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Craft and technique: Goldsmiths’ Centre

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Lyall Bills & Young has made the Goldsmiths’ Centre a functional, friendly place to work, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Morley von Sternberg

It’s a strange mixture. This building is actually a factory,’ says John Lyall of Lyall Bills & Young. ‘There are guys in smocks up there wandering around with dirty hands. There are furnaces, gases, acids, and guys hammering, making a lot of noise. It’s workaday. But the end products are very beautiful and valuable.’

Lyall is talking about the Goldsmiths’ Centre in Clerkenwell, London, completed by his firm earlier this year and it’s hard to imagine a project more in tune with contemporary desires. More than what it looks like, more than how well the various spaces within meet the needs of the brief this project is important because of what it is: a workshop, school and arts venue that mixes retrofit with new-build right in the middle of town.

The centre comprises an adapted shell of a Grade II-listed Victorian school, a new five-storey workshop and studio building, and a glazed atrium that also serves as a public recreation area. There’s also a gallery, which can be extended into the atrium, and a café on the ground floor that spills out on to a terrace.

One half of the building, the old school, houses facilities for a postgraduate design course in jewellery, silversmithing and the allied trades.

The other half, the new-build element - a nine-metre wide Yorkstone and brass-clad block that turns the corner of Albion Place and Britton Street - has a gallery with three floors of low-rent workshops above. It’s topped off with what Lyall calls a Miesian box; a glass pavilion used to host important meetings and the occasional special dinner. And it does what every new project is meant to do in terms of keeping it green. It exceeds the current BREEAM Excellent rating. It combines photo-voltaic cells and air-source heat pumps to minimise energy usage. It uses rainwater harvesting for grey water. Welcome to tick-box central.

I was shown around the building in July, after a chat with Lyall in the café. It felt like a busy, sunny, happy place to work, or to have a cup of tea. We stood at the back of a lecture in the old school while students took notes. We entered workshops in the new-build where craftsmen and women were hard at work. We wandered through the ground floor gallery, empty then but just days after a show had finished. We scaled the stairwell until we hit the top floor and took in the views of London from the terrace and pavilion. On our way down, we bumped into the client Peter Taylor, the centre’s director of training and the driving force behind the project, on the first floor bridge link across the atrium. It’s that kind of building; open, friendly, visibly inhabited.

In general it works well, or at least it appears to a few months after opening. But there are some quirks that don’t quite work. The stair tower, for example; monumental on the corner and a townscape anchor, has a big feature window set into brass cladding. But rather than framing the landing, it frames a section of stairs you are unlikely to stop and look out from. The staircase, too, is over complicated. It shifts its location at first floor level, eating up far too much of the plan so it doesn’t drop down into the gallery below.

At nine metres, the new-build width is a little slim. It makes for a wide, bright atrium, between old and new, but it means the smaller workshops, ranged along a double-load corridor, are only two metres wide (‘We did worry about fitting everything in,’ one tenant said). But, as Lyall explained, ‘You could take out the corridor and all the cross walls and do something else.’

It’s maybe a bit on the pricey side too: £17 million including fit-out, with £15 million for build costs. And some of the flourishes, the ‘Miesian’ box on the roof for example, or the porch that Lyall says has a ‘Constructivist linear expression’, fall short of what they strive to be in terms of aesthetics.

Not that Taylor, a superb client according to Lyall, very supportive and respectful of the architect’s role, is bothered about how it looks. ‘Buildings, with the greatest respect to architects, are environments in which things happen, they’re not actually the be all and end all.’ Clients, eh? They always know what to say.

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of the Goldsmiths’ Centre by Lyall Bills & Young

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