Hawkins Brown has reinvented the 2012 Olympics media centre as Here East, a campus for creative organisations and digital business. Carl Turner takes a tour

Buildings.

Words
Carl Turner

 

Here East is on the fringe of London, or at least it feels that way. Shuttle buses bearing the same dotted livery as the buildings ferry visitors and workers back and forth to Stratford and civilisation beyond. Arriving there is surreal, like stepping onto a giant film set, but that goes for the whole neighbourhood in the former Olympic Park. I’m not saying that’s bad, but it is (perhaps) one consequence of meticulous planning.

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The Gantry (ph: Rory Gardiner; above: aerial view (ph: Jason Hawkes)

What is Here East, I hear you ask? Well, it’s a legacy project (of the Olympic variety). The creative reuse, to designs by Hawkins Brown, of the Press and Broadcast Centres built for the 2012 Games by Allies & Morrison. In total 1.2m square feet of space is repurposed, costing a little over £90m – and at £75/sqft this should be considered excellent value. It’s a real giant. A behemoth. A ground-scraper actually.

Here East comprises several elements. The Press Centre is located nearest the canal and is the smaller block, a David running almost parallel to the Goliath Broadcast Centre. These are connected by a 950-seat theatre (once used for Olympic press briefings) at the north end of the campus, and the spaces between and around the blocks have been playfully landscaped. The Press Centre mostly retains its original cladding of corrugated sinusoidal anodised aluminium, but its visible services elements and brise-soleil are now picked out in a cheerful bright yellow. A new steel pergola structure has been added, which marches confidently along the canal towpath signalling the arrival of much-needed food and drink businesses (independents of course, well sort of).

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The Press Centre overlooks the Lee Navigation and a new canalside park (ph: GG Archard)

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The Press Centre has been converted into The Fabric Factory (ph: RG)

The canal towpath, now a linear park, is a fabulous asset for Londoners. The canal marks the divide – and that’s an apt word – between the orderly Olympic Park and the chaos of Hackney Wick. It’s good to see a houseboat community flourishing along this stretch, and on hot summer days this is a fabulous emerging neighbourhood.

The majority of the Press Centre is taken up with space for ‘start-ups’ and ‘scale-ups’ in the Plexal Innovation Centre, designed by Grimshaw; basically these are curated workspaces, including both co-working areas and space for individual organisations. The Broadcast Centre is the centrepiece. This 280-metre-long shed has been radically transformed. Along three sides, the previously windowless building has had a new 16-metre-deep ‘crust’ of flexible space surgically inserted into the existing structure, and new glazed curtain walling wraps and illuminates these spaces. Eight million dots providing solar shading have been digitally applied to the glass facades, helping the project achieve a laudable BREEAM Excellent rating. These were inspired by the dazzle camouflage of first world war battleships (why not?). Along with new bright orange projecting balconies, supergraphics on giant louvres, the existing structural steel also picked out in orange, and some more yellow pipes, it helps to break up the colossal scale of the building. It’s colourful, fun and engaging and it really works. And the matching buses are cute, I’ll admit it.

Bespoke reception desk (ph: RG)

Broadcast Centre workplace (ph: RG)

So much for what it looks like on the outside. Inside, the building houses a cornucopia of uses. Broadcast studios for BT Sport, dance studios (Wayne McGregor), Loughborough University and UCL have all taken space within the building, with other cultural organisations set to relocate here in the near future. The UCL facility, also designed by Hawkins Brown, houses an offshoot of the Bartlett School of Architecture cross-bred with UCL’s engineering faculty. They have studio space, Harvard-style lecture theatres and a really impressive main auditorium with yellow steps. From the top of the auditorium, visitors can peer into the future and watch robots at play in the vast workshop and manufacturing spaces below, making use of the huge volumes available within the building. I’ll expect to see houses being rapidly erected by automatons (without builder’s cleavage) here in the near future.

The most recent addition to Here East is The Gantry. This colossal row of oversized external shelves at the rear of the Broadcast Centre once housed the technical kit required in the building’s previous life. Now, a collection of imaginatively decorated giant monopoly houses sits at intervals along two steel decks, connected by snaking bright red external stairs. These are studios for creatives managed by The Trampery, which runs other shared workspaces in London. There’s a mix of sizes and types: some are single-level, some have two floors and can be shared by more than one person, or a small organisation. The gaps between the buildings are generous and envisaged as outdoor space for making or for interaction between the occupiers of different studios.

The Gantry has only just been completed and awaits the first occupants but I’m sure it will be a very popular place to work, and the rent levels do seem affordable. It should also be said that these houses are constructed using an ingenious CNC-cut plywood technology called WikiHouse, that has been modified and improved as a result of the research for this project. The cladding of each was inspired by local buildings that once stood in the area, and stories of its past industrial heyday.

The Gantry packs a visual punch and should become a hive of activity. It has stupendous views over the Olympic Park, but these will in time be foreshortened by the construction of new homes and a mix of other uses planned to wrap around Here East.

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Modular timber studios occupy the back of the former Broadcast Centre (ph: RG)

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The Plexal Innovation Centre, by Grimshaw provides technology workspaces in the former Press Centre (ph: Quintin Lake)

And that’s the point. The complex may appear isolated at the moment, but as the subsequent phases of the legacy plan are built over the next few years, with more bridges to link the Park to Hackney Wick, and as the Wick itself increases in density, this place should evolve to become a real piece of the city. For the best result, the London Legacy Development Corporation will have to loosen its grip and allow a little more of the chaos of the Wick to drift across. Whereas that bustling district has evolved organically as a consequence of circumstance, Here East has been planned and carefully curated; a deliberate attempt to build a creative digital campus. Even so, it is not sterile: science parks have come a long way. Here East has taken real courage and vision and a long-term strategic approach to placemaking. It’s an exciting place to visit and looks like a fun and stimulating environment in which to work or learn. It’s a blockbuster.

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