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Warehouse at Curtain Road by Craig Douglas

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

The space is found on the top floor of a four storey warehouse building in Shoreditch. The building was built around 1880. It was originally used for the manufacture and storage of furniture and was subsequently used for a variety of rag trade businesses. In the years leading up to 2006 the top floor space was a residential unit and studio for a single Swiss photographer who regularly slept in a tent on the roof. It has an area of around 250 sq.m and is now an open plan workspace for some 25 desk-based designers.  With its clearly visible history of previous uses the space invites us to stop for a moment and think about what might happen next here.

The building is hidden away behind Shoreditch Town Hall and behind the warehouse buildings that form the east side of Curtain Road. It is just possible to catch glimpses of it from Old Street and Rivington Street. It hides within the many similarly sized buildings around it to form part of a dense urban block made from stacks of red brick and pocket courtyards. The route up to this tucked away space is an integral part of the experience of the space itself.

On this day we arrive from Kingsland Road passing under the new railway bridge. We travel through some shouting, some traffic lights, some trucks and many cyclists. A man in a tracksuit looks bewildered. A giant leans against a lamppost.

Through the first metal gate clanging into a dark tunnel. As usual the early morning greeting here is scattered cans of beer and much broken glass. A brief flash of sunlight before a Georgian wired glass canopy hovers overhead. The canopy is dappled with muck and light sprinkles down onto the patchy concrete floor. Cement boards have taken the place of some of the glass panels. The front door is encrusted with the usual buzzers, buttons, keypads and a quilt of stickers. Then lots and lots of dark steps. They are concrete and worn smooth. There are echoes of ancient castles here. The handrail is thin cold metal tube and somebody, way down the line cooked up a fantastic detail where the tube cuts into the brickwork as it turns around the spine wall on each landing. Smart, frugal and elegant – frills need not apply. The brick walls are blasted smooth and corners have all been taken off. Fluorescent strip lights flicker on each landing. There are windows – but they don’t work. They are glazed, but no light comes through them.

The door to the main space is tall and handsome. If Roger Federer was a door this could be it. Many keys, clunking locks and alarm codes to work through, then a final swing of glazed timber framed double doors and we are in. (These doors are less Federer and more Michael Gove, but that’s enough of that.) After the cold dark of the stairs if feels like we have walked onto a landing deck.  Sunlight angles in. Eyes take time to adjust. There are no shadows.

Structure and space work together here. As the door swings open the first thing on view is a circular cast iron column. Right there - bang slap in front of the door. What it is doing is clear and reassuring. It is one of three columns holding up the roof for us. But, like all good structural systems, this one is multi-tasking. When a stranger walks into the space the column acts as a greeting point and ready friend. Everybody shakes hands with this welcome attendant when they come in. They lean on it while chatting – they hang an arm around it while saying good-bye. There is more though. As a group, the three columns define a barrier between circulation zone and work zone.  The circulation side is reserved for leaning chatting, catching up and a fair bit of larking about. The other side is reserved for hard work.  No doors, walls, partitions required. It just happens. In the turn past the columns, work takes over.

There are traces of people and activity everywhere, but right now the space is empty. Dust slowly swirls and hangs in the sunlight. It is kind of fusty here even with its clear structural layout. Later, with noise and people, the dust will trail away to hide on the tops of the books and shelves that line one side of the space. Tomorrow morning as the sun comes up the dust will set off again on its travels.

The space is rectangular with the same proportions as a shoebox. There are huge timber sash windows on three sides – the two short ones and one long one. The light blasts in despite the grime on the windows. It skids across the table tops, across the jumble of work spaces and it lands on the plywood floor, worn through by office chair rollers and showing clear traces of partition walls moved to flex with each use that the space has accommodated and subsequently seen off. The windows have definitely seen better days and the history of repairs is clear to see. They have moved on from new sections of wood carefully added, through the dolloped-on wood filler stage and are now they are onto odd screws and in many places, duct tape and cardboard. Repairing timber sash windows is a game of chess and these windows are definitely expecting to receive the killer blow.

The walls that form the openings for the windows are soft red brick both inside and out. At the end of the day the sun tracks across them casting long shadows and they glow pink in return.

This is essentially a very straightforward space but it is difficult not to revel in discovering it and experiencing the way that time has worn it smooth and softened its edges.

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