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Sidcup gets civic with DRDH’s new library and cinema

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Michèle Woodger

Storyteller negotiates domestic and commercial architectures to help open a new chapter for a suburban high street in south-east London

When architect Daniel Rosbottom, of DRDH, was showing a journalist and photographer around his practice’s newly opened Storyteller library and cinema project (which includes café and residential flats too), he overheard two teenagers talking. One speculated if they were from ‘the papers’. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ the other replied. ‘This is Sidcup!’

Their incorrect but sad conclusion speaks to many towns skirting southeast London/northwest Kent. One simply doesn’t imagine new, art-critic-attracting public buildings existing here. Especially not any supported by staunchly Conservative councils such as Bexley.

In the early mid-20th century, medieval Kentish villages such as Sidcup were developed into the aspirational suburbs of an expanding capital. But more recently such towns have been overlooked. Surrounded by motorways, not central enough to benefit from the attention given to London’s inner boroughs, investment in ‘culture’ is deprioritised by hard-pressed councils. This includes architecturally noteworthy public buildings of the type that might stir local excitement and foster long-term self-belief.

‘Today there is yet again pressure for outer London boroughs to have huge housing increases,’ says Rosbottom. ‘If that is the point, somehow that aspiration must return… so how can we create a civic building that offers a sense of community and pride, and lets people know they are valued?'

Storyteller has a fine civic quality.
Storyteller has a fine civic quality. Credit: David Grandorge

Sidcup has seen incremental positive change since 2012, beginning with a cash injection from the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund (OLF). The library-cinema’s funding model is arguably what convinced the council (a good client) to build it: the sale of the original library to developers, nine new saleable flats, a pre-let agreement with cinema company The Really Local Group, a profit-generating café, and (later) a small, rentable, co-working space. These revenue-generators made the risk-taking of an original budget of £6 million more palatable. DRDH won the competition in October 2018, one of the first to be tendered through ADUP, the London mayor’s architectural framework, and also supported by planners from Public Practice.

Sidcup’s high street has an ‘affordable civic’ architectural-historical style: a 1920s-classical, shallow-columned ex-department store, an art deco faience-fronted cinema (long-demolished). DRDH’s building on a corner plot replaces a defunct Blockbuster. The perpendicular road, leading to the A20, almost immediately morphs into villa-style apartments and retirement flats, so the building must negotiate here between domestic and civic architectures. Turn the corner again and we are behind the shops, in an empty triangle, framed by double yellow lines, loading bays, bin stores and metal stairs to maisonettes. The new building, therefore, must accommodate an unusual mix of uses while responding to different urban conditions and  scales on every side.

‘How can we create a civic building that offers a sense of community and pride, and lets people know they are valued?’

The street-fronting café viewed from the balcony that overlooks it. Credit: David Grandorge
Inside the library’s ground floor reading room. Credit: David Grandorge

Retracing our steps from back to front then, at ground level is the back window of the library, which provides, inside, a charming play of dappled light through leaves of a 150-year-old tree. The apartments, one of which is accessible, enjoy large picture windows and recessed loggias, which help to close this particular corner with a sense of rhythm and order.

A stepped plinth runs along the length of the building, above which an enormous window calmly merges the library with the life of the street. The pedestrian begins by peering down into the protected little den of the children’s section, and winds up level with the study desks. By the time we reach the café, floor-to-ceiling glazing and tiled flooring help the interior merge visually with the pavement.

The rounded entrance, on the corner, is both an art deco allusion and a response to the building opposite, with its octagonal frontage. This drum-structure manifests at a moment of intersection between the scale of the plinth and that of the geometries of the high street. ‘A common theme in our work is trying to create things that can move between foreground and background,’ says Rosbottom. ‘Sometimes these elements figure and at other times they disappear and fall back into the city in some way,’ as is the case here.

The front facade is a tall, narrow, red brick wall above the café window. A traditional Belgian glazed brick subtly shimmers in the northern light. Elsewhere, the bricks have a tactile, hand-moulded, clayish quality. The colour is appropriate: all four buildings on this crossroads use red brick, as does William Morris’ nearby Red House.

