Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Peckham Experiment

Guardian Unlimited Arts | Arts news | The truth about those iconic buildings: the roofs leak, they're dingy and too hot

I used to live in Peckham; I loved it in that part of town. There's a lovely mix of grass roots art activity, gentrification, proper pubs, african groceries and cheap poundshops that I really liked. And I only saw one shooting in two years, too.

I used Peckham library whilst I lived there. It's an incredible building to look at; an inverted L, with bright panels and real presence, hidden behind a set of older buildings and some open public space with a giant canopy over it; host to the Peckham farmer's market and a variety of Gospel Choir ministries on non market days.

As beautiful as this regenerated area was; as carefully designed, conceptually rigorous, etc etc... it was also anti human.

That sounds odd. But I'll give you a couple of stories to illustrate it.

Back in the days of building new towns, the planners laid out footpaths in Milton Keynes. These were to connect residential areas with shopping areas, and they ran through scenic parkland strips, curving, organic,paths; lovely and human, and leafy, and pastoral; the kind of paths to warm the heart of any urban pedestrian.

Except, of course, the meandering routes were not direct, so people cut across in a straight line to cut their journey times. And the trees screened the paths, so women didn't feel safe. So the layout, for all of its intentions, wasn't good in use.

Then there's Vauxhall Bus Station, by Arup Associates. It's beautiful; a cross between a club flyer logo and a 1950s airstream trailer.

Except that

  • it doesn't provide any shelter from wind, because the glass enclosures are open on two sides;

  • the seats are on the outside of the shelters;

  • the angular plains of the roof mean you get rained on as you walk around the wall to get to the stairs down to the tube;

  • one of the shelter areas has been boarded up for six months because (I assume) a bus drove in to one of the supports and ruined the aluminium cladding which has proved difficult/too expensive too replace (I assume);

  • panes of glass regularly shatter, particularly where the bus maps are mounted on frames drilled through the glass;

  • the roof is so high that it provides no shelter from the rain, which blows in at an angle;

  • the lift doesn't work;

  • the toilets don't work

    • On the plus side, it has an LUL roundel that glows and changes colour.

      And so to Peckham Library; a fantastic but not hugely functional building. The inside was covered with the usual flurry of photocopied a4 community notices that are a feature of any and all libraries; considering this, did the architects not take account of that in their plan? Walking to the entrance is intimidating; yet another windblown, semi sheltered imposing blank space to cross, rather than a lively, human, inhabited pavement. You're not *in* the space as soon as you enter; there are lifts and floors to negotiate, and it feels like visiting an unfriendly office. The furniture was looking tatty (not pleasantly worn, you'll note) when I visited, but most of all, the selection of books was really, really poor.

      Perhaps I was expecting too much; but Putney, Westminster and Battersear/Clapham libraries have been wonderful. Perhaps, then, it's an artefact of the different demographic needs in Peckham. Perhaps its an artefact of the spend on the building negatively impacting on the spend for the contents of the building.

      It makes me sad. Perhaps because I spend a lot of my time thinking about the lived experience within virtual architectures on the web, and making sure the design fits the purpose as much as possible.

      It also makes me want to retrain as an architect, in order to do better.

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