Architecture review: The 'competing hands' of building a city

Hackney Gardens

Architect Gordon Shrigley analyses the recently completed Hackney Gardens project - Credit: Benedict Luxmoore

Architect Gordon Shrigley takes a look at how building materials can showcase an area's varied history and analyses the recently completed Hackney Gardens project. 

To design a new part of a city requires the diligent architect to consider whether to enhance what already exists or to demolish and start again.

Cities, on the whole, come to be not by the imposition of a grand masterplan, but mainly through happenstance. All cities are the result of many competing hands, each with a unique view.

The architectural character of Hackney, for instance, is the product of 500 years, give or take, of the competing interests of Georgian nobility, Victorian capitalism, local democracy and more recently, the direct result of a housing shortage that has caused us to increasingly build dwellings as short-term investment vehicles rather than long-term homes.

To walk through Hackney then is to experience a complex frieze of historical moments set in stone, brick, concrete and latterly, aluminium cladding. As each building material faithfully records how each generation has come to envision how best to continually rebuild the city and which values they hold true.


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Choosing to construct a house from either stone, brick or concrete can add a sense of longevity and permanence to a building, visually emphasising through material weight the importance the dwelling has as an immutable part of the human story.

In contrast, lightweight cladding can give the impression that a building has only been designed to be useable for a short lifespan, similar to consumer goods, such as smart TVs or mobile phones. However, aluminium-clad buildings are generally less expensive, quicker to construct and easier to recycle than a heavy brick building, suggesting to some that this is the best forward to alleviate the housing shortage.

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How one decides to continually rebuild the city will always represent a complex mix of competing and in some cases incompatible stories continually retold through bricks and mortar.

A good example of how the choice of building material can enhance an existing part of a city is the recently completed Hackney Gardens project, situated between Mare Street’s Narrow Way and St John at Hackney Church. Built by the London developers Thornsett and designed by DLA Architecture, the project includes 58 new homes, a community space, a Scouts' hall, a nursery and the new public space, Prodigal Square.

Hackney Gardens

Approaching Blackburn House in Hackney Gardens - Credit: Benedict Luxmoore

Hackney Gardens

View of Wyles House in Hackney Gardens - Credit: Benedict Luxmoore

Hackney Gardens consists of three buildings, all made from a visually heavy, anthracite blue and dark brown German wire-cut clinker brick, specially fired by manufacturer Janinhoff, in one of the last original ring ovens in Europe.

In startling contrast with the brickwork are also occasional shiny brass profiled panels that break the overall sobriety, although these will also gradually weather down to a mottled darker tone.

Hackney Gardens

Hackney Gardens consists of three buildings - Credit: Benedict Luxmoore

The overall effect of this choice of materials therefore creates a sombre, restrained, modest and refined mood, that sits easily to the side of St John at Hackney’s west-facing façade.

Hackney Gardens

Architect Gordon Shrigley says the overall effect of materials in Hackney Gardens is a sombre, restrained, modest and refined mood - Credit: Benedict Luxmoore

The Hackney Gardens project also includes a new pedestrian path leading from the Narrow Way to Prodigal Square that is accessed via the alleyway between the Santander bank and Vicolo pizzeria. This route also leads to the new community space and allows new vistas and access to St John at Hackney.

Hackney Gardens is a well-designed addition to the centre of Hackney that, through the use of expertly chosen materials, subtle architectural form and intelligent reuse of left-over areas, creates an atmospheric place to live and a new public space to explore.

Hackney Gardens

Hackney Gardens is between Mare Street’s Narrow Way and St John at Hackney Church - Credit: Benedict Luxmoore


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