Hackney is a creative community, emerging on industrial land, and nothing seems to epitomise this more than its new cultural arts centre. The sustainable, boomerang-shaped building with amoeba-like windows has been built on what was once a scrapyard by innovative architect Ash Sakula.The Hothouse, which derives its name from Hackney’s huge 18th-century Loddiges Nursery, where tropical or “hot-house” species of plants were cultivated, now incubates local talent. It was commissioned by the Free Form Arts Trust to provide affordable and flexible live/work space for creative companies and individuals. “A lot of disused industrial space in this area is often converted and used by artists,” says Free Form founder and partner Barbara Wheeler-Early. “But in this case, we wanted to practise what we preach, and use the arts for active urban regeneration, by recruiting young architects to create something new, and to add something different to the area.”
Free Form, previously based on Dalston Lane, moved out as landlords caught a sniff of Shoreditch getting trendy, and hiked the prices accordingly. “Traditionally, it was an affordable area where artists thrived,” says Wheeler-Early. “We didn’t want to see that community moving out of Hackney.” The new project arose, quite literally, from a pile of rubble. The land used to be a scrapyard under several guises: a scaffold repair yard; an asbestos-infected shed; and an MOT testing station. Before work could begin, five underground petrol storage tanks had to be cleared and the ground decontaminated. Taking a brownfield site that was derelict and awkwardly shaped – it is squeezed between the London Fields park and the mainline railway viaduct out of Liverpool Street – and turning it into a resource for the future won Free Form the first London Planning Award in 2003. The rounded, three-floor, high-ceilinged building is flexible to meet the needs of different tenants. The ground-floor space provides conference and exhibition facilities. A flexible office space with a mezzanine library occupies the first floor, while there are two roof studios for resident businesses at the top of the building. Workstations can be configured according to an individual’s needs.The outer side of the boomerang – a shape dictated by the unusual site – is a staggered brick wall, screening the rail track that runs behind the building, while buffering the noise and vibrations. The inner side opens on to the public space, London Fields, offering a light and airy space, and a full park vista.Full-length windows on the built-up side are inset at sloped angles, facing away from the track, while still allowing cross ventilation and light. The amoeba-shaped windows that punctuate the brickwork are handmade by blacksmiths in south London from standard steel. “There are only three different shapes at work, but positioned at different angles, they create a random feel, like pebbles,” says project architect Frederik Rissom. “When the sun is on them, they create interesting blotches of sunlight. We were working against a strong accent shape, driven by the site, and wanted to do something with the building to make it a friendly and less serious place. It’s an office building, but it is also fun.“We also felt that it was important for the building to be a backdrop to the park area, and for it to provide a friendly facade.”The rounded building, with its tall ceilings and irregular windows, is soft in shape and character, but slightly more jaunty inside. “The shape was generated by the site, the affordability of which allowed the project to set out in the first place,” says Rissom. “Inside, we felt that we needed a more sculptural feel, which also helped to make best use of the space.”The London Fields-facing side of the building slopes about a metre over the park, giving more generous space to the top floors, without increasing the footprint of the building. “Spatially, it engages more with the park space,” adds Rissom. The building’s floorboards are bare timber and the walls white. The ground floor is finished in polished and waxed concrete – while there is nothing to impose on the individuals that will take residence or exhibit there, it creates the space and ambience to facilitate whatever people bring to it. On top of the building is a decked roof terrace, which provides a more unusual space for events and exhibitions. As it is level with the train track that runs past the building, it is a feature that is designed to perform to the public. The brief involved the provision of a roof space, which would also be viewed by the 20,000 commuters who pass the Hothouse every day on the Liverpool Street to Stansted route.Standing on the terrace, it initially appears that the trains are coming towards you, before careering off along the track at the last moment. It is a building that teaches you not to think in straight lines.Solar panels line the roof, and make up the ceiling of the glass corridor that links the open roof terrace to the top-floor offices. As well as generating electricity, they provide shading, while at the same time offering a view of the sky. Between the building’s completion in November and January, the solar panels generated enough power to sustain five houses. Free Form has yet to see the impact on its bills, but for one shoe designer, operating from the top floor, it adds that extra credibility to his consultancy, which works heavily with ethical fashion brands. He left his job as a salaried consultant to launch a design company a year ago. The naturally lit office space, and his location opposite his friend, a graphic designer who branched out on his own at the same time, suits him perfectly. But the Hothouse is not all about Hoxton fashion. A children’s book illustrator, an architect and an education consultant also operate from the space, where a desk can be rented for as little as £250 a month. The price includes the services of a receptionist and cleaner, and access to meeting rooms, as well as the communal benefits of working around other creative businesses, such as combined advertising and cross-networking. Additional studios and workshops are located within the converted arches of the railway viaduct.The Hothouse is already reported to have had a positive effect on the area’s domestic and business interests. It may be only a corner of London Fields, but the project appears to be doing on a small scale what the Olympics aims to do for east London – only years earlier.