Chrisp Street Idea Store is a dramatic presence among run-down grey concrete housing and shops, facing East India Dock Road on the Lansbury Estate (see box below) in Tower Hamlets. Despite the condition of its buildings the area remains a busy centre, the location chosen for that reason. A largescale survey of borough residents in 1999 showed a strong preference for relocating all the suggested Idea Stores - essentially a reworked combination of library and lifelong learning services - to local retail centres, where people go, rather than their current away-from-centre sites. The name 'store' reflects not only this retail location but other retail threads too: openness, customer focus and retail hours (open until 9pm most days, 10am to 4pm on Sundays). The name 'Idea Store' is also meant to intrigue, to suggest something new and different to be explored.
The building is a sleek, highly glazed box; a marked contrast to its neighbours but not aloof. Rather, it wraps itself into the existing grain. While the front is of two storeys facing south to the street, most of the building behind is on the first floor, sitting on an existing podium above small single-storey shops, reading as an upper storey to them along the narrow unroofed shopping mall to the east. To the north the store disappears among existing buildings as it meets Chrisp Street open-air market. To the west it sits on the podium in retail backlands, a black ATEopaque face that will be largely unseen.
As you would expect with David Adjaye's restless inventiveness, this is not a glazed box extruded from a cladding catalogue. The box, so shiny it is tactile, runs obliquely onplan at the front, tapers in plan toward the rear, and as you move back the flat roof starts tapering down too; subtle from the outside, with more obvious visual pay-offs inside.
Its cladding is a reworking of the curtain wall, setting up a rhythm of storey-height, relatively narrow glass strips, flush gasketglazed. Adjaye is keen for me not to miss the move as the building turns from glazed front to west side, where the cladding includes some flat metal panels, but flush gasketglazed in the same way as the glass.
The sheer-skinned result is, to some extent, scaleless: in-between the monumentality of the traditional public building and the accessibility of an offbeat cafe. It stands back from East India Dock Road - intentionally for client and architect a new landmark building - but the entrance is on the east side, one door among several in the small, open-air shopping mall. Not too obscure though; some 2,500 people found the open door on the first day.
Adjaye talks of redefining civic architecture, that new civic buildings are today one of the few chances to enhance the public realm. This is his first public building, or rather the building of Adjaye/Associates, now a medium-sized practice picking up a range of international projects.
He does not offer a polemic in the way Rem Koolhaas does - but then even Koolhaas could produce a tome of 1,344 pages (S, M, L, XL) with many questions but no answers. Adjaye's urban approach is more intuitive, more locally responsive. But some of the assumptions are similar: acknowledging in a market-driven economy that the public realm can mostly only be grown bottom-up and that grand plans are an inflexible approach in a changing, multivalent world anyway; a faith in bold, risky, expressive architecture; a readiness to respond to the moment; at one with ambiguity. It will be interesting to see whether the now-emerging, more-major Adjaye buildings will develop an urban signature, however varied the individual architectures.
The ambiguity of this store being both a standout landmark and wrapped into the existing buildings continues inside. There can be few buildings with so much glazing that have so little to look out at; on all but the front the undistinguished neighbouring buildings are right outside. There is a social message here that the building readily accepts its setting - it's not some alien parachuted into the borough. So, yes, there is extensive glazing, but this is tempered by tinting in five shades of green and blue (sponsor Lloyds TSB will be pleased), creating an interior world apart, particularly on the main upper floor. What works beautifully is the coloured light cast on the rows of floor-to-ceiling timber glazing fins, with internal roller blinds helping control solar gain in the big space, which is not air conditioned (see Environment, page 27).
Developing the Idea Store 'brand' has been the work of Tower Hamlets with Bisset Adams, which created the first Idea Store, a refurbishment project at Bow that opened in 2002 (see The Idea idea, page 28). Facilities will be broadly similar across all the eventual seven stores, though flavoured by local needs.
