Vivid colour and whimsical touches enliven an east London co-working space by Estudio Cano Lasso

Buildings.

Words
Chris Foges
Photos
Iwan Baan

Second Home London Fields, the fifth in a string of co-working spaces to be opened by Sam Aldenton and Rohan Silva, is a family affair in more ways than one. First, it incorporates a nursery for the convenience of working parents. And second, the renovation of the existing pair of buildings was undertaken by Madrid-based Estudio Cano Lasso, whose partner Gonzalo Cano is brother to Lucia Cano, a partner in Madrid-based Selgas Cano, who designed all of Second Home’s existing spaces – and is also Aldenton’s wife’s aunt.

Cano Lasso’s work in east London bears a strong familial resemblance to the diverse Second Home projects delivered by Selgas Cano, which include a London bookshop and a school in Nairobi, as well as a forthcoming outpost in LA. “It meant that the learning from previous projects wasn’t thrown away”, says Rohan Silva, “but also allowed a new firm to respond to the brief.”

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Top: Held clear of the facade by steel tripods, the ETFE ‘veil’ is self-cleaning, fire-resistant and reduces transmission of infrared light to combat solar gain in summer
Above: Reception area with recessed seating; ground-floor workspace with retractable tables

That programme comprises common spaces including a cafe on the ground floor, and a mix of small studios and shared offices with private breakout spaces on three floors above. “It’s easy to work for Second Home”, says Gonzalo Cano. “They want colour, nature, light and to do something interesting on a controlled budget.”

“They also said ‘Please do something intriguing with the facade’, to give a sense of what is going on inside and show that there is new life in the city.” Cano Lasso’s response was to replace small windows in the 1960s facade with full-height glazing, and wrap the whole elevation in an undulating outer skin of translucent ETFE, inspired by Frei Otto’s experiments with soap bubbles. The radical alteration, along with the new mix of uses, led to a two-year planning delay. “All London planners seem to say they want ‘calm’ – which means grey or brown”, says Silva, “and they want a precedent, which by definition means you can’t do anything new”.

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Shared workspace on the first floor of Morley Hall

Though Second Home believes that it is important to be “be honest about, and celebrate change”, says Silva, it has also made a conscious choice to reuse existing buildings, as the most sustainable option. At London Fields, the development covers two conjoined buildings: to the rear is the surviving piece of the nineteenth-century Morley Hall, which was bomb-damaged in the second world war and crudely repaired in the 1960s, when the modernist front portion was also added, facing Mare Street.

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Above: New apertures in the floor plates help to distribute daylight through the building and create a sense of connection between spaces; cork baffles and houseplants form natural accents throughout the building

The architects have had to weave a new plan around its close-spaced columns. On the ground floor, they are enclosed by partitions of back-lit polycarbonate, incorporating recessed seating. The luminous lining introduces a rich and highly textural palette: recycled wood-wool ceiling panels, felt curtains, wall coverings of perforated metal and pimply orange plastic, and mats of living moss inset into floors.

It is a distinctive mix of conspicuously natural materials (baffles made from aromatic cork are suspended throughout the building, along with hundreds of houseplants) and those that are overtly synthetic or industrial. The profusion of glossy petrochemical products does not compromise Second Home’s commitment to sustainability, suggests Silva; transparent materials are necessary to ensure good daylighting, and the greater heat required to curve glass makes single-use plastics the greener option.

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Shared workspace; studio space

Within the shared workspaces on the upper floors, plastic partitions enclose round pods for private conversations or small meetings, as well as sinuous configurations of shared desks. “We are always trying to strike a balance between privacy and communality”, says Silva. On the ground floor, another shared workspace is readily convertible into an event venue, as hinged tables fold up against the walls, and round desks retract into the ceiling, where they double as light fixtures.

Some degree of collectivity even pervades the enclosed studios. Portholes looking into adjacent spaces and plastic ribbon windows at the tops of the curving walls create a sense of connection between the studios and the wider office landscape. The eccentrically shaped rooms are “mysterious, like nature ­– you can always find a different point of view”, says Gonzalo Cano.

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Baby room designed by Kennedy Woods, architect of the nursery for N Family Club. The practice also created a roof-top play space.

Start-ups occupying these spaces face the same competition for talent as the tech giants who pour huge resources into their offices, “not because they are narcissists but because they think it will help them attract the best people”, says Silva. “We ask how we can do that for smaller companies”. The answer does not lie in the approach taken by clone co-working spaces – “which are awful for the city, and awful for the kinds of creativity and innovation that we are trying to foster” – but in providing architecture that responds to the specifics of each location, a lively cultural programme, and facilities such as the nursery that small firms could not afford individually.

The nursery, which is managed by an independent operator, allocates some spaces to parents who don’t work in the building, and Second Home was also keen to ensure that the architecture encouraged local people to enter, use the cafe and perhaps meet members. After all, says Silva, “If you really believe that diversity makes creativity stronger, you want people to bump into each other”.

Credits

Architect
Estudio Cano Lasso
Nursery architect
Kennedy Woods
Environmental engineer
Richie & Daffin
Structural engineer
Webb Yates
ETFE designer
Lastra & Zorilla
Prime contractor
EXA