Tim Abrahams

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Stephen's Centre

Blueprint July 2008

If Stephen Lawrence becomes a name we associate more with architecture than with policing, then we must assume British society has moved forward. As it is, his name is known in public life less for his murder 15 years ago and more for the failure of the police to convict anyone for it, and even more so for the subsequent public inquiry into that failure. The Macpherson Report, better known as the Stephen Lawrence Report, pronounced the police to be ‘institutionally racist’ and uncovered major flaws in their investigation.

The building is – to use a phrase beloved by the public and voluntary sector – an exemplar, which came in on budget at £4.2m.
Campaigning by Stephen Lawrence’s family, particularly his mother Doreen, has led to a change in British law, whereby the police must now keep a record of stop and searches. That the trust set up in Stephen Lawrence’s name should subsequently become so involved in architecture may seem surprising. Yet, it awards the second largest architectural prize in the country and gives out 50 bursaries for the study of architecture and urban design. To find a reason for this shift of focus from law to architecture, one must return to Stephen Lawrence’s life. Before he was killed at the age of 18, Lawrence had completed work experience at an architect’s office and his mother is convinced that this is an area in which he would have thrived. From this germ has arisen a commitment within the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust to commission a piece of architecture – the Stephen Lawrence Centre that opened in February 2008.

In addition, the trust has made a radical proposition about urban planning. One of the organisation’s major tenets is that the quality of our inner cities would be improved if they were designed and built by the people who live in them. Working in the second of the two buildings that constitutes the Stephen Lawrence Centre, Karin Woodley, the charismatic CEO of the trust, develops this idea further. ‘Where the most extreme poverty in the country is, these tend to be the places where there is most regeneration,’ she says.

Her argument continues like this: the young people who live in these areas tend to fail in maths, science and engineering. Professional construction, engineering and architecture bodies are worried by the shortfall in students studying these subjects. Educate people from these impoverished areas, particularly young black men, and you provide Britain with the answer to its own problems.

To employ Britain’s best-known black architect, David Adjaye, was an obvious choice for the trust. The building he has produced is complex. The centre stands on the site of an old Victorian pump station, which was arson attacked almost as soon as it was gifted to the trust by St James Group, the development company set up by Thames Water and Berkeley Homes. Lewisham Council obliged the St James Group to gift the land to the trust under a section 106 agreement.

The interior of the fire-damaged pump house was structurally unsound and was demolished. Although this provided a fresh start, the site was still incredibly demanding. Adjaye’s design is dictated by a network of underwater pipes that relate to the site’s former use, as well as the need for Thames Water to access the Ravensbourne River that flows between the building and the DLR track. As a result, the building is divided into two and connected by a bridge.

Adjaye has maximised its size by adding the second block that is effectively a large cantilever over a supporting podium. Woodley points out an additional wall support to the north. This, she says with no small delight, was added to reduce costs. Penned-in by the Ravensbourne and the DLR to the east and parkland to the north and south, the centre also lies between two building types. The St James Group apartment block sits on the opposite side of the DLR track to the east, proclaiming Deptford as the latest former-industrial area in London to be developed. Adjaye’s trapezoidal building feels like a response to it – a rough diamond as it were.

The expanded aluminium veil that clads the centre is as much a reaction to its bland facades as it is to the architecture of the DLR – the centre can be seen from the nearest station, Deptford Bridge. To the west is a more suburban housing pattern of Victorian terraces. The three-storey building mediates between these two scales as much as the cladding fights against them. Yet it is generous too. Perhaps too generous.

In 2002, Adjaye designed a walnut panelled room to house thirteen pictures of rhesus macaque monkeys by Chris Ofili. The Upper Room, as it became known, ended up in the Tate Britain causing controversy because Ofili was a Tate trustee at the time. It is a shame that discord dogs the collaborations of Adjaye and Ofili, who really bring out the best in each other. Adjaye turned Ofili’s paintings into a whole ceremony with his work on the Upper Room. At the Stephen Lawrence Centre, Ofili has created a stunning 7m-glazed wall for the centre. His abstract pattern for the window begins at the top with eight-pointed stars, which radiate out rhombuses – a reference to the buildings form. The design is printed on a reflective film and laminated between the glass of the curtain walls, creating a shimmering surface that offsets the cladding perfectly. The suggestion, however, that this somehow references the Ravensbourne – a muddy little river – is stretching it a bit.

