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Orange intervention

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George Demetri takes stock of a major new landmark in north London

A faint whiff of Russian Constructivism pervades the new Peabody housing scheme recently completed at London's Newington Green. Its expressive forms, particularly the seven-storey, cylinder-like tower, recall the Vesnin Brothers' 1923 Palace of Labour in Moscow. Coincidental perhaps, yet the similarity could not be more appropriate. The Constructivists strove to achieve bold, imaginative forms which would improve people's lives - aims shared by the Peabody Trust and achieved by Rivington Street Studio Architecture at Newington Green.

Completed in November 1999, after about 18 months on site, the striking new development brings a bold new landmark to an otherwise uninteresting and neglected part of the capital.

Occupying a corner site fronting the north-west edge of Newington Green - a large green island bounded by thundering traffic - the mixed-use development sports orange-red stocks which serve both to reinforce the dynamic forms and to make a much-needed contribution to the urban landscape.

The Peabody Trust As the largest housing association in London, providing 19,000 homes for renting, the Peabody Trust aims to tackle poverty and social exclusion by providing affordable rented housing, training and employment, and generally aiding economic regeneration in some of the capital's most deprived areas. But it also has very definite ideas about materials and construction techniques and strives to improve cost effectiveness, speed and overall efficiency along Egan lines wherever possible. This is clearly seen at its recently completed housing at Murray Grove - only 2km to the south - which embodies high levels of modularity and prefabrication and breaks new ground in social housing.

At Newington Green, the same affinity for bold form is present, but achieved by more traditional, though no less effective, construction materials and techniques.

Design Hackney-based Rivington Street Studio Architecture won the Peabody competition to turn the former disused BT site, bounded by Green Lanes and Albion Road, into an attractive, high-density urban development and in doing so beat off stiff competition. The competition entry, which has materialised almost unscathed into a dynamic £4 million scheme, comprised three broad design elements: a cylindrical tower block (with external drum staircase); low-rise housing along Albion Road; and a doctors' surgery accessed from Green Lanes.

A total of 44 one- and two-bedroom flats of mixed tenure are distributed in a seven-storey cylindrical tower and in three- and four-storey housing blocks that sit along Albion Road. The flats in the tower have all been sold at market rates, and the proceeds from those sales will go to fund other Peabody developments; the shared ownership units on Albion Road are mostly terraced and aimed at people on moderate incomes who cannot afford to buy on the open market.

Around the corner off Green Lanes is the Mildmay Medical Practice, which has its own low-rise identity and occupies mostly singlestorey accommodation located behind a cool, two-storey 'administration' block. Adjacent to this, at the base of the tower, is space earmarked for a restaurant.

Matching the scale

The overall massing of the development from seven storeys to four to three provides terraced housing along Albion Road to match the scale of the rather dull Victorian terraces opposite. Yet you cannot miss the orange-red stock brickwork that is used externally, and which would undoubtedly have proved overpowering without the inclusion of the deeply recessed balcony voids. These provide a heavily sculpted feel to the building and give each flat its own open-air space.

Articulation of the elevations is further aided by the introduction of two other design elements: western red cedar cladding for the entrances of the low-rise terraced housing and on the upper storey of the tower; and dark grey render, which provides a smart, planar feel to the off-set surgery entrance. Unfortunately, where it is applied to the seven-storey-high services and circulation zone that sits between the tower and the low-rise housing, it creates something of a discordant monolith.

Masonry construction

Loadbearing masonry is the main form of construction, apart from the reinforced-concrete frame of the seven-storey tower. Cavity walls of external facing brick and internal blockwork incorporate an 85mm partially filled cavity and are used throughout, except for a small area of rendered blockwork to the entrance of the medical practice. The plane of sombre, dark-grey render, punctuated by galvanised-steel brise soleil, contrasts dramatically with the backdrop of mass orange-red brickwork.

The tower's curved brickwork has been achieved with standard bricks in stretcher bond.

The slight faceting that can result when flat faces form curves is not unattractive and to the perceptive eye has a certain geometric charm.

Still, the architect took no chances: each brick was drawn separately on CAD to ensure satisfactory construction and aesthetics.

It is a different story for the much tighter radius of the external staircase cylinder: a concrete drum clad in a 102mm brick skin, the 1.8m external radius was formed using header bond, giving tapered cross joints of 10-12mm on the outside which reduce to 5mm on the inside face. For this, snapped headers were supplied to site as 'standard' specials. Their use obviated the need to cut every single brick, thereby producing the sort of time savings which - over a seven-storey high structure - must have paid for the specials many times over.

Overall, the Peabody Trust's Newington Green development makes the most of a difficult inner-city site. Like many schemes before it, it proves that social housing can combine flair and functionality in eye-catching designs to enrich the locality. It also shows the sort of quality that can emanate from a well-managed design and build project.

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