A London office building by Witherford Watson Mann is shaped by care for those who built it, those who will occupy it, and those just passing by, finds Michael Badu

Buildings.

Words
Michael Badu

Photos
David Grandorge, Hélène Binet, Philipp Ebeling

Of all the works of man I like best
Those which have been used.
The copper pots with their dents and flattened edges
The knives and forks whose wooden handles
Have been worn away by many hands: such forms
Seemed to me the noblest. So too the flagstones round old houses
Trodden by many feet, ground down
And with tufts of grass growing between them: these
Are happy works.

Absorbed into the service of the many
Frequently altered, they improve their shape, grow precious
Because so often appreciated.
Even broken pieces of sculpture
With their hands lopped off, are dear to me. They too
Were alive for me. They were dropped, yet they were also carried.
They were knocked down, yet they never stood too high…
‘Of All the Works of Man’ , Bertholt Brecht

I was sent this poem by William Mann of Witherford Watson Mann Architects a couple of days after we met to discuss his practice’s new building, Brickfields, a managed small business centre in the east London borough of Hackney. Located right beside Hoxton Overground, it comprises 98 studios ranging from 12 to 400 square metres in size, housed in a faceted, stepped, six-storey volume of brown brick, its name emblazoned in orange glaze.

Approaching the building, I realised that I had actually seen it before on more than one occasion without ever considering that it might be ‘by somebody’.  It’s waxy prismatic bearing seems to deny the entropic ‘dust-to-dust’ character that one usually associates with brick in London, so evident in the soot-stained stocks of the adjacent Kingsland viaduct and particularly noticeable in the lilting mound of the Geffrye Museum, which from nearby Nazrul Street appears as some kind of subsiding grade-I-listed agricultural building, but which is in fact a modern extension to the original eighteenth-century almshouse, designed by Branson Coates in the 1990s.  The material quality of crumbly burnt earth is one that a certain kind of London architect has come to lean on quite heavily – sometimes to the point of fetish – yet in the hands of architects like WWM, the particularity of brick can evince an attitude to architectural culture more generally, in much the same way as the classical orders could for the architects of the Italian Renaissance.

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Top, above: Views from the south along Nazrul Street and east along Cremer Street (phs: DG). 

According to Mann, Brecht’s poem expresses WWM’s concern as architects with “the souls of things”. It is possible however to read the poem in a different way, as a paean to the souls of human beings and their emotional lives.  The Branson Coates Geffrye Museum extension could have been inspired by this kind of a reading – architectural design as the emotional expression of its authors – in contrast to the apparent ‘interior monologue’ of Brickfields, where building culture and the DNA of the city appear to manifest unmediated.

Realism and Formalism are poles that dominated the creative life of Brecht, and he wrote lucidly of the problems of artistic work in relation to each. An artist practitioner and Marxist, Brecht firmly held that Realism should be the aim of art but that its achievement necessarily entailed wrestling with problems of form.  The question arises, do these poles also bear on architecture in the same way? The formalism of Branson Coates’ extension is perhaps obvious (perhaps not) but to what extent has WWM addressed the question of form in the making of Brickfields?

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Image from project sketchbook; Geffrye Museum extension designed by Branson Coates; Amnesty International HQ designed by WWM (ph: Hélène Binet).

The early pages of the 216 page ‘sketchbook’ prepared by WWM as a record of its creative process during this project would appear to give the answer “a great deal” to this question.  The pencil drawings, first quite tentatively but gradually progressing in conviction – even while not yet approaching finality – detail how the building’s envelope was fashioned from designing street-level experiences of  its exterior. Kinks to the long elevations – two gentle turns to Nazrul Street and a single more powerful one to the eastern viaduct elevation – give rise to a coffin-shaped plan. Curved facades were briefly considered it seems, but the ‘barrel’ plan that would have resulted from a pair of convex facades would surely not have produced the lyrical confluence of matter and figure that the coffin plan would appear to offer, beautifully encapsulated in a little terracotta model cast by the brick makers.

The pencil drawings of WWM’s sketchbook have almost the unselfconscious utilitarian quality of a carpenter’s, but even a carpenter can’t escape the tyranny of ‘gestalt’, perfected form being the accepted insignia of well-crafted implements such as those rhapsodised by Brecht in his poem.

It isn’t very long (by page 20 of the sketchbook to be precise) before –  if you’ll permit me to paraphrase Mies in a way that he would certainly dislike – problems of form begin to give way to those of building. The coffin plan must be inhabited by useful rentable spaces for work.  Circulation must satisfy myriad technical, legislative and spatial requirements; risers and cores must be sized and positioned for structural stability and services distribution; natural light and air must be admitted deep into the centre of the deep plan in order to make an inhabitable interior; and eventually, there is the problem of materials – the what and the how.

Surely not only brick but also steel was unavoidable: steel because of the economic efficiency it offers when building something of this particular size; brick because the whole area is suffused with it. Nevertheless WWM eschewed what many would consider to be more evocative forms of the trusty fired clay, and this decision is something worth dwelling on.

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Nazrul Street elevation detail (ph: DG); high-level brickwork (ph: HB).

The hard-fired vitreous purple-brown klinker from Bremen (two hues of it), laid on the barely-recessed cement mortar beds which WWM eventually settled on, makes walls that seem dematerialised, in stark contrast to the telluric character of not only Branson Coates’ expressionist extension over the road, but also of WWM’s first building, Amnesty International’s headquarters (2005) a short walk away in Shoreditch. This effect is heightened by the way the brick configuration morphs to suit the situation. There is English garden wall bond on three sides with stop-end brick reveals to openings on Cremer Street. Basket weave and slender piers (non-structural) give the oblique Nazrul Street view a playful sculptural quality. Cantilevered and stacked herringbone to the south-east corner respond to the muscularity of the viaduct. And, in the intriguingly landscaped outdoor seating area in front of the viaduct, low Flemish-bonded walls evoke the terraced houses that would have historically stood in this location, complete with tiled fire places and timber stair stumps – a modest landscape of supportive armatures for rest and relaxation, that are emotional as well as physical but importantly, not sentimental. Higher up, particularly evident in a facade that progressively steps back in order to take account of the rights-to-light of neighbours opposite, a vertically scored (but otherwise standard-sized) brick is employed in stretcher bond, which dematerialises and lightens these high-level walls even more than the ones below, approximating them to a tiled mansard roof running into the back of the distorted Flemish gable that is the Cremer Street facade.