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Published in Domus, 886, November 2005.

David Adjaye, the London-based architect known for his spatially challenging series of artists studio/living spaces in London (Dirty House, Elektra House, Kensington Park Gardens) has now tackled issues of scale and identity with his first public buildings. These are new two libraries, one a 4500sqm, four storey freestanding building in Whitechapel, east London that opened in October; the other, a smaller, branch library for the same local council, in Poplar further to the east, not far from the Lower Lea Valley, the area designated for the city's Olympic Village in 2012, was finished in late 2004. It has already seen visitor numbers swell 500% on those of the former, underused Victorian branch library with its looming statue of 1940s Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee.



Adjaye's client, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, has 'grown' their library programme (in terms of both time and space) into a hybrid library/community centres accommodating adult education facilities ('lifelong learning', computer resources, a café and a crêche), present on each site. Each of his buildings sits in an east-west line towards the City of London and a skyline of corporate towers punctuated most recently by the cigar-shaped form of Swiss Re (a crop of future high rises is under speculation). Whitechapel is a district marked by poverty; its lively, largely Indian and Pakistani-run street market lining the north side of Whitechapel Road is a resilient feature of the area. The façade of the Royal Free Hospital diagonally across the road is due to physically host a shared future £1m video wall for the new library. The second library at Poplar, has a visible position on a main thoroughfare, East India Dock Road, formerly a route to the city's once active docklands, and now a conduit to London City Airport. It is an extension to the 1951 concrete residential Lansbury Estate, constructed for the Festival of Britain, and still carrying a full 'house' of residents in small towers, as well as a significance in terms of time and place.

At first glance from a long range, the Whitechapel building looks monumental, reading as a five storey 'groundscraper' with a completely glazed façade (initial assumption, an office building). On closer inspection, it has an eclectic gestalt. A bespoke coloured glazed box, its vertical strips of green and blue glass echo at a larger scale the awning of the market opposite. A European company more or less donated the cladding system materials. Also like an awning, the front façade is punctured at ground level to reveal a stepped back escalator running up to the first floor across it under its own 'portico'. 'We forced an architecture of overhang', as Adjaye describes it. It is already a new place of shelter and meeting. This retail iconography (there is also a second escalator from the first to second floor) is subsumed by a corporate language, but then mixed into ultimately its own species of language serving to create a purposeful boundary between exterior and interior thresholds. This is precisely Adjaye's intended instrumentality, to make a new attactor for the district, a public intellectual playground undivorced from everyday life, and for local citizens.



Inside, the chameleonic language continues: the ground floor foyer has a few elements loosely suggestive of a department store. This leads to a big children's library on the west side, its coloured glazing panels sufficiently screened from the street without blocking it out. The building's spatial layout on the four floors is a differentiated mix of open library study rooms; closed meeting rooms, and on the top floor, a café with retractable skylights. There are no original manuscripts to store or display (unlike at Renzo Piano's new scheme for the Morgan Library in Manhattan opening next April) and all the public facilities are above ground.

All four facades show the same language in a different guise. While on one side the parking meter fees have already risen, Adjaye's generosity towards the location creates a new urban passage, from the main road to the rear supermarket car park served by an existing postmodern portico walkway leading to the passage (walkway) but not on the same axis. This retail backdrop grid, not compatible with the line of Adjaye's passage, and out of bounds for his 'tampering', is nonetheless transformed by the presence of its new neighbour.

At both sites he reworks the standard curtain wall (its modernist aim to achieve maximum transparency through economy of materials), through structural application and by giving it intermittently placed insulated panels, offering a good visual rhythm to a design inherently driven by pattern. At Poplar, the form is generated from its context, the podium of the housing estate recalling the Barbican Centre's boardwalks on a smaller scale. The new library hovers forward to the street, sitting into an arcade of small pre-existing shops, on the east side almost disappearing into the stacked structure. On the west, its form is bent and higher, stepped up to create impact and variety. Adjaye 'corrupts' the pure form of the orthogonal prismatic box through an iconography and formal organisation that engages with, rather than aloofly cuts off, the street life at its sides and along the pavement in front of it. In short, it has its own identity, and holds it (to 'hold your own' means to perform effectively) through intimate dialogue with urban life.

