Studio Egret West’s new building provides an attractive model for the involvement of the private sector in civic life


Christophe Egret and I are standing on Clapham High Street in south London enjoying the spectacle of would-be passers-by being stopped in their tracks. The object of their fascination is a set of seven giant letters that stand in front of Studio Egret West’s new building, announcing, in no uncertain terms, the arrival of a L-I-B-R-A-R-Y. “I wanted to avoid names like médiathèque, life-long learning and idea store,” Egret explains. “It is a library and I think that word is still something that everyone can understand.”

He says he envisaged the letters as having the stridency of the Arsenal sign outside the Emirates Stadium but as realised by the artist, Andrew Logan, they have taken on a fruitier flavour than that model suggests. Smashed-up mirror and back-painted glass are Logan’s preferred materials but he has also incorporated what would seem to be the entire contents of a car-boot sale. Barbie dolls, mobile phones, plates, binoculars, badges, toy helicopters and hundreds of other bits of bric-a-brac donated by local residents barnacle the letters, forging an image pitched somewhere between a Paolozzi collage and Gaudi’s Park Güell.

Sadly, even without such an effective attention-grabber, the opening of a new library in 2012 might give plenty of cause to stop and stare. “The Dr Beeching of the libraries” will not be how Ed Vaizey would care to be remembered but judging by the present rate of library closures — in the last financial year 123 either closed or were taken over by volunteers — the damning sobriquet coined by the culture minister’s shadow, MP Dan Jarvis, is going to be hard to shake off.

It is difficult not to conclude that if the library is to have a future in this country it is one in which the private sector will necessarily play a larger role. In this respect, the Clapham building — which was delivered by way of a public private partnership — offers a compelling exemplar. The London Borough of Lambeth’s key motivation in initiating the partnership was that it owned a pair of properties that had become major liabilities but which it could not, on its own, afford to redevelop: an all but unlettable sixties office tower, which stood on the site now occupied by Studio Egret West’s building, and a pre-war swimming pool that was run down and costing a fortune to heat, which stood on a nearby side street.

In 2006, it therefore issued an Ojeu notice to find a developer that would help to comprehensively redevelop both sites. The council’s terms were straightforward. It would provide the land while the developer would provide a new leisure centre on the site of the old pool and a new library on the site of the tower. And paying for it all? The inclusion of 199 apartments — to be split between the two sites — along with a health centre, to be incorporated into the library building. By this exchange Lambeth would rid itself of two highly problematic properties and gain the leisure centre and library without having to contribute so much as a penny.

Unfortunately things didn’t go entirely as planned. Lambeth appointed the developer Cathedral in 2007, only for the credit crunch to set in soon after. The project stalled and only finally gained traction again in 2009 following two important developments. The first was that the builder United House agreed to take the project on as a joint venture with Cathedral — acting as contractor but also putting in funding. The other was that the Homes & Communities Agency loaned £12.7 million from its Kickstart fund in order to get the affordable housing component off the ground. With these funds in place — and aided by a large number of pre-sales for the market housing — the banks were finally persuaded to stump up the outstanding sum.

The leisure centre and the housing that adjoins it — the work of LA Architects and ABIR Architects respectively — are respectable enough schemes but, blessed with a location on the high street and the rambunctious flair that Studio Egret West has brought to its design, the library building is the clear flagship. Its greater prominence is also a product of its size. Accommod-ating 136 apartments above the ground-floor library and health centre, it is only fractionally taller than the tower it replaces, but that still makes it more than twice the height of pretty much every other building within a kilometre radius.

Judged against any conventional urban design criteria its size is hard to justify, but the building is a good deal less overbearing than it might have been. That is very much a tribute to the skill with which its massing has been modelled and its facades cultivated. For Egret the guiding principle has been to keep the composition fluid. “We tried to make something that doesn’t let the eye rest when you look at it but keeps it alive and animated,” he says.

Fleeting reflections of the sky and street contribute to a sense of visual instability

That has meant articulating the block not as a unified mass but as parallel bands that slip past each other in plan. Their ends are rounded — giving the primary facade a pleated quality — and selectively eroded both as a means of acknowledging the lower neighbours and in order to provide roof terraces. The choice of a split-faced white concrete block with a sparkly mica coating for the cladding further softens the building’s presence on the skyline, although one might query the long-term effects of weathering on such a pale and roughened surface.

Projecting proud of it are five window types, united in their proportions (square or half square) but distributed in a studiously disordered manner. They are boxed out in stainless steel, so fleeting reflections of the sky and street contribute further to a sense of visual instability.

Early Christophe Egret sketch of the library frontage.

Apartments are typically single aspect and as small as GLA regulation will allow, while only those facing away from the street are equipped with projecting balconies. However, there are moments of transformative generosity: full-height glazing at the end of the access corridors; communal roof-terraces, boasting trees and quite fantastic views; and even a bike pre-supplied for every apartment in the basement car park. The apartments have been selling well.

The children’s area has been sited at the very heart of the building

The site enjoys only two street frontages: St Luke’s Avenue, from which the housing is accessed, and Clapham High Street, on which — having made our way past Logan’s letters — we find a combined entrance to the library and health centre. A long ramp pushes the latter to the back of the site, where it is developed as an interior world lit by internal courtyards and skylights. The library addresses the street. Its arrangement draws on Egret’s past experience as Will Alsop’s principal collaborator on Peckham Library.

“There we put the children’s library in a pod which made a lovely, intimate space for reading but I began to wonder whether it wasn’t a shame that we had isolated the children,” he says.

At Clapham, their area has therefore been sited at the very heart of the building — a double-height hall of oval plan around which wraps a Guggenheim-like ramp, carrying bookshelves.

Source: Gareth Gardner

Books are distributed on a ramp that encompasses the central hall.

The Frank Lloyd Wright association has been downplayed by the introduction of an intervening wall into which jauntily disposed openings have been cut. However, a strong sense of continuity — not least acoustic — between the enclosed and enclosing spaces remains. On entering, Egret and I encounter a frazzled adult voice cutting across an excitable hubbub: “Ivan, would you get down from there please — it’s not a seating area!” But Egret is content with this: “Some people think libraries should be silent places but I don’t see why a visit to a library should be any different from going to a supermarket,” he argues. “There are rooms around the outside of the ramp where you can read in peace but the middle is a space for a gen- eration that is naturally theatrical.”

Crucially, given the current funding climate it is also a space from which the library can draw revenue. The children’s books are held in mobile units that describe a cross in the centre of the hall but they can be spirited away to allow the space to be rented out for evening events.

Public private partnerships are far from guaranteed to deliver the level of quality in evidence here. A bleak point of comparison is offered by the recently opened CLR James Library in Dalston, which also occupies the lower storeys of a large housing scheme. Its architect, Muf, was ditched midway through the job and the specifications downgraded. Egret attributes the happier result at Clapham to the exactitude of Lambeth’s original brief and to the fact that Cathedral was eager to demonstrate the attractiveness of the procurement model to other local authorities. It should have no problem doing that. The intrusion of commercial interests into civic life will always offer grounds for concern, but the outcome here is one that citizens and shareholders should be able to applaud with equal enthusiasm.

Studio Egret West
Developers Cathedral Group and United House Developments
Local authority partner London Borough of Lambeth
RSL Partners Notting Hill Housing Trust
Project manager and QS PH Warr
Lighting designer Janet Turner
Structure PEP Group
Services URS Scott Wilson
Furniture Places and Spaces
Planning consultant Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners
Contractor United House
Contractor’s architect DLA Architecture and Studio Egret West (library fit-out)

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