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Tunisia meets Essex: Hargood Close by Proctor and Matthews

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Proctor and Matthews’ Hargood Close dutifully serves up a neo-vernacular, but not the one the authors of the Essex Design Guide would have expected, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Tim Crocker

“T he idea was to create an environment which didn’t look institutional’, says Proctor and Matthews’ Constanze Leibrock, project architect for Hargood Close, a supported housing development for homeless people in Colchester which welcomed its first tenants in April. Cynics might dismiss this as a familiar case of an architect called on by the client to design a building which conceals its purpose and paying more attention to imagery than function: at worst an architectural euphemism. But this simplistic dichotomy is untenable in the case of supported housing, and by extension healthcare architecture, where the way buildings function is so embedded in perceptions. To draw an analogy, most of us prefer capable but also cordial and empathetic physicians, who don’t overtly remind us that we must be processed efficiently, even seeming  to take professional detachment to the point of disdain. Reciprocally, most architects see the design of sometimes-called ‘buildings that care’ which don’t feel institutional as an opportunity to put their skills to good use with a level of empathy, rather than as an additional service.

Hargood Close’s client, the housing association Family Mosaic, has replaced the shoddy emergency accommodation prefabs on the site with a mix of 29 units, ranging from studios to family houses. They’re still temporary homes for people who’ve fallen on hard times, but as architecture they look more permanent. By all accounts, the old place was grim. Some prefabs lacked functioning bathrooms and, because of its reputation for violence, a taxi driver once refused to pick up one of Leibrock’s colleagues after a consultation meeting there. People in the neighbourhood had reservations about plans to double the site’s capacity.

Of course, Proctor and Matthews had to address the realities of people-processing. Tenants can arrive at short notice and not according to any projected schedule, and units are usually empty for less than 24 hours between tenancies, so adequate dedicated external stores for each unit were identified as an essential requirement. It’s also possible to enlarge units according to changing needs by unlocking doors in party walls.

Despite its low budget, Hargood Close is as tough as old boots and its layout, with all units’ entrance doors opening onto the two main courtyard spaces, is designed for passive surveillance. It’s also Code Level 4 and includes two mobility homes. All these bases have been covered, albeit with a few D&B compromises. Omitted: CHP system. Added: two banks of photovoltaics - too late to be properly architecturally co-ordinated to Proctor and Matthew’s satisfaction.

But how to address the other problems: the institutional feel and the seeming impossibility of any sense of community? On the one hand, Hargood Close is designed to look like a conventional residential development, articulated as an assemblage of blocks with features which read as domestic, such as brickwork and tiled roofs, although the staff accommodation with a sign at the entrance to the complex undermines this.

On the other hand, it deliberately harks back to the almshouse as a building type and this is where its logic might seem to wear thin. A reference to a building type with such strong connotations of charity would certainly be very direct, even blunt, but would be unlikely to guarantee an environment that doesn’t seem institutional. The fact that there are some fine 19th-century almshouses in this part of Essex might have limited relevance - though possibly of interest only to the planning department - but the essential connection is their architectural quality. Almshouses are conspicuous benefactions, intended to serve as long-term shells for transient streams of indigent occupants. They often have courtyards, as at Hargood Close, where they function as community spaces, along with the first-floor access decks and modest facilities such as the play area.

But the whole question of Hargood Close’s architectural language is complex, especially as it’s in the county that spawned the Essex Design Guide. This guide tells you how to safeguard homogeneity, consistent ‘appropriate’ scale and, implicitly, conservative values by respecting vernacular architecture. Supported housing was something the local authority positively did want in its backyard and Proctor and Matthews also referred to the design guide and seemed unlikely to rock the boat. Nevertheless, in places the outcome seems closer to North African vernacular architecture than the indigenous variety. There are beautiful screens of perforated brickwork and, as at Proctor and Matthews’ Horsted Park housing development (AJS 10.12), beards of projecting headers around openings. These details filter and reflect sunlight and cast dark, ornamental shadows. The staircases up to the access decks, the sculptural battered storage blocks and, if you ignore the parked cars, the hard landscaped courtyards, have an enchanting, magical quality.

It’s not the first time we’ve been here. Le Corbusier, and more recently Peter Barber (AJ 08.04.10), found inspiration in North African vernacular and transported it to social projects in northern Europe. Part of its enduring appeal is its association with the desert, that soul-cleansing muse of the minimalist aesthetic. Despite its compromises and flaws - the shared surfaces and fair-faced concrete that never happened, the inaccessible roof spaces, the PoMo cross-bracing between the stair canopy columns - Hargood Close has found an unlikely escape route from the mundane institutionalisation of supported housing and the usual dreary path of the pseudo-vernacular, using this North African variant as a springboard to create a place which tenants will remember, even if they hope never to return

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