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Hackney architecture review: ‘Serious industry is afoot somewhere inside’

PUBLISHED: 11:48 18 June 2020 | UPDATED: 09:19 25 June 2020

Brickfields, at 37 Cremer Street, by architects Witherford Watson Mann, commissioned by the Workplace Group. Picture: David Grandorge

Brickfields, at 37 Cremer Street, by architects Witherford Watson Mann, commissioned by the Workplace Group. Picture: David Grandorge

David Grandorge

In the first of a series of reviews of new architecture in Hackney, Gordon Shrigley looks at an office development which draws on the area’s industrial past.

During the 19th century, the workshops of Hoxton hummed with the sound of bandsaws and lathes, and many of the warehouse buildings that remain from this time suggest, by their generous windows designed to let in as much light as possible and spartan industrial brickwork, the traces of a homegrown Hackney furniture industry, that once included showrooms, workshops, timber saw mills and many skilled jobs for local people.

Today, after a period of decline during the 1980s, Hoxton is now an exciting mix of traditional London pubs and hipster bars, pie and mash shops and Michelin-Star restaurants, becoming a destination, not just for Hackney residents, but internationally too.

The urban challenge though for both Hoxton and Shoreditch, is not to end up a place just for evening entertainment, but to also find a way to support the new digital and creative economies that now use the former warehouses buildings, so the area can provide long-term ‘real job’ opportunities for Hackney.

Brickfields, a new building at 37 Cremer Street, commissioned by the Workspace Group, seeks then to nurture the emerging digital industries that have recently made Hoxton their home, by providing modern office and co-working spaces within a building that has been designed to appeal to start-up companies or single entrepreneurs, who just need a small office or table, a fast Wi-fi and regular cups of artisan coffee.

What is very striking and distinct though about Brickfields is the dark purple Klinker type industrial brick that covers all of the facades, which is produced by heating brick to a very high temperature, creating a very hard surface that has a blackened sintered sheen, reminiscent of German expressionist architecture of the 1920s, and which in the words of the Hackney-based architects Witherford Watson Mann, was chosen to express the “robust generous character of an old factory”.

Brickfields then, signals to the passer-by, that serious industry is afoot somewhere inside. But can a building that houses offices and co-working spaces ever realistically be considered a factory? As all pretence at tectonic rigour associated with ‘classic’ industrial architecture quickly dissipates when you walk through the front door, as the interior has been partly designed in the popular lounge style of contemporary work/life spaces, which attempt to recreate the feeling of home, by adding sloppy sofa’s and ad-hoc shelves, populated with personal effects, similar to how IKEA showrooms try to encapsulate the everyday, with fake books, DVD’s and televisions.

Nevertheless, however odd the sense that Brickfields is architecture’s version of ‘Workwear’ is, externally at least, this is a very serious and modest building, that has been diligently designed to the last detail with much skill and care.

Yes, this is certainly architecture with a capital A and deserves I suggest our praise and hopefully many accolades too.

The new Shoreditch Village, designed by AHMM architects. Picture: Allford Hall Monaghan MorrisThe new Shoreditch Village, designed by AHMM architects. Picture: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Two other interesting projects to look out for is the new Shoreditch Village, designed by AHMM architects, that is currently in construction at 180 Shoreditch High Street and which will include an open-air market, dramatically located under the East London Line viaduct, and a new scarlet red timber community centre for the George Downing Estate, by Sanchez Benton architects, which having recently gained planning permission, is now looking for funding, so eager philanthropist please contact the Boiler House community centre, if you would like to donate.

Gordon Shrigley, architect.

A new scarlet red timber community centre for the George Downing Estate, by Sanchez Benton architects. Picture: Sanchez Benton architectsA new scarlet red timber community centre for the George Downing Estate, by Sanchez Benton architects. Picture: Sanchez Benton architects

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