One-stop shop? tick. Sustainable? very. Atrium? definitely. New civic paradigm? maybe. Felix Mara visits Hopkins’ Brent Civic Centre. Photography by Morley von Sternberg
In his A History of Building Types, Nikolaus Pevsner argued that the development of the town hall after Jacob van Campen’s 1655 Amsterdam Stadhuis was stylistic rather than functional. The 37 years since Pevsner’s book have seen a transformation in British local authorities’ role and modus operandi, with a drive towards informality, transparency and accountability, and migration of services to online platforms.
Along with the rationalisation of local authority resources and the public’s shifting perceptions of architecture, these factors have impelled a change in town halls’ functions and tectonic expression, with the introduction of ‘one-stop shop’ concentrations of facilities in single buildings, invariably organised around a large enclosed atrium. Viewed as a stylistic phenomenon, RMJM’s 1978 Hillingdon Civic Centre leached media attention, aiming to be more approachable by masquerading as a quasi-traditional residential complex. Thirty-five years later, 12 miles due east and from a different tectonic universe, Hopkins Architects’ diaphanous steel- and concrete-framed Brent Civic Centre, which opened in June, suggests a new functional paradigm.
Hopkins’ most unusual move involved designing the entrance atrium, a 30m, octuple-height unheated cube, to double up as a performance venue. Passing through the main south entrance, you feel as if you’ve walked on to a stage, facing a gentle cascade of steps rising through the mezzanine to first floor level. Packaged as an amphitheatre for the Building Control submission, it manages to avoid handrails at 1.8m centres climbing the steps. It’s also possible to enter via the north facade during performances. In line with Brent’s ‘one building, one council’ strategy, aimed at reducing costs, promoting staff interaction and freeing up other sites for regeneration, this atrium opens on to adjacent areas or is visually connected with them by glass walls. To the right of the main entrance are two storeys of library and customer self-service accommodation, where officers explain how to use the computers and online resources. Beyond this is a retail zone, its frontage facing the pedestrianised Olympic Way and, on the atrium’s left side, a wedding suite links to smart, geometrical ceremonial gardens.
On the upper floors - above the registrars, the Melting Pot public café and training area - 2,000 staff work in an L-shaped stack of open-plan office plates looking on to the atrium or down on its silver ETFE rooflights. The mini atria at the building perimeter provide modest interconnectivity between these naturally ventilated offices, which had an unusually convivial and relaxed atmosphere when I visited during last month’s heat-wave.
Landed on the first-floor slab above the library, like a building within a building, is a four-storey rotunda, its lantern penetrating the ETFE-cushioned roof which sails over it. Known as The Drum at Wembley, this houses a civic chamber, ringed by two storeys of committee and members’ rooms above a double-height, multi-purpose community hall.
These spaces are for multiple functions, including conferences, banquets and weddings: the centre’s facilities cater for Brent’s large Asian population, acknowledged in Hopkins’ spice colour-coding strategy. There’s also extensive public foyer and patio space on the upper levels, with a winter garden at the foot of the drum and terraces on the third floor.
Compared with British town halls from Victorian times to the Thatcher era, this is a novel set of civic, public and administrative functions, and the centre also stands out as part of a regeneration strategy for its locale. Surrounded by industrial buildings, but also home to Foster + Partners’ Wembley Stadium and Owen Williams’ Wembley Arena, it has enormous possibilities for civic development, especially along the potentially grand processional route from Wembley Park Station to the stadium. Nevertheless, Hopkins senior partner David Selby observes that four years ago, this was considered a very brave choice of site.
Whether or not you see this as a totally new functional paradigm, Brent Civic Centre is distinctive for the style of operation its architecture supports: quite the antithesis of the traditional model of an imposing masonry town hall, puffed up with civic pride and propriety. Its spatial continuity encourages visitors to wander and explore, drawn in by its extraordinary transparency enabled by overhangs, finely tuned arrays of solar control louvres, impossibly wide spans assisted by post-tensioned slabs, filigree tension members and anthropomorphic, Vitruvian-Man cross-bracing.
Defying Snell and Thompson’s writings on allometry, it’s like a scaled-up version of Hopkins’ 1976 Downshire Hill house.
Brent Civic Centre’s transparency and lightweight construction complements its use of prefabricated steel and aluminium componentry, and its vocabulary of pin connections, Macalloy hangers and bars, cable bow trusses, pig-nose caps and patch-fixed glass. This would be open to fair criticism that it has a dated preoccupation with grids and, for example in the configuration of its antennae, is predictable, if it weren’t for the way Brent Civic Centre advances the frontiers of its technology, exploring possibilities of more recent developments such as ETFE with unusual technical design expertise. The outcome is an integrated whole which uses technology to generate elegantly proportioned linear configurations that express and balance tensile forces.
And there’s real inventiveness in the detail, with a folded-paper quality to the exposed roof structure and the egg-crate facades. It’s a clear statement of belief in technological and, implicitly, other forms of progress.
Tectonic expression aside, Brent Civic Centre stands out because it achieves such high performance targets. Along with high levels of flexibility and future-proofing - particularly in the offices, with 450mm-deep floor plenums - it has an exemplary energy conservation and sustainability profile, with user-controlled natural ventilation, high recycled-content concrete, infrared sensors, biodiversity measures, A and A+ rated materials specification and a CHP, currently burning fish oil, also used to fuel the trucks that bring it to site. Estimated annual CO2 emissions are just 11.83kg/m², and it’s the first BREEAM ‘Outstanding’ project in its category, as well as Britain’s most sustainable local authority building. Proof that sustainable lightweight, non-traditional construction is viable, that its designers aren’t merely in the business of keeping the weather out with glue, and an ‘in yer face’ to art-house practices who consider eco-design beneath them, but who will never produce work as good as this.
Despite Hopkins’ commitment to performance-driven design, there are moments of formalism. The timber fins on the face of the drum only provide solar control in certain locations where it isn’t enclosed; most just serve to give the drum visual consistency. Similarly, the in-situ concrete columns have paired horizontal recesses which appear decorative. The roof-level concrete bands which look so elegant on the atrium’s internal elevation seem too shallow to span between the columns, and appear to be projections from the faces of partially overclad beams. Beautiful buildings don’t just spontaneously materialise. But in case you were wondering, the natural ventilation strategy was not an oversight. Britain’s largest-capacity football venue is only 200 metres away from Brent Civic Centre, although the main source of noise generated by fixtures is actually police helicopters and crowds approaching along Olympic Way. But Hopkins ascertained that there were only nine major matches in 2009, all during April and May.
Returning to those tiresome, nagging questions about predictability and ennui, the preoccupations of the restless Sunday-newspaper supplement readers and the journos who service them; they’d all do well to listen to Mies van der Rohe’s view on the subject: ‘I don’t want to be interesting. I want to be good.’