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Spirit of Barcelona: Clapham One

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Clapham One is full of surprise and mystery, says Felix Mara. Photography by Gareth Gardner

Hailing from North London, trashing what lies on the opposite side of the Thames is second nature to me. Scarce amenities, monocultural dormitories, a scattered, low-profile intelligentsia served by few book shops and pubarama lifestyles are hardly world class city material. In charitable moments I blame the Nazis.

But I do have to concede that, by night, parts of Lambeth and Southwark sizzle, West End style. In SW4 for example, converging roads bordering Clapham Common funnel hordes into a high street lined by international restaurants and bars in the bungalow extensions built on the front gardens of its terraces, semis and villas.

Although Clapham High Street’s entertainment venues have dwindled, a new type of amenity opened in June: a library which doubles up as a performance space, designed by Studio Egret West with DLA Architecture as part of their Clapham One mixed residential and medical centre development.

On paper alone, this is catalytic. Working in a Public Private Partnership, Lambeth Council provided the site, home to twin negative assets: an under-performing swimming pool and a 1968 office block, mentioned by Pevsner but nevertheless demolished. Developer Cathedral Group and contractor United provided the library, open seven days a week, and a health centre gratis in exchange for the site and were granted permission to build 136 private and, assisted by a Homes and Communities Agency Kickstart loan, 44 affordable flats.

The consultants’ responsibilities also suggest a creative mix. Concept and library fit-out architect Studio Egret West was also the landscape architect and designed signage, wayfinding and fitted library furniture. Not surprisingly, practice founders Christophe Egret and David West have historic links to that great architectural university, Will Alsop, and Clapham One exemplifies their disrespect for barriers between architecture, urban design and planning. It’s a fluid approach which would be at home in that remarkable urban success story, post-Franco Barcelona. The Parc Güell-style broken ceramic surfaces of the giant 3D letters that spell the word LIBRARY on the pavement in front of the development are a fitting emblem.

Clapham High Street has some respectable residential facades. Some are stock brick, some stucco. But its most flamboyant architectural event is the c1910 Temperance and Billiard Hall, a Free Style concrete framed half-barrel, home to Moxley Architects. So Egret West had one unusual neighbour and plenty of backdrop architecture to play with. Although it is bizarre and ortholinaphobic, it might seem simplistic to label Clapham One’s external form Gaudí-esque, because there’s so much else in the mix. Neo-Baroque, if you like, Mannerist in its juxtaposed scales and awkwardly Mendelsohnian in the way ogee-profile plan forms meet sheer faces.

There’s something eerie about the way its clustered towers bob on the skyline like distorted Edvard Munch figures, cheerful, mocking and, in their numerology, symbolic. Yet there is method in the way its massing steps down to the row housing in St Luke’s Avenue, forming landscaped communal terraces, because noise from the main road ruled out individual flat balconies. Although the apartments have double-loaded access, many are dual aspect and slots between the towers admit daylight and ventilation.

Like BFLS’s Strata (AJ 29.07.10), three miles up the A3, Clapham One is a conspicuous foreigner, though more Continental than Chinese in the quality and perceived longevity of its external detail, which is brash without being tacky. Its polished stainless steel fenestration details are glitzy, even naff, especially with Juliette balconies whose pods punch out while the windows punch into stark, hard white slips like skulls’ eye sockets, as haunting as a Buñuel film. The low-level insulated render looks vulnerable. Perhaps the architect chose to peel away the slips bonded to the facade at high level before passers-by did so.

On the high street corner at ground level the flats rest on a column decked out as a tapering, silicone render-clad feature, known to the architect as ‘the stiletto’, sturdy enough for the most bovine of calves. Then, after crossing a wide pavement, at the junction with a mixed development to the east, you enter a shared lobby with generous circular roof lights that serves the health centre and, via an incredibly  wide top-hung sliding orange screen, the library. Though toned down by expanses of white emulsion, what you see next is crazier than the exterior.

The reception is contiguous with a proposed café area looking onto the street through a faceted curtain wall and opens onto a triple-height space resembling a mausoleum, but without the customary regularity. At its perimeter, a double-laned ramp divided by low-level shelving spirals up to a reading area above and down to the children’s library below, which is also used for performances viewed from this lower level or from the ramp and ancillary spaces above. It’s more of a figure-of-eight diagram than a loop and, because you enter in the middle, travel distances are optimal.

A layer of book shelving lines the ramp’s outer walls, through which openings lead to radial activity and study rooms, some interconnected by openings in their cross-walls. The inner wall between the ramp and the triple-height space is a thick drum, penetrated by openings of various shapes, sizes and angles, which deviate from the vertical along their horizontal radial axes as if dancing, or slowly rotating as they fall from above.

A wide gap in the drum reveals three circular concrete columns supporting the ceiling and the ramp, with CHSs behind these. Again a group of three, suggesting a symbolic dimension, also seen in the cruciform rolling furniture assembly in the children’s library and a chunky acoustic buffer overhead. Most enigmatic of all, the library’s steel plate staircase could be seen as a spiral with an incredibly thick newel, or one which is helical with its central opening enclosed by a capped cylinder. But what’s inside: 40m3 of dead or sacrificial space? I can’t help remembering Jim Stirling’s ritual of burying a navy blue shirt in the foundations of his creations. Stirling also comes to mind because of some apparent operational flaws.

Was the handrail enclosing the area below this staircase part of the original design or was it added to stop occupants banging their heads on the steel plates above? And shouldn’t acoustics have been more of a priority? The openings in the drum improve reverberation times but, despite the absorbent surfaces, the children in the inferno below generate a lot of noise. You might ask how many people actually study in this library. Well, quite a few actually, although most of them seem to do so in the perimeter study areas.

Of course the background noise adds to the sense of fun and so does the wealth of architectural events. Standing in the children’s library, you feel as though you’re in a 3D Léger painting, with overlapping blocks of controlled impasto colour: whites on greys, with highlights of orange and sage green rendered glossy by their surface treatment or layers of glass.

Much of the detail, however original, seems deliberately, provocatively, clumsy and obtuse: architraves with unusual profiles around the drum openings, chunky rings at the heads of columns, overdesigned brackets, glass handrails, half-timbered partitioning and rectangle-section skirtings juxtaposed with wide shadow gap details where walls meet floors.

It’s sometimes more of a knuckleduster than elegant design. And to zoom out to the general volumetric massing, well, anything that smacks of screechy expressionism just ain’t for me. But for all its blemishes, it’s hard not to be charmed by this gregarious, uninhibited and exotic foreigner and it’s a very welcome guest at the party. A little piece of Barcelona in SW4.

AJ Buildings Library

See images and drawings of Clapham One by Studio Egret West

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It does have overtones of Guadi- during his Barratt Homes phase. This looks better on screen than in the flesh and perhaps just too ambitious for the budget.

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