  • Above the library window are apartments with recessed loggias facing west.
    Above the library window are apartments with recessed loggias facing west. Credit: David Grandorge
  • The ground floor entrance area.
    The ground floor entrance area. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Out of the multiplex... intimate 50-seat screens.
    Out of the multiplex... intimate 50-seat screens. Credit: David Grandorge

The other three buildings on the crossroads are an ex-Midland Bank, an ex-police station and a showroom-style shop. These bear the vestiges of their former uses with original lettering. On the cinema/library, lettering is blockish and cinematic, but also subtle, cast in shallow red concrete. 

Inside, to avoid a tubular, corridor effect, DRDH again looked to the Red House with its accordion-like succession of smaller and larger rooms. Morris’ belief in the value of high quality materials also inspires. The warm, intimate entrance hall here is the centrepoint from which all other functions stem; flooring and panelling is real wood and the toilets are robustly and attractively tiled. A Changing Places room makes it yet more accessible.

From the hall, we can enter the library, with its copious natural lighting and exposed concrete ceiling, which announces the shape of the building’s lightweight structure. The librarians’ desk is centrally positioned, rather than being a confrontational obstacle in the doorway. Alternatively, we can ascend the geometric, winding stairs to the cinema, lit by a theatrical circular rooflight, and an enormous picture window.

Upstairs are three cinema screens plus a studio (useful for students from the five local colleges). With digital tech replacing bulky projectors, rooms can be intimate while still seating 50 people, therefore succeeding in ‘bringing cinema back out of the multiplex and onto the high street’, observes Rosbottom. The hope is for the cinema to cross-programme with the library. 

The layout of the staircase gives a sense of journey to the top floor cinemas. Credit: David Grandorge
Looking out from the loggia of one of the apartments, the red brick corners of the crossroad are clear. Credit: David Grandorge

Also on this floor is a narrow gallery overlooking the library, fitted with a long bench for co-working, and a smaller room with booths, intended as a touch-down hub for mobile council employees such as social workers.

With such diverse occupants, there was always a chance that the different franchises might become territorial, yet the architecture intentionally encourages cohesion. ‘In an anti-Koolhaas way we don’t play with the hybridity, we somehow subsume it,’ Rosbottom explains.

This building also has a strong sense of self, allowing it to cope with the various uses and abuses its occupants have already subjected it to: extraneous trunking here, haphazard paraphernalia there, laminated posters more suited to library ‘rhyme time’ in the cinema lobby where the architect had envisaged a more sophisticated guest experience, popcorn bags stored on desks... As the occupants grow into the building and come to terms with their co-habitation, one gets the sense that this will settle. And, while the tenants’ tastes might jar with architectural sensibilities, it’s clear that the building is doing what it should in terms of serving the general public.

  • The first floor balcony has  light from the double-height café.
    The first floor balcony has light from the double-height café. Credit: David Grandorge
  • Picture windows give an extra sense of space.
    Picture windows give an extra sense of space. Credit: The first floor balcony has light from the double-height café.

‘I’m interested in the agency of architecture,’ Rosbottom concludes. One of the practice’s early projects was a concert hall and library in Bodø, once voted Norway’s ugliest town. Today it is the fastest growing Norwegian town and European Capital of Culture 2024. While DRDH does not claim credit, its building contributed ‘at least one reason to be proud of the town’. Since 2020, Sidcup high street has seen monthly visits increase by around 30,000. ‘I can’t tell you to what extent our building has been a catalyst,’ he says. ‘But things are accelerating and there is a resistance to the degradation of this high street’. The library cinema certainly contributes to the story. 


GIFA 1,923m²
BREAAM Very Good
Cost Confidential


Architect DRDH 
Client London Borough of Bexley
Structural engineer Engineers HRW 
Services engineer Harley Haddow Consult 
Quantity surveyor Playle & Partners
Acoustics CharcoalBlue
Cinema consultant (competition) Consult
Contractor Neilcott Construction 


Brick Vande Moortel
Precast stone Classic Masonry
Curtain walling Technal
Windows Ideal Combi
Curved entrance doors Geze
Green/blue roof Bauder
Facade lintel systems Wincro
Lifts Kone, Sheridan
Signage Signbox
Changing Places Astor Bannerman
Steel doors Ascot Doors 
Rooflights Lamilux
Blinds Dearnleys
Metalwork Adweld Fabrication
Doors Dorplan



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