The window is best experienced on a sunny afternoon from within the building, where the pattern casts shadows on the aubergine walls of the double-height atrium space. The building’s exterior conjours up an image of a West African print on the surface of its interior. The fact that half of the windows have been recently smashed-in, fails to deaden the impact. The aubergine walls are just the first shot of colour in this building. As you enter the enclosed stairwell, the lemon yellow staircase shouts. By the time you have reached the Juliette balcony, the same vibrant colour painted on the underside of the roof has become a backdrop to the view north up the DLR track towards Canary Wharf: a great view and one of the most popular parts of the building among its young users.

The building is – to use a phrase beloved by the public and voluntary sector – an exemplar, which came in on budget at £4.2m. Occasionally it is tricksy, the circular windows cut into the large classroom block in the second building are the kind of extravagant gesture you expect from a student project, but that is part of its charm. This room is reached by a cheeky Perspex-clad bridge, which takes you from the main building to the second by way of a British-made science fiction series from the 1980s.

As is the case with projects like the Whitechapel Idea Store, Adjaye’s work can let itself down when it comes to the finishings. Blaming the contractor – as Adjaye has – isn’t good enough. It is a perennial problem for all architects. Like the Whitechapel project, however, the building’s successes far, far outweigh its shortcomings. Just as Haworth Tompkins’ Young Vic enlivens the senses of the audience before they enter the theatre, so the Stephen Lawrence Centre entreats the users to think about their built environment, before they explore how to best manipulate and create it. With its ambitious mission statement and the extraordinary circumstances that led to its creation, the centre was never simply going to be just a community resource for the Deptford area.

What is impressive, and perhaps a little alarming, is the speed with which they have been co-opted by other bodies to help. The trust’s mentoring scheme, where young people are paired with interested and helpful design practices is still in its infancy, yet the Equality Task Force within the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has already asked the centre to help it deliver a national mentoring scheme for 16-19 year olds. Sarah Ebanja, chair of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, also sits on the RIBA Trust Board.It is right then that the centre, as Woodley puts it, ‘does not feel like a community centre’. Nor does she have a problem reconciling its community use with promoting excellence. ‘If you can raise the bar for young people in a way that they think they can achieve it, they jump to it. That’s what we’ve done… There is no need for us to become a dumping ground for poor people in the community,’ she adds. However, the trust wouldn’t be the first charity with a clear vocational purpose to lose their focus as they chase government funding for dealing with social exclusion.

Although those with no hope need help, if a charity established to help disadvantaged people become professionals, turns into a care organisation, it succeeds in helping no one. Woodley is unequivocal. ‘We’re not going to be the babysitters for statutory agencies. We’re not going to pick up the pieces of their failures,’ she says. The profile of Stephen Lawrence and what the Mcpherson report achieved has given the trust great clout. Along with the academic partnerships that include Central St Martins, Imperial College, Institute of Education, and Oxford Brookes, they also have an impressive range of support from business: Balfour Beatty, BT Property Services, Halcrow, Tesco, and Telereal are just some of their partners. ‘For us, what’s critical is that we’re not totally dependent on government funding. It’s a fool’s game. You are at the mercy of a change in policy. Also, government works on a shorter timescale than is needed to skill-up and create aspiration within some of our inner city communities that are really in poverty,’ she says.

This lack of dependency on state funding is probably just as well, given that Doreen Lawrence was one of the first individuals to openly criticise the selection of Boris Johnson as mayoral candidate. ‘Boris Johnson is not an appropriate person to run a multi-cultural city like London. Think of London, the richness of London, and having someone like him as mayor would destroy the city's unity,’ she said, making reference to Johnson’s suggestion in the Daily Telegraph at the time of the Macpherson Report, that ‘the PC brigade, having punched this hole in the Metropolitan police, is swarming through to take over the whole system’. It is very unlikely that the trust will be as close to this mayor as it was to the last.

There is, however, much reason to hope that the young people who pass through the centre will make an impact on London’s built environment in years to come. Woodley’s argument that the answer to Britain’s inner city problems is to have designers from such places design the regeneration, is contentious. To see big business as the answer to these problems rather than the cause is even more debatable. With Adjaye’s robust glimmering building, however, the trust has created an incredibly strong platform from which to prosecute their cause.