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Art & Design

Can architecture build a community?

“We’re conscious that The Foundry shouldn’t just be an oasis for Guardian-reading types”

Many casual passers-by might barely register The Foundry in Vauxhall, south London. From the street, this understated building, which was completed in September 2014, doesn’t look out of the ordinary or arrestingly modern but familiar. Its zigzagging roof recalls an archetypal factory, while its muted palette of materials — glass, concrete, wood and zinc tiles, the latter cladding the roof in a decorative though subtle diamond pattern — is neutral and inoffensive.

What’s more, it’s almost hidden from view, tucked away down a side street. In fact, it’s so unassuming, so far removed from being a glitzy skyscraper or starchitect’s grand cultural landmark that it took many by surprise when it scooped RIBA’s London Building of the Year award last May. 

Yet there’s nothing accidental about its highly considered design, undertaken by London-based practice Architecture 00 on a surprisingly tight budget for a project of this size — £5.2m. Architecture 00 was approached by Ethical Property, which provides charities with modern, affordable and flexible workspaces, to convert a former, early 20th century shoe-polish factory into offices and other spaces for voluntary and charitable organisations in the social justice and human rights sectors. Architecture 00 and Ethical Property have collaborated in the past, this time working closely to find the 5,010-sq m property, whose previous incarnation was a labyrinthine warren of artists’ studios. “We then jointly created a brief and vision which we presented to a group of UK-based charities and foundations,” explains its architect Lynton Pepper.

The project neatly mirrors the way the architects themselves work. They operate from the Impact Hub Westminster, an affordable co-working space for social entrepreneurs, which houses a drop-in workspace, conference rooms, exhibition spaces and café. Developed in tandem with The Alliance for Inclusive Education, which campaigns for the disabled to have access to mainstream education, The Foundry’s interiors were designed to be sensitive to tenants and visitors with limited physical mobility and “from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds”.

Forging links with the community

In fact, the philosophy and design of the impeccably right-on Foundry — also described as a social justice centre — seem profoundly utopian as well as inclusive. It’s conceived both as a complex of offices for its 380 or so tenants and as a space where local residents and the wider public, too, can enjoy its various facilities — hang out in its café, see exhibitions, use its WiFi and take part in meetings and presentations. “The café, in the ground-floor atrium, is designed to provide cheap food for the tenants and local community,” says Pepper. “There are also roof terraces where both tenants and community groups can do beekeeping and cultivate allotments even when the building is closed, thus making it continually ‘open’ and part of the community.”

 Across the road is Lilian Baylis Technology School, a secondary school, and Susan Ralphs, Ethical Property’s managing director, is keen to forge links with it. 

“We’re conscious that The Foundry shouldn’t just be an oasis for Guardian-reading types.”

Indeed, it’s designed to be the very antithesis of an ivory tower — an informal place where local residents can come into direct contact with the social justice and human rights sectors. Visitors are free to drop by without having to make a formal appointment or provide a specific reason for doing so. The Foundry’s largely transparent, generously glazed street-facing façade itself — deliberately designed to make the building look accessible and inviting — embodies this philosophy. 

Mixing the old with the new

From an aesthetic perspective, the façade is pleasingly cohesive, thanks to its restricted palette of materials, its three, strong horizontal lines separating each storey and a roofline whose zigzagging form is echoed by a concertina-like arrangement of windows on the first floor. The angled windows fulfill a practical purpose too. They’re designed to face away from neighbouring residential buildings so the latter aren’t overlooked.

Yet this unified exterior belies the interiors’ comparatively complex design, which dovetails the original brick building with a new structure adjacent to it built in a former, derelict service yard. While the old factory’s interior has been radically reconfigured — “Its labyrinth of partitions was removed to create an open-plan space that can be subdivided by the new tenants to suit their changing needs.” says Pepper. The new addition houses an atrium, stage areas, meeting rooms, a reception and the aforementioned roof terraces and café.

To help knit the old and new buildings together, windows in one of the factory’s facades, which doubles as a wall in the atrium, have been turned into openings. What’s more, the new annex has taken its aesthetic cue from the factory, many of whose original features have been kept and restored.

“The old factory has a beautiful, robust quality that is hard for modern buildings to match,” says Pepper. “We wanted the new structure to reflect the existing building’s industrial nature by keeping its structure exposed, hence the new extension’s bare concrete soffits and raw-looking materials, such as MDF, timber battens cladding staircases and recycled carpet tiles used for carpeting.”

Meanwhile, many of the old building’s vestigial, industrial features have been kept, although more for practical than aesthetic or nostalgic reasons. True, its exposed brick walls have an undeniably industrial-chic, romantic appeal — as does the very name The Foundry. But several original elements have been cleverly repurposed to fulfill purely functional needs. Some steel blast doors (doors resistant to explosions, found in industrial and government buildings) have been reused as office partitions. More original still, has been the conversion of existing chimneys — once used as flues during the shoe-polish manufacturing process — into a ventilation system which both draws in fresh air and expels stale air.

In fact, sustainability was a key concern for Architecture 00, particularly when it came to finding ways to keep The Foundry cool or warm. “We insulated the old building and its roof to make it achieve the same thermal performance as the new extension,” says Pepper. “The whole project has been designed to have very low U values.”

The façade’s concertina-like windows are orientated due north and south in order to reduce solar gain at the hottest time of the day. What’s more, blinds on the windows reduce glare in the workspaces inside. In hot weather, concrete soffits projecting over the windows on the first floor provide those walking underneath with shade. Conversely, in winter, solar gain obtained from the glazed elements on the exterior of the building as a whole help to heat it.

Designing interaction

Just as The Foundry is designed to be accessible to the wider public — a goal contradicted, ironically, by the architects’ statement about the project which uses needlessly obfuscatory language — so its interiors, down to its smallest details, are intended to foster a community spirit as well as interaction and collaboration between the organisations occupying them.

“The building is designed with psychological nudges to encourage interaction and the exchange of ideas,” says Pepper. “Its timber-clad bridges are wide enough to accommodate meeting tables adjacent to tea-making facilities, which are conducive to chance encounters, while corridors incorporate wider areas that allow for impromptu conversations.”

Not only does The Foundry’s design promote informality and spontaneity but it also intimates that there’s a thin dividing line between work and play. One particularly symbolic — and witty — example of this is the reception desk in the atrium, which can be converted into a banqueting table for serving big, sociable meals.

Dominic writes for the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, Elle Decoration, Vogue, House & Garden and Harper's Bazaar, and for the websites Architonic and How to Spend It (FT). He has co-authored two books: 70s Style & Design and Celia Birtwell. His third book is Living with Mid-Century Collectibles.