Turner Works mixes low-cost workspace and a leisure destination in a development that seems well suited to uncertain times, finds Louis Mayes

Buildings.

Words
Louis Mayes

Photos
Tim Crocker

Turner Works’ office in east London allows a view of the Olympic Park, where the practice has recently completed Hackney Bridge, a £4.6m development comprising temporary workspace and public facilities including a market hall and cafes. From here, one can also look south across London towards two previous projects designed by the practice – Pop Brixton and Peckham Levels – where the DNA of the latest work evolved. All three were developed and are operated by Make Shift, of which Turner Works principal Carl Turner was a founding director, but from which he has subsequently stepped down.

Hackney Bridge sits on a plot leased from East Wick & Sweetwater on land owned by the London Legacy Development Corporation and comprises five buildings. Public facilities (the market hall, events space and food and drink vendors) occupy three buildings forming a ‘quayside’ to a canal. Across a communal yard, the ground floor of another building contains cafes and makers’ shops, while co-work spaces and artists’ studios sit above.

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The intention behind the development is to allow residents of surrounding boroughs to start businesses in no-frills workspace with affordable rents, and though the programme is based on extensive consultation, it also builds on the same model as Pop Brixton and Peckham Levels. “Hackney Bridge channels revenue from food, drink and events to support the social enterprise aspects of the project”, says Turner. The relative isolation of the site means that Hackney Bridge needs to reach a certain ‘critical mass’ to succeed, drawing visitors to a destination.

Clockwise from top left: similar projects by Turner Works include Pop Brixton (2015), a ‘meanwhile use’ workplace and entertainment district built from shipping containers for Make Shift; Peckham Levels (2017), also for Make Shift, is a workplace campus built within a disused multi-storey car park; Wool Yard (2016), for landowner Mansford, was a proposed ‘meanwhile’ use for a London site comprising spaces for cultural industry start-ups, makers and food businesses; Coachworks – a collection of light-industrial buildings converted into workspace with a co-working incubator – was established in Ashford, Kent, in 2019.

Make Shift has typically rented spaces from local authorities on short ‘meanwhile’ leases, meaning that the business model is based on revenue not capital growth. Typically the landowner is paid a percentage of either revenue or profit. The model has proved successful: Pop Brixton now attracts a million visitors annually. “It was meant to be in place for two years, but it’s now been extended to six on a year-by-year rolling contract”, explains Turner.

Walking through the Olympic Park today is a strange experience, imbued with a sense of nostalgia not just for the lost industrial district, but for the 2012 Games, which has left stadia littered across the area, interspersed with infrastructure, heavily landscaped green space, and sites earmarked for future development such as that occupied by Hackney Bridge. “It was the first time that we’d dealt with an open site, and our approach could also have been a collection of super-small buildings, or streets”, explains Turner. Initially the architects wanted to connect the scheme to the nearby canal towpath, but existing below-ground services hindered this, and also informed the massing of the buildings and the use of 300mm-deep raft foundations. Another motivation for the shallow footing was sustainability: it makes little sense environmentally or economically to over-specify materials in a project that has a lifespan of just 12 years.

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“What’s interesting about Hackney Bridge’s approach is the temporary versus the compliant”, suggests Peter Laidler, director of engineer Structure Workshop. “It’s a design balance between the economical and environmental”. Achieving the economy necessary to make the project viable was challenging. Pop Brixton was constructed from shipping containers, and Peckham Levels reappropriated an existing car park, but Hackney Bridge is built from scratch, “and the LLDC ensured that regulations were complied with – on lift access, insulation and so on”, says Turner. “They understood the temporary nature of the project, but didn’t relent on any codes”.

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The public events space is thermally and acoustically insulated but the market hall is uninsulated – partly on the basis that the carbon cost of the insulation itself would be greater than the energy saved over the short lifespan of the building.

“We’ve designed something that’s entirely demountable” explains engineer Max Clayton. “The robustness of the steel frames and their easily reversible connections makes them highly transferable”. Though the original intention was to use an environmentally friendlier timber frame, it would spring and twist when taken apart. The spacing and proportions of the intended timber frame are retained in its steel substitute, however. It hasn’t troubled the design team that a structural brace runs across a window, for example. Rather, this is celebrated as an expression of the utilitarian ethos of the building – and is perhaps a more honest approach to using industrial materials than the aestheticised nods to the area’s industrial heritage found in many recent buildings nearby.

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Studio space and market hall. The project was delivered under a design & build contract, with Turner Works novated, and had a construction cost of £4.6m.

The five buildings are clad in corrugated aluminium or black timber, with their uses denoted by differently coloured windows. Internally, walls are lined with ply or OSB, giving a relatively neutral and homogenous finish. “We wanted the buildings to be fairly empty vessels, and then to take on a life on their own”, explains Turner.

He also suggests that the scheme might be “a physical canvas for the local community”, a counterpoint to the sorts of development more commonly found in the area, which displaces local jobs and raises rents. It is easy to be sceptical about this, and there has been controversy around the alleged gentrifying effects of Pop Brixton, for example, but Turner can point to an impressive range of small local businesses to have emerged from that environment, which crucially is also commercially viable.

It might also be said that the arrangement of the buildings at Hackney Bridge is a little introverted, but in the context of the Olympic Park this seems appropriate.

The important element of this project is its functionality and flexibility – which was intended to cater for the widest range of potential tenants, but has also proved useful in allowing adaptation to social distancing measures. Despite the direct approach to construction and no-frills ethos, however, detailing of the permanent elements uses some quite ordinary materials in a beautifully refined manner – such as the normally roughly cast upstands grouted into the slab. This suggests a level of thought that raises quality without increasing the budget, as well as suggesting a strong relationship between consultants.