18 MARCH 2006, Page 60

Public faces

Alan Powers

Gloomy academics suggest that, in the modern world, the remaining places where free speech and discussion can happen in cities are public libraries, theatres and academic buildings. Three such buildings in central London are the subject of this review. All are educational, although they differ in the kind of people they serve, and the kind of education they deliver. In Tower Hamlets, David Adjaye has designed two ‘Ideas Stores’, which are really public libraries under a new name. The content differs from old-fashioned libraries, however. The larger of the two, at Whitechapel, includes a café on the top floor, and internet access points are distributed on each of the four levels. Traditionalists would be satisfied, though, by the number of books available in serpentine shelving. In addition, there are many classrooms, and activities on offer include dance and alternative therapy. The Whitechapel Ideas Store stands in a significant position, between the thriving market stalls of Whitechapel Road, with piles of exotic vegetables, and a Sainsbury’s car park and dull-looking supermarket at the back. I’d like to think the latter symbolises the world that is dying rather than the one that is coming to birth, but we can’t be sure.

In the exhibition David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings along the road at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (until 26 March), the middle section consists of a slideshow of Adjaye’s holiday snaps, ranging over many continents, including his native Africa. The message is one of close fit between people and their physical surroundings, natural, traditional or modern. Whitechapel Road is a pretty good context for making a public building, and Adjaye responds to it with a glass tower, composed of panels of green glass irregularly scattered among the plain. From inside, one looks out across the rooftops, sometimes through tinted specs, and sometimes not. It is a fine feeling to be in this Outlook Tower, in the tradition of Patrick Geddes and his early-20th-century vision of public education reborn. Few of the other main projects in the exhibition are yet built, but I liked the look of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham and a new covered market in Wakefield, made with slatted timber.

The south front of the Whitechapel Ideas Store is a double screen of glass, creating some acoustic protection and, although open at the base, perhaps some thermal shielding as well. Inside the gap, a miniature Pompidou Centre escalator snakes up to the first and second floors, but most of the plentiful users on a weekday afternoon came straight off the street, although, almost in a parody of complaints about modern architecture, the entrance needed a piece of paper taped on to it with the word ‘Entrance’ because it is the only solid panel amid all the glass, and opens outwards, so that it could easily be missed. Edwardian libraries may have been pompous, but there was never any trouble finding the way in. The Ideas Store is wide open on the inside, with animated discussions taking place on chairs and sofas scat tered around, and a real sense of having become the centre of the community. The other Ideas Store by Adjaye looks similar but is much smaller, and riding astride an existing piece of 1960s GLC housing near the Chrisp Street Market in Poplar.

The City Lit, one of London’s muchloved centres of adult education, has a new building in Keeley Street, Covent Garden, at the back of the Masonic Hall. The architects are Allies & Morrison, who are sometimes polite to the point of tedium, but they have given this building a distinctive character. The City Lit’s old building in Stukeley Street was a grid of regular windows, where an unnamed genius in the LCC architects’ department in the late 1930s had played with weaving the patterning of the brick courses to add flavour and variety. In the new building, Allies & Morrison have cut a rhythmic pattern from a plain cloth of pale-brown brick, sharing Adjaye’s restless approach to elevation design.

The Institute of Slavonic Studies in Taviton Street, Bloomsbury is part of the University of London, in whose buildings joy has never been the keynote. This could be the beginning of a change, for the architect Alan Short has made a street frontage that adds a smile to decorum, with a scattered but symmetrical pattern of windows tracing the functions of a library within, carved from a deep brick wall. In Victorian structural rationalist style, the window heads are emphasised with triple-ringed arches, and some curly metalwork speaks of Europe in the Belle Epoque, and deeply moulded concrete sills, fancy but not frilly. The central door could never be missed, and, excellent though Adjaye’s Ideas Stores may be, this would do their attention-grabbing job equally well.