WeMadeThat chose a ‘conspicuous and deliberate’ palette of materials for their new East Street Exchange, a space for work, self-improvement and connection for the community around London’s Old Kent Road.
Veronica Simpson reports.
‘Flexible working’ is possibly the most overused phrase in the contemporary workplace, denoting everything from zero hours contracts to gimmicky interior design. But what if flexible working, in design terms, didn’t just mean the swings, slides and wacky breakout zones of the latest Google fit-out or the hot-desking misery of the typical, massively downsized local authority HQ?
What if an ordinary and not particularly affluent local community could be given flexible workspace – for free?
A most unusual hybrid structure has just sprung up off the Old Kent Road. East Street Library, built in the 1960s, now has a glowing red extension, called East Street Exchange.
What this extension consists of is a simple, 20sqm bookable meeting room, with glazing onto the street as well as back into the library, plus a small kitchen and a disabled-friendly loo. The interior glazed wall looks into a newly refurbished zone in the existing library, equipped with laptop ledges, stools and free wi-fi. Apparently, in the three months since it opened this zone has become fully occupied by a changing cast of casual workers, freelancers, schoolkids and independent business owners.
It took 18 months of research into this neighbourhood to devise this flexible scheme, by WeMadeThat, an architecture and urbanism practice established by Oliver Goodhall and Holly Lewis in 2006. The area is caught at the sharp end of several controversial regeneration and infrastructure initiatives, including the demolition of two postwar social housing estates (and the clearances of their occupants) in order to make way for mostly private, mostly high end (or ‘market rate’) housing. The resulting tensions may be why this area joined several others around London in the 2011 riots. The Greater London Authority dedicated a pot of money to the affected areas, to try and improve conditions. And it was this High Street Fund that helped pay for the research, which identified key gaps for local businesses, service providers and the community at large.
For example, a local GP surgery is currently full to bursting, with nowhere for staff meetings to take place, or for seminars on specific conditions for relevant patients. This meeting room is now part of their shared workspace. The library staff is also using it regularly, as are local activist groups, from the Walworth Society to social action group Pembroke House. The area has a high population of people with English as a second language (Spanish-speakers are prevalent). Now this meeting room can host peer-to-peer language classes, as well as after school homework clubs.
Goodhall says: ‘We were trying to bring in the kind of space for activities that other new libraries are including.’ In order to make the capital budget of £300,000 go as far as possible, it meant adding the bare minimum of facilities but in a configuration that made sense: a public toilet was added (there was none before), plus a kitchen, all accessible via the meeting room, which has its own separate entrance for out of hours access. With public library funding at an all time low, this branch was often closed, with shutters pulled down over the windows. There are no shutters for the meeting room. WeMadeThat wanted to communicate openness and accessibility. Says Goodhall: ‘It had to become a civic asset rather than something that looks closed half the time. It’s now this red shiny thing that always pokes out - it cranks out slightly so you can see it from the Old Kent Road. It is all about engagement, doing what the library wasn’t doing before: talking to the street.’
The palette is ‘conspicuous and deliberate’, says Goodhall. Anodized aluminium cladding is a good low maintenance material; and echoes the red and green shutters of the shops nearest to it. The colour, as well as the turret which acts as a beacon above the extension, are inspired by the red telephone box nearby. The simple plywood walls have pegs and pegholes for the hanging of whiteboards, or for hanging the demountable table and chairs.
It took 16 weeks to build and may only have a life of up to three years – part of the rebuilding of the nearby Aylesbury estate includes a relocation of library facilities there. Goodhall says: ‘What success would look like for this project would be if the library moves out but a civic function remains here.’ That decision, sadly, is out of their hands.