.
Barkingside Town Square by DK-CM
DK-CM’s stated approach to creating the unified sense of space between the Gibberd buildings has been ’to bring qualities of these buildings’ interiors into the public realm’. The practice has done this by flanking the concrete box of the leisure centre with a loggia, which is a ‘flattened’ 1:1 replica of the adjacent library’s clerestory windows. It is decorative but also provides a sheltered conduit from library to leisure centre.
The new leisure centre entrance - at the south end of the loggia - is an extension of the lobby’s black terrazzo, transformed into a stage and focal point for the whole square. A new balcony terrace has been added to the library. Railings which, while faintly Modernist and clearly ’designed’, echo the vernacular language (ie standard-looking council railings) and are used around the site to further ‘unify’ the space. There is also a new and pleasant pocket park on the south side of the leisure centre where a kiosk and toilet have been recently completed, and the same railings are used.
DK-CM’s approach to the site was holistic in attending to the neglected spaces and by and large, it now reads as a cohesive whole. Predominantly via the loggia, the two buildings previously disconnected and stranded on concrete seas are now in conversation with each other. The dramatic black terrazzo promontory of the new leisure centre entrance is an exclamatory punctuation giving a third side to the ’square’, which is completed by three great London plane trees surrounded with sensitive 340 degree benching – leaving a 20 degree chunk empty on to the high street itself and encouraging focus on the space – a space of ceremony and arrival.
’We sought to develop a language that would upgrade the space to be loved for the next 40 years’
In an interesting short film by the Architecture Foundation, Knight says that ’the leisure centre didn’t face the high street in any meaningful way’. I wanted to know what he meant by this. The Brutalism of Gibberd’s 60s Modernism given an elegance by the Postmodern sensitivities of DK-CM is all very much to be appreciated by the architectural critic. I asked some locals passing through the square what they understood. ’What do I think of the changes? It’s certainly cleaner now. Much cleaner. The market is here very occasionally though.’
It’s all well and good to work hard at ’creating a destination space’, but what then happens in this space? Despite the patent potential, it seems that plans to establish a regular market venue have not yet materialised. It was an astonishingly deserted space for the hour we spent there and only the odd homeless person ambled through the loggia, resting on the low concrete bench among broken whiskey bottles.
Another passer-by who had lived in Barkingside all his life said: ’It hasn’t changed nothing. It’s just given the homeless a place to congregate. They all come and hang out here. Once in a blue moon there’s some community activity in the square. Is it an improvement? It just looks different and when you think of the thousands it cost, was it worth it? The way they opened up the library is good though. Better access.’
Again, an understanding of an (expensive) expectant space not yet fully realised. So, DK-CM has succeeded in giving it meaning. Knight said they were ’trying to deal with the fact the Gibberd buildings have been there for more than 40 years and loved and used, and the spaces around them not very much at all. [We] sought to develop a language and set of proposals that would fairly seamlessly [upgrade] the space to be loved for the next 40 years and beyond.’
There is still a feeling of optimistic potential which could be realised with the arrival of a regular market
The council also has a big part to play in ensuring the space is loved for decades to come, and speaking to the councillor in charge of the plans, Helen Coomb, it is reassuring to hear of the commitment to making the Ken Aston town square meaningful. ’We have commissioned Vision Redbridge Culture and Leisure to develop a year-long programme of cultural activities for local families,’ she says. Community events and activities are in fact taking place regularly, and DK-CM is still involved in developing a market for the town square, although Knight admits the project is in its infancy. DK-CM is lead consultant for the regeneration of historic Romford market, working with Urban Space Management and Eleanor Gill, both specialists in markets, and is hoping to involve both of these in exploring the potential of a market for Barkingside.
The work by DK-CM and the council’s continued effort to make best use of the revamped space come under the banner project ‘Better Barkingside’. The architectural improvements have successfully equipped the space to more effectively serve the town. The events programme is up and running, and yet there is still a feeling of optimistic potential which could be realised with the arrival of a regular market, progressively making Barkingside better.
Barkingside Town Square by DK-CM
Barkingside Town Square by DK-CM