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Architecture review: ‘I simply am - big, red, tough and bold’

PUBLISHED: 12:17 28 August 2020 | UPDATED: 18:12 28 August 2020

Architects Henley Halebrown's new development  at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas Kane

Architects Henley Halebrown's new development at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas Kane

photo © Nick Kane 2017

In his latest review, architect Gordon Shrigley looks a “bold” development in the Kingsland conservation area.

Architects Henley Halebrown's new development  at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas KaneArchitects Henley Halebrown's new development at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas Kane

In 1967, under the then Labour government headed by Harold Wilson, the Civic Communities Act granted local authorities the power to designate parts of their boroughs or towns as conservation areas, to help preserve areas of historic interest from the threat of the developer’s bulldozer.

Conservation areas are in general a public good, as they help maintain a neighbourhood’s identity by keeping what is considered to be of historic value and by guarding against any new development that would be to the detriment of the area.

However, conservation areas have also been used as a tool to hamper regeneration too. In the wrong hands, the power to curtail development can sometimes lead to historic neighbourhoods being set in stone, effectively curtailing the organic need to renew, which any city or town requires.

It is only a brave and forward-looking local government therefore, that would encourage bold new development within a conservation area as such decisions carry much political risk. In an ever changing and uncertain world, maintaining the character of a neighbourhood can often be a fervent priority of many voters.

Architects Henley Halebrown's new development  at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas KaneArchitects Henley Halebrown's new development at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas Kane

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A recently completed school and residential building located in the Kingsland conservation area, is a good test case to judge how Hackney Council is responding to the need for new housing and schools within a protected part of the borough.

Architects Henley Halebrown's new development  at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas KaneArchitects Henley Halebrown's new development at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road. Picture: Nicholas Kane

The new primary school and residential tower, located at the junction of Kingsland Road and Downham Road, replaces a former 1960s fire station and includes a three-storey primary school and an 11-storey apartment block, which, in the words of the Hackney based architects Henley Halebrown: “Combines a school for 4-11 year olds, 68 apartments and a commercial space. The mixed-use scheme is comprised of two distinct building typologies, a courtyard or ‘cloistered’ school and a residential ‘point-block’.”

Both the school and apartments clearly meet the borough’s need for high-quality school buildings and well-designed affordable dwellings. The school is a tribute to modern well detailed design and the owner of the apartment tower, the housing charity Dolphin Living, rents half of the flats at 20 per cent below market rent, which for a 1-bedroom flat equals £272.00 per week.

What is of particular interest though is the radical boldness of the buildings, as both the tower and the school, through both materiality and proportion, communicate an uncompromising formal modernity that simply says to the passer-by, here I stand, I do not cower before you, I do not pretend to be something I am not, I simply am - big, red, tough and bold.

This is particularly evident within the residential tower, whose facades have been designed to express the simple yet fundamental basis of all architecture, the post and the beam. The tower is visually held aloft by a series of sand-red two storey columns, that support massive concrete beams at each intervening level giving the building the appearance of a stacked spartan temple, a symbol perhaps to the enduring politically red character of Hackney as a whole.

As an example of how to build within a conservation area, this building would appear to break all the prevailing rules of both grace and gentility, but the very fact that it does and the way that it does it, is testament to both the architects bold vision and skill, and also to Hackney Council’s planning department too, who through their foresight and understanding of what the borough needs, are fast developing Hackney into a centre of international architectural excellence.


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