Community was involved from the start of The New Generation youth centre project, which has had a wide, deep impact on its users
The New Generation Centre
RCKa for the London Borough of Lewisham/ MyPlace
I’m asking Sean from Sydenham’s The New Generation community centre about how strange it is that public sector funding cuts in Lewisham mean that they’ve had to combine the juniors and seniors evenings in order to remain viable. ‘I mean, there’s a huge difference between an eight-year old and a 19-year old, right?’ I ask him. He looks at me surprised, before bursting out laughing, ‘Not in this club there ain’t!’ he replies. But then again, since the idea was first mooted to a dozen or so teenagers, told that a run-down community hall and pitch could one day, with their help, become a beacon for the local community, the TNG centre has always been about defying conventions and challenging assumptions. ‘Four years is a long time for a 14-year old to think ahead and when they looked at the semi-derelict site they thought this ain’t going to happen. But when they saw the timber structure start to go up, they realised it was really going to get built,’ adds Sean. ‘It was a life lesson for them that some things take time and effort and patience.’ And for the kids who got involved from the outset in the design of the £3.5 million centre it was there in spades; the initial design workshops with RCKa, appealing to Sydenham Assembly, allaying locals’ concerns by going out to lobby community groups. And the negotiation skills they learned have served them well – Sean says all the teenagers in that steering group went on to further education and into good jobs and their example inspires the new kids who’ve come to occupy the centre. You get that Sean’s intensely proud of them.
While it was this ‘bloody hard’ (to quote Amanda Levete) level of user engagement that really impressed the MacEwen judges, that takes nothing away from their views of the design quality. The project was nominated by the FT’s architecture critic Edwin Heathcote and ‘hit every button’ for judge Levete. Claire Bennie praised the fact that while creating spaces of simple drama, the building was ‘tough, utilitarian and elegant, done cheaply without at any point looking cheap.’
They’re right; there’s a simple power to the volumes created. The architect made the most of a stepped section to create a lofty structure of robust timber with timber cassettes that curiously feel both warm and civic: the huge main reception is nearly 7m high, flooded with light and seamlessly linked to the dining/kitchen area and main hall below, and above to the pool table and study/workshop spaces beyond. From his seat at the reception, Sean pretty much has the whole place in view without any sense of didactic observation or control. Stairs that in less imaginative hands might have been consigned to a core are a fundamental part of the spatial expression; wide, timber, their balustrades elegantly detailed. Three steps up from the lower ground, the landing before the dining space is generous – with a discreet plug in the wall for a DJ’s decks. Like the nook in the reception there are considered little details like this all over the place; RCKa’s Dieter Kleiner was always thinking about how to make the building as flexible as possible, to get as much bang as they could for their buck.
Sean might say it’s loved, but the evidence speaks louder than words: there’s not one sign of neglect or abuse to be seen
That’s reflected in the external detailing too; the transparent polycarbonate corrugated cladding of the elevation, which makes the building glow at night, is reified through crisp detailing of parapets and glazing reveals. It was even used as formwork to create a rusticated base of Ductal, the concrete corrugations not only ensuring a satisfyingly homogenous facade but serving as a foil to both kicks and spray cans. Everything about it speaks of a firm firing on all cylinders; even when the budget came in £600,000 over budget, savings were made without recourse to losing the ‘winter garden’ bordering the outdoor pitch. With big rolling doors that slide open, to call it a mere spectator area would be doing the space a real disservice. Running the full length of the building and about 10m high, its scale is staggering for a local community centre serving kids, mums and toddler groups and an over 55s film club. RCKa’s Dieter Kleiner hopes they’ll move in a couple of trees or grow tomatoes: I’m thinking climbers.
But despite its size, the building has a familial, domestic feel to it. Sean might say it’s loved, but the evidence speaks louder than words: not one sign of neglect or abuse to be seen. Kleiner links the centre’s evening events, from X-Box and ping pong to the climbing wall, with evidence that youth crime figures have dropped since it opened in 2014. The kids have stuck anti knife crime posters all over Kleiner’s supergraphics in the reception, but he’s not bothered; he always believed the centre was all about the users and Sean agrees. ‘Getting this built was one of the best experiences I’ve had with young people,’ he says. ‘In the end they could come in and say “we designed this”.’