Online | Architecture

Meanwhile in Hackney

London, UK

Architectural studio Turner Works has designed a group of buildings that can support local businesses for at least 12 years, then be completely recycled

London’s Olympic Park is no stranger to temporary buildings. Many of the facilities installed for the 2012 games, including the main stadium, were designed to be dismantled when no longer needed. That tradition continues with Hackney Bridge, a new creative hub on the canal-side western edge of the park. When the site is eventually redeveloped into housing, these playful buildings – with their zigzagging roofs and primary coloured details – can be simply taken apart and rebuilt elsewhere.

The term that architect Carl Turner uses to describe this type of structure is ‘meanwhile’. For him and his studio, Turner Works, a meanwhile building is more than just a fanciful pop-up; it is a space that actively contributes to the local community, despite only having a short-term lifespan. Working with social enterprise Mark Shift, they have already proved it’s possible with the converted shipping containers of POP Brixton and the repurposed multi-storey car park, Peckham Levels. At Hackney Bridge, their third collaboration, they push the concept even further by making it work in a new-build.

The development consists of five industrial-style buildings, arranged around a series of informal courtyards. Facing the canal, the first three blocks are interlinked, providing a series of activity spaces that include a multi-purpose ‘market hall’ and an acoustically sealed performance hall. The fourth block contains workshop facilities and co-workspaces, while the fifth combines creative studios with small retail units. Tenants for these spaces are selected based on the contribution they can make to the local area, rather than by how much rent they can afford. ‘Along with a few other people, I think we’ve trailblazed a whole new way of thinking about temporary site use,’ Turner says. ‘It’s about trying to create a pull effect, where you pull in local people and talent, and you nurture it.’

Although Turner’s original instinct was to frame the buildings in timber, a more obviously sustainable material, engineers Structure Workshop recommended steel to give the buildings the greatest chance of being reused when the site lease runs out. ‘The worry with timber is that it twists and swells, so it doesn’t ever go back together as it was,’ the architect explains. By comparison, steel components go together like a Meccano kit of parts, bolted rather than welded to ensure they can be disassembled and reassembled just as easily.

Everything has been pared back to the absolute minimum. If it’s not needed, it’s not in the building

Other elements of the building fabric were chosen to minimise waste. Plywood was favoured over plasterboard, while the shallow raft foundations (a more light-touch alternative to piling) actually serve as interior floor finishes. Even heating systems were left out where not deemed necessary. ‘Everything has been pared back to the absolute minimum,’ says Turner. ‘If it’s not needed, it’s not in the building.’ This results in a high level of flexibility – it wouldn’t be difficult to add or remove walls, if required.

Make Shift is working with local businesses and organisations to curate a rolling programme of activities for Hackney Bridge, to ensure the site becomes a hive of activity. Set to start as soon as Covid-19 restrictions allow, they will operate alongside resident start-ups that include a microbrewery, a barbers and various food and drink outlets. The ambition is to promote a ‘stepping-stone economy’, encouraging these companies and groups to develop and move on, so as to make way for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Turner hopes that, when the lease is eventually up, in 12 to 15 years, these buildings might be able to repeat this formula in a new location. ‘They’ve been made in a way that has genuine longevity,’ he says. Whether they are split up or find a new home together, repurposed by Make Shift or sold to a developer, what seems certain is that we will be seeing these buildings again in the future.