Rivington Place, the recently opened cultural centre in east London, is the first new visual arts building to be built in London with public funding for 40 years. It also carries major significance for its architect, David Adjaye, being his first completed arts building.
The new 1445 m2 centre is home to two exceptional arts organisations, Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts) and Autograph ABP, the photographic agency. Five years ago the two bodies formed a strategic alliance to make a permanent public centre for themselves, led by their dynamic vice-chair, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall.
Shoreditch is an historic conservation area of east London where in recent years many designers and artists have set up studios, and Rivington Place is a natural addition to its landscape of art institutions including the nearby White Cube Gallery, Whitechapel Art Gallery and Geffrye Museum. Narrow streets with warehouse buildings still bear strong traces of an industrial past; new shops, bars, clubs like Cargo and the Comedy Club (on Rivington Street), gallery spaces, an art bookshop, design showrooms and restaurants, have added a breath of fresh air.
Now a new building further reinforces the area’s identity as a cultural destination. It incorporates a mix of spaces, including a large project space with floor to ceiling windows on the ground floor visible from the street, a small (50 m2) café at the rear of Rivington Place, a downbeat cul de sac, three workspaces for use by people from the cultural industries and studio spaces, the compact Stuart Hall Library and offices for 20 staff. The gallery’s doors fully retract, assisting a variety of activities: site-specific commissions, photographs and installations including sculpture and multimedia works, and film screenings and talks can be held here as well as in the other studio spaces. The impression is of a good fit between architectural language and spatial solutions, not flashy, precious or dull, but convincingly robust and with a differentiation in character between spaces.
When planning consent for the site was obtained in June 2004, it was vacant, as the nearby Shoreditch Town Hall, which until a few years before had used it as a car park, had sold up. Fortunately for the two organisations, this happened before property and land prices in Shoreditch began soaring, but already the area was becoming fashionable as a place for artists and designers to work. Construction began in February 2006 and staff began moving in from a neighbouring building they had been
occupying in late August
2007. The volume of Rivington Place is similar to that of local warehouses, and its colours and material appearance are also similar to these, while its height matches many of neighbouring buildings. However, from Rivington Street the centre looks bigger than its five storeys - as if it might even be seven or eight. This play with perspective is one of its assets.
The entrance is positioned about 25 metres back from the street on the fully glazed long ground floor (35 metres) side of the building facing Rivington Place, with the door to the café just a few metres further along. The lobby of the centre is not very big in width and depth but it has a three storey atrium, a soaring space providing a strong sense of cultural presence and intrigue heightened by windows punctuating the walls higher up the stairs, and strip lighting inset into their handrails. The word atrium can denote “corporate”. Adjaye’s treatment of the bench by the door, reception desk and back wall fittings evokes mixed cultural references that suggest the past without the need for representational elements. It enigmatically speaks of a special place of cultural creation.
Adjaye’s single façade system has a strong impact both externally and internally, and is a major reason for the building’s success. These are punctuated with rectangular openings within an expanding grid which on the front elevation are the same width but a different height at each successive level. Contrastingly on the side elevations, changes in both the height and width of the grid elements can be seen. This patterning gives the impression of verticality on the south-facing, Rivington Street side of the building, while on the long, east and west-facing sides,
it has the opposite effect, making the building look shorter than it is.
The external cladding is a strongly graphic grid of black precast concrete panels with a shallow section which internally house the insulation.
The windows, double glazed solar controlled and frameless, have deep reveals and are positioned on the inside face of these, while on the outside face they are insulated steel panels with a black reflective finish. In some light conditions these seem hardly distinguishable from the concrete - an intentionally illusionistic effect which gives the façade a pleasing but not overwhelming dynamism.
The centre avoids the hermeticism of many of Adjaye’s earlier private houses. The south facing ground floor gallery, with its own 4 metre high fully glazed street façade, reveals openings as well as art works, announcing the building’s public nature.
Inside the building this checkerboard grid patterning has resonances that affect and diversify the character of individual rooms. Most rooms have windows at two different levels: the lower ones providing views of the street; the upper ones framing the sky. The overall effect of their unconventional positioning and size is to blur one’s individual sense of scale in a way. This singularity of features has the impact of reinforcing the identity of each individual room, with even the smaller ones possessing their own distinct character. Adjaye’s architectural tactic of embedding diversity into his design is also highly suited to the combined home of two institutions which have championed difference in the visual arts, whose opening exhibition, “London is the Place for Me”, explored the presence of the many different diasporic communities living in the UK today.
The centre’s frame and floor structure is made of in situ reinforced concrete with pre-cast concrete cladding and the roof is a pitched, single membrane with a north light section that is commonly seen in industrial buildings. The impact of the windows is perhaps heightened due to the fact that the interior spaces are column-free. Adjaye achieves this by giving the southern part of Rivington Place a clear span of 11.4 metres, supported on concrete walls.
The commissioning body was composed of representatives from Iniva and Autograph. Both organisations champion international, multi-cultural perspectives in the visual arts, and their desire for a permanent home with a good programmatic mix that integrates with its cultural context has been met by a building celebrating the richness and diversity of the arts in the UK as well as achieving these other vital objectives.
Adjaye has proved to be the ideal architect to translate their intentions into a convincing synthesis of built form. Admired for a long time for his striking series of private houses and artists’ studios in London, he demonstrated that he was capable of building at a larger scale when he completed two Idea Stores, new community libraries for the borough of Tower Hamlets in Poplar and Whitechapel in 2004 and 2005, both on relatively tight budgets. This summer the Stephen Lawrence Centre in Lewisham, south London, a community centre in honour of the murdered black teenager who was studying to become an architect, opened and has received good reviews. The Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham - another impoverished area of London badly in need of good architecture - was launched in october. Internationally Adjaye’s operations have expanded, with new offices in New York and Berlin, and more residential and public buildings are completing in the autumn of 2007, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.
Rivington Place is a mature, robust yet also conceptually advanced design which has the confidence to play with scale and succeed. Adjaye’s deft handling of issues of scale and character is consistent, avoiding any sense of an anonymous box of repetitive elements. Instead the implicit influence on his design is his abiding interest in African spatial and aesthetic models.
The building contributes significantly to its context and gives the two organisations a permanent asset closely reflecting their aspirations, while East London gets a new cultural and social hub further strengthening its post-industrial identity and building its future aspirations. Very few new buildings in the area manage to achieve such a goal.