At Whitechapel the facilities build around the core library space on each floor, including a dance studio at the rear. The use of double height spaces (first floor; second floor connects to the 3rd and 4th floors via an atrium on the east side) in a very strong sectional approach works very well in creating presence, as Bolles Wilson's Münster Library does, only here without quite so many narrative readings to the fittings. It was important that visitors did not feel claustrophobic, so all the classrooms have clearstory glazing introducing light.



Permeability and connectivity are words now used by the Corporation of London's Planning Department as desirable effects for architecture at street level in the City. At Poplar (in its neighbouring borough), the large first floor hall of the main library space runs obliquely on plan at the front, its coloured verticals seeming to dissolve in front of the streetscape, tapering towards the rear. A diagonally positioned pattern of skylights casts dappled shadows amidst the green hue from the windows. Such effects are a common feature of Adjaye's spatial choreography; at each library, the custom-designed hanging lights, angled like the building crank, coloured rubber floors and recycled timber furniture (the acoustics used recompressed fibrous paper) and fittings deliberately avoid the uniformity of a cellular fitout.

By building up a layered language to create what Adjaye calls 'a blurred building', he smudges the normative precision of modernist design and social codes. It is his contention that his organisational and iconographic construction extends the public realm. But can you 'brand' (meaning, give a commercially distinct identity to) 'civicness' ? ('Civicness' being English shorthand for giving desirably varied, welcoming and physically open urban qualities to an public service building or space?). The notion causes alarm, and criticism (from) some quarters has been levelled at the local borough council, Tower Hamlets, after they decided to discard for library use their crumbling Victorian branch libraries, to reinvent them. Firstly by giving them a somewhat misleading name, the Idea Store (one visitor joked that at least it was not an 'antagonism boutique'), and in the case of Whitechapel, getting some sponsorship from the supermarket chain that has its branch at the rear of the building. Engaging the help of an architect who has designed Selfridges' department stores' experiential Superbrands zone and is now designing social housing and new cultural community centres (four buildings are on site or advancing in London alone apart from Idea Stores in Whitechapel and Poplar), his versatility needs to be also his virtue; but Adjaye knows the score, and his libraries (apart from the fact that at Poplar the client pre-sold a too conspicuous frontal signage space to a sponsor) enlarge the typology without compromising ideals. So long as the sponsoring retailer is not, and will not be, controlling the library's choice of book purchase.

Adjaye's exposure to Peter and Alison Smithson during his studies in the late 1980s encouraged him to follow their call to 'observe the world directly as it is'. He has duly attempted to reference the familiar within phenomenological parameters, with an design language unmediated by historical or contemporary symbolic references. When he gets the organisational and iconographic to fuse so closely, he can achieve a giant blurring of inside and outside. It is different to the idealised dematerialisation of the facade architects like Rogers are aiming at with his practice's future City of London office building 155 Leadenhall Street. London-based Foreign Office Architects also show adeptness at and motivation to achieve a related form of 'porosity' to the street and to urban life. 'The building (Whitechapel) has to land very gently at the bottom', says Adjaye. Tower Hamlets backed this strategy. 'I want to operate at the human scale and the urban scale; not have one lord it over the other'. Such a balancing act requires advanced dialogue between disparate elements, and Adjaye's experimental approach is paying off.


© 2018 Lucy Bullivant





Idea Store, Poplar


Idea Store, Poplar


Idea Store, Poplar


Idea Store, Poplar


Idea Store, Poplar


Idea Store, Whitechapel


Idea Store, Whitechapel


Idea Store, Whitechapel


Idea Store, Whitechapel


Idea Store, Whitechapel

all photos: Tim Soar