Our 2022 MacEwen Award winner tackles food waste, declining high streets and community need, all in one affordable, educational café
Here’s the recipe for Nourish Hub. Take one council with some hard-to-let shops in an area of high social deprivation, and one charity that redistributes surplus food from farms and supermarkets, and blend well. Stir in a generous pinch of cash (£850,000) from the mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund. Add a diligent, enterprising architect – RCKa works well – to help develop a business model and then design a suitable environment. While that’s marinating, run architect-led events to whet the appetite of local people. Once the mixture is set – a pay-as-you-feel community café with a second kitchen for skills training and courses on healthy eating, and an affordable workspace on the side – decorate with bold colour and garnish with foodie frescoes. Nourish Hub is now ready to serve. It should feed thousands of people every week and, if all goes to plan, the charity UK Harvest can withdraw in three years’ time, leaving the community to take over.
It is a smart idea, tackling hunger, isolation and the unnecessary waste of food, space and human potential. And with high streets in decline across the country, Nourish Hub offers a model that might be adopted elsewhere – perhaps with some different ingredients – suggests RCKa associate Anthony Staples. That exemplary quality was one factor in the MacEwen Awards jury’s decision to anoint it this year’s winner.
‘What I like is that this is utterly replicable’, noted judge Denise Bennetts. ‘There are so many spaces which could be put to community use like this’.
RCKa’s vibrant venue sits on one of London’s more obvious faultlines. It transforms five retail units – a former post office that had been shuttered for years – in a block on the edge of the Edward Woods Estate. A line of bollards outside marks the boundary between Hammersmith & Fulham and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, whose stuccoed streets and squares begin on the other side of the road. Turn right out of the front door and the neighbours are handsome houses that go for £4 million. Turn left and Grenfell Tower comes into view. To be successful, the Nourish Hub has to attract patrons from all parts of the community. That called for an open, welcoming character, and led RCKa to initiate a creative, targeted programme of public engagement ahead of the opening.
As well as building awareness that change was afoot – and allay any suspicions about that – the aim was to test the business case and to generate a visual identity for the Hub that ties it to the neighbourhood. The design team flyered homes and places of worship, advertising two events. First came a community painting day, brightening up the shabby shutters of the vacant units with a mural devised by the project’s graphic designer, Bandiera; the architects were on the street, brushes in hand, to answer questions. Soon after, the colourful mural was the backdrop to a free al-fresco meal, where residents contributed recipe suggestions and gave feedback on the proposed uses. Finally, RCKa and Bandiera ran workshops at a local youth club, where children used produce from Shepherd’s Bush market to make patterns and letterforms which were incorporated into the interior design and branding.
The rejuvenated shutters set the tone for the interior taking shape behind, but ditching them was among the architects’ top priorities. ‘Getting wary people through the door is critical’, says Staples. ‘We didn’t want any barriers; the facade should look as open as possible.’
Below a yellow fascia of backlit metal mesh, fully glazed shopfronts reveal an airy room with stylish furniture and a hand-painted ceiling depicting a cornucopia of fruit and veg – imagery derived from efforts at the youth centre. The aluminium frames of the shopfronts are left raw while big sliding doors and opening windows are picked out in bright green. One is the window to the high-spec commercial kitchen, so staff can lean out and chat to passers-by.
The initial thought was that lessons might take place in that space, but after sampling classes elsewhere the architect realised that novice cooks need something less bewildering and more domestic. A separate teaching kitchen is arranged around a giant island within the open-plan dining room, which occupies the three central shop units.
Café customers and students enter together, and are greeted at a dedicated counter. Diners browse a short menu of healthy meals (‘prices are a guide, please donate what you can’) before finding a spot at robust wooden tables. The ambition to create broad appeal seems to have been fulfilled. ‘There’s a real mix of people – some eating for free and others who pay it forward’, says the Hub’s education and outreach co-ordinator, Ffion Hayward. Students make their way to the far end of the room, stopping on the way to pick up crockery from open plywood shelves that line the walls. ‘You are invited to help yourself, like being at home’, observed MacEwen judge Eleanor Young. ‘Nice gesture’.
With the M&E installation and kitchen fit-out accounting for almost half the budget, the architect had to make considered use of the rest – something the judges commended. ‘By picking moments to invest in, they have created a space that is very inviting, and not institutional’, noted Percy Weston. Tables are custom-made by furniture designer Tim Denton, and imagery from the youth club workshops is applied to digitally-printed tiles used for splashbacks, and as manifestations on the glazing.
There are so many spaces which could be put to community use like this
‘We thought hard about the things we have to do, like lighting and paint’, says Anthony Staples, ‘because there wasn’t money to do anything more’. Value was added by working closely with subcontractors. The catering supplier made its first venture into front-of-house woodwork to build the cabinetry, and the shopfront fabricator was induced to forgo powder-coating, making an elegant feature of very inexpensive products. ‘You couldn’t wallpaper the facade for that little’, says Staples. Careful co-ordination of services helps too. ‘I’ve never spent so much time on a reflected ceiling plan’, he recalls. ‘We kept ductwork to the sides so the painting could really sing’.
Numerous thoughtful touches help to make the Hub inclusive. Some groups are easily distracted or sensitive about cooking in public, so the teaching kitchen can be enclosed by a curtain. Its central island has a dropped section to accommodate both children and wheelchair-users, so everyone can work together. Security features that protect offices at the back are hidden to avoid giving any impression that customers are not trusted.
With its quirky details and eye-catching palette, the Hub is an uplifting place. ‘It looks like it could feature in a Jay Rayner restaurant review’, said MacEwen judge Denise Bennetts. For RCKa, though, the principal architectural achievement is not the space itself, but the ideas and the processes behind it. ‘Sure, it’s nice to design something nice’, says Staples, ‘but this project is really about partnerships. That’s where architects – as professional generalists – can be really powerful. Positioning ourselves between a local authority with a problem asset, a community in need and a charity willing to help, we can make all the difference’.
For more on the MacEwen Award and architecture for the common good see ribaj.com/MacEwen-Award
Building area: 420 m2
Client LB Hammersmith & Fulham
Key stakeholder UKHarvest
Capital funding GLA
Project manager Inner Circle Consulting
Graphic design Bandiera
Structural engineer Conisbee
M&E engineer Milieu
Main contractor Carmelcrest
Catering supplier Bettaquip
Facade BSF Group