At Chrisp Street, the two-storey entrance, built out beyond the old building line, works well as an orientation space in a building that will initially surprise many in finding that most of it is upstairs. There is a highly visible ground-floor 'surf space' behind a glass screen for free internet access, but access routes to this space and the lift, plus the escalator and stair, dominate the foyer, leaving somewhat disjointed space for the intended foyer exhibitions.
Once upstairs, the main volume is the big idea. It is made apparently deeper and more particular by the walls and ceiling tapering toward the back, the effect accentuated by the punctuation of timber parallam beams across the ceiling. And seen from the back, the space funnels out toward the public front wall and road glimpsed beyond. The existing concrete podium was able to support only a light structure, but Adjaye and Arup have succeeded in creating a large open space using a steel frame with moment connections, so avoiding shearwall partitioning (see Structure, page 28). With bookstacks 1.5m high, the space retains its open vista for most. For small children there is the compensation of the playful labyrinth of bookstacks, here leading to a computer terminal, there to an area of foam play furniture.
This volume begins with a main reception/help desk, though the store hopes to wean most people off using this over time in favour of the self-check terminals - another retail echo. Staff are focused on support-bywalking-about, whether helping to boot-up a computer game or to find a vocational course.
Here, too, there are welcoming cafe tables and vending machines, though in this particular store the cafe is not prioritised, as there are already several among the shops close by.
Down the west side are offices and four rooms for courses - both leisure and vocational, from yoga to ICT (information and computer technologies) - the rooms made into gentle parallelograms in plan by the taper of the building. They close off from the main library with sliding doors, though they can be appropriated by library users when empty.
Cafe tables are red, the floor green, and seats black. The non-glazed walls are topped with a band of strawboard panels, the ceiling parallam joists and ply soffit both unpainted - that is, after coming up the stair clad in grey perforated metal. As with Adjaye's earlier houses, materiality is to the fore, often using relatively cheap materials in articulate ways. For the architect it is a rite of passage in moving from domestic scale to this larger one, encountering the difficulties of getting conventional (though good) general contractors to understand the design and to treat cheap materials with respect. Some other components are more refined, notably the ironmongery and zigzag light fittings.
Adjaye is not a signature architect - he is too compulsively inventive for that - though he continues to use materials in an elemental way that makes space feel almost tactile. For Tower Hamlets this is an uplifting, friendly building, at once part of the neighbourhood and something better, and the first of a series of Adjaye public buildings to watch.
TENDER DATE February 2003 START ON SITE DATE April 2003 CONTRACT DURATION 68 weeks FORM OF CONTRACT Traditional TOTAL COST Tender price £2,137,300 CLIENT London Borough of Tower Hamlets FUNDING London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Leaside Regeneration, Lloyds of London Charities Trust, UK Online ARCHITECT Adjaye/Associates: David Adjaye, Yohannes Bereket, Nikolai Delvendahl, Cornelia Fischer, Soyingbe Gandonu, Jessica Grainger, Andrew Heid, Haremi Kudo, Yuko Minamide, John Moran, Ana Rita R P Silva, Go Tashiro CLERK OF WORKS Peter Green PROJECT MANAGER, QUANTITY SURVEYOR, PLANNING SUPERVISOR Miller Mitchell Burley Lane STRUCTURAL ENGINEER, SERVICES ENGINEER Arup FACADE CONSULTANT Arup Facade FIRE CONSULTANT Arup Fire GRAPHIC DESIGN Mode MAIN CONTRACTOR William Verry SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Facade Konhaeusner; services ECG; structural steelwork Gorge Fabrications; architectural metalwork Structural Stairways; bespoke furniture Valley Joinery; bespoke shelving JDS
WEBLINKS Idea Stores www. ideastore. co. uk London Borough of Tower Hamlets www. towerhamlets. co. uk Adjaye/Associates www. adjaye. com Miller Mitchell Burley Lane www. millermitchell. co. uk Arup www.Arup. com William Verry www. williamverry. co. uk