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Restorative justice: Social Justice Centre by Architecture 00

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Architecture 00 has turned a former Vauxhall shoe polish factory into flexible office space for the voluntary sector, writes Ellis Woodman. Photography by Anthony Coleman

When residents of the adjoining south London housing estate first learnt of proposals to build something called a Social Justice Centre on their doorsteps, a number leapt to the understandable conclusion that they were to be neighboured by a young offenders’ detention centre.

Yet an altogether more benign programme lies behind that rather formidable billing. Designed by the young practice Architecture 00 (previously known as Architecture 00:/), the centre is the latest development by Ethical Property, a company that manages workspace for charities, social enterprises, and voluntary and campaign groups. It operates 15 such facilities across the country, of which the new one - within batting distance of Oval cricket ground - is the largest. The building also represents a significant development on past iterations of the type, providing not only office space but a much expanded set of communal facilities for use both by tenants and the wider community.

The centre comprises a near equal mix of refurbishment and new build. The retained part originally served as a factory where shoe polish was manufactured - a function that required the use of an unusually massive brick construction and steel blast doors to deal with the fire risk presented to the neighbouring gas works. Provided with new windows and servicing, but to a great extent left as found, the block accommodates the larger part of the office space over three generously dimensioned storeys. However, a post-war extension that filled out the remainder of the site has been replaced with a new building of a markedly different character. It establishes a new principal entrance on Oval Way - a quiet back street, much of which is taken up by a self-storage depot and a preposterously overly-secured school car park. Dominated by blank walls and high fences, it is an environment notably lacking in urban intensity or indeed much in the way of collective identity at all.

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However, the new building inscribes another set of values within this less than prepossessing setting. Its external expression derives from the articulation of its floorslabs as a series of projecting concrete decks across which a range of facade treatments have been distributed. The dominant one comprises full-height glazing set within champagne anodised aluminium frames. These follow a gently zigzagging line in plan, an arrangement that orients views down the length of the street. There is also an area of cast glass channels on the second floor, which serves to conceal a deep concrete beam required to keep the recessed entrance below it column free. And on the final level, a suite of meeting rooms faced in zinc shingles presents a distinctive triple-gabled profile, lending the composition a strong figurative identity.

The overriding impression is of the conjunction of two architectural orders: one, a permanent structure realised in concrete; the other a provisional inhabitation formed in more transient materials. That sense should be further enforced as a series of external decks provided at either end of the building begins to be colonised. The three at the south end step down the building’s massing to provide a satisfactory relationship to the neighbouring housing. They are linked by external stairs that form part of the building’s fire escape strategy but also provide a means of allowing  the local community access. Standing ungated during the day, the lowest flight doubles as an area of external seating, intermittently punctuated by planters where herbs can be grown for use in the centre’s café. A community leader will also have a key allowing access to the upper decks out of office hours. The intention is that these might become areas where residents can maintain allotments or keep bees.

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The new block houses gallery-accessed office space against the street, while framing a top-lit atrium against the back wall of the old building. Its facade follows a gently wavering line in plan and a similarly soft geometry characterises the internal planning. Lynton Pepper, the director in charge of the project, is a graduate of the University of Bath and acknowledges Alison and Peter Smithson’s architecture and engineering building there as influential in this respect. As in that model, the deviations from the orthogonal never suggest an expressionist impulse but only a desire for spatial particularity. Each flight of stairs and its associated gallery adopt a quite different configuration from floor to floor - a variation that has the particularly valuable effect of opening visual communication between levels.

A palette of exposed and often cheap materials keeps corporate associations in check. The rugged brickwork of the existing elevation - now stripped of its windows - rises on one side of the atrium, while balustrades faced in softwood battens define the other. The architect has developed a self-build furniture system for the ground-floor café with the aim of making the most efficient use of standard-sized plywood - a single sheet provides all the material required for a table, two chairs and a stool.

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The aim throughout has been to develop spaces that invite a range of uses. The most explicitly flexible is a large glazed volume adjacent to the entrance which can house conferences, exhibitions and lectures. However, a desire for flexibility has also led to a number of workspaces being provided with their own front doors, enabling their future adaptation into shops or, in the case of a large ground-floor unit, a creche. And the building presents the possibility of a more radical transformation still: as none of the internal walls on the upper levels are load bearing or fire rated they can all be stripped out as required.

This is a building that could function as a relatively conventional office space but which also offers the promise of an altogether more open-ended inhabitation. Achieving such an outcome will demand the trust and respect of management, tenants and the wider community alike, but Architecture 00 has laid the ground with great skill. It has made a building full of optimism which deserves to be rewarded.

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