Stephen Lawrence’s legacy lives on

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AWARD SCHEME: Stephen Lawrence

 

THE STEPHEN Lawrence Award (SLA) was set up as a memorial to Stephen Lawrence’s unfulfilled ambition of becoming an architect due to his tragic and untimely death in 1993 and is directed towards rewarding the best construction project valued at less than £1 million.

Due to this level of construction value, the SLA tends to identify up and coming architectural talent. The Marco Goldschmied Foundation funds the SLA and the winning project is based on a selection from a shortlist of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) regional and national prizewinners.

In 2013, the winner of the SLA was AY Architects (AYA) with the Montpelier Community Nursery in Camden, North London, an affordable childcare nursery for two to five-year-old children. The selection panel for the award was comprised of Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen, Marco Goldschmied (previously a partner at the Richard Rogers Partnership, the authors of the Millennium Dome and the Lloyds buildings) and the winner from the previous year Mary Duggan of Duggan Morris Architects.

On a sunny summer morning, I meet with Yeoryia Manolopoulou and Anthony Boulanger, the founding partners of AYA, at the Montpelier nursery.

As we walk around the secluded nursery, which opens onto Montpelier Gardens, currently being refurbished as a part of the regeneration attracted by the nursery project, Yeoryia tells me about how their children used to have places in the nursery and this became the start of their involvement with the community there.

“The nursery had been operating from a dilapidated portacabin through discussion with local parents we felt strongly that a new replacement building would be a more appropriate use for the site and provide a long term sustainable solution in the community for affordable childcare,” she says.


CHILD’S PLAY: Yeoryia Manolopoulou and Anthony Boulanger, the founding partners of AYA, at the Montpelier nursery

The nursery is a registered charity, one of the last of a dying breed in Camden, and Yeoryia and Anthony worked closely with the charity trustees and the voluntary members of the nursery’s management team to fundraise and initiate the project as an ecological facility within the neighborhood.

Eventually they coordinated a successful Capital Grant application, which covered the building costs and persuaded the London Borough of Camden to give the project their full support.

“Funding came in stages so the project developed in stages, first the nursery building, then the landscape outside which was conceived as a continuation of the main flexible play and learning space, then the technical shed with the edible planting and so on,” says Anthony.

As they speak, I am struck by the level of personal commitment they have made to this nursery and the pride they clearly take in this fact. It reminds me of one aspect of the traditional role of the Architect as facilitator to the community, perhaps generally not such a popular idea in practice these days, and how positive it is to see this idea being an integral part of the ethos of a young practice.

After the demolition of the existing nursery, the new building was positioned closer to the adjacent Montpelier House (dating from the early 1900s it is now used as a base for Camden’s Secondary Behaviour Support Service), which increased the size of the garden. It also allowed the footprint of the new nursery to be nearly fifty percent bigger than the original building, which therefore increased the number of nursery places from 18 to 24. The new nursery building opened in April 2012.

The structure of the building is made up of cross-laminated timber panels with an exposed white washed interior finish. This means that the services – light switches, cabling, etc. – are generally all exposed and neatly grouped together following the diagonal grid of the building structure.

“We wanted the children to understand how the building was made, how it works… we kept the interior as neutral as possible… and let the children’s work animate and colour the space,” says Yeoryia.

The exterior is clad in ebony stained Siberian larch decking. “The dark colour was chosen as continuity with the tree trunks in the garden,” Anthony interjects. “The roof is made up of a series of angled planes to echo the form of the surrounding Victorian house rooftops and to allow for a series of north and south facing strip roof lights. This is then topped off with a sedum roof, which on the day that I visit looks fantastic.”

There are certain key moves within the architecture that suggests a deeper level of thought and a keenness to maintain a spirit of openness to the surrounding context than a more typical building of this type and budget. Moves such as the slender bench that is offered up as a seat for people using the gardens on the south facing elevation beneath the Quiet space window, or how the layout of the cycle track and paving in the landscape references the historical fountain that used to form part of the original Montpelier Villa.

Later, we move inside the building and walk through the central learning and play space as the children rush in from the garden to the Quiet space for some reading. We are drawn towards the kitchen as the smell of something tasty wafts over to us. We have a chat with Esther, the nursery chef, who is cooking ‘Jerk’ chicken for the kids’ lunch. The space seems to encourage these informal interactions. ‘We wanted a connection between this space and Esther with the kitchen… she has been working here for more then twenty years,’ says Yeoryia.

The central learning play space gives the staff the flexibility they need to run the nursery efficiently whilst also allowing the children to creatively occupy the building. There is a Quiet space off to one side for more intimate learning and then a series of free standing enclosures which provide toilet and kitchen facilities with storage.

Finally there is an office, which can double up as a teaching space, for admin and a reception from which the entrance and all the other spaces can be monitored. All of the spaces are orientated towards external views. The main play space looks out toward a large central tree in the garden, the office looks to the external landscape as a whole, the Quiet space window frames the view of the adjacent Luther-Tyndale Memorial Church and the rooflights bring in views of the sky and surrounding rooftops. A good level of ambient light is always maintained in the main central space by this arrangement of window and rooflight without over-heating the building or requiring artificial light.

Since winning the SLA, AYA have enjoyed the raising of their profile and now receive a significant number of invitations to compete. When I ask for their views on the nature of competition for small practices they are very positive.

“We are selective about which ones we do, they can be frustrating and they are not always run very well, but they are useful for us to develop our ideas and the ethos of the practice,” says Anthony.

“I think competitions are great. If only there was a healthier culture of more competitions in this country, and more valued with financial support, this would be great, but there must be a greater commitment to realizing the buildings,” Yeoryia adds.

Both Yeoryia and Anthony teach as well as practice as architects, which they see as parallel activities that occasionally overlap.

“Teaching is a place to debate ideas about what architecture is… intellectually and aesthetically,” says Yeoryia.

Anthony continued: “The one influences the other, practice based work influences research (and vice versa). Practice submitted work can be used by universities to attract national research funding. If the work is recognised as being of a high enough value this forces us to ask questions about what our practice is doing.”

“One of the problems is that architectural research is often associated with writing… design work and buildings are not as much recognised… you need both,” Yeoryia went on.

Considering that this is AYA’s first public building, it is impressive in how successfully it has been conceived, developed and delivered.

We must hope that this new talent has the opportunity to do many more public buildings. It’s not often these days that you hear architects refer to their client as ‘extended family’ but when AYA do it shows the level of commitment that they have not just to a building that executes their ambitious ideas, but also to the people and community that will use the building that they have designed.

However AYA point out that they do not want their designs to be over shadowed by the title of ‘community architecture’.

“There is a contribution to our community, but we also want it to be a contribution to architecture. We want to make sure the architectural quality is strong,’ says Yeoryia.

This, it seems to me, is an approach, which is truly in the spirit of the Stephen Lawrence legacy.

In : London

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