Dame Vivien Duffield is a benefactor who likes to lead. Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands designed her Jewish Community Centre in London, which celebrates culture rather than religion, but couldn’t have done it without her

Pulling the centre back from the busy road gives it a civic presence and the sunken piazza also allows café, hall and youth centre direct access to a protected outdoor space
Pulling the centre back from the busy road gives it a civic presence and the sunken piazza also allows café, hall and youth centre direct access to a protected outdoor space

In America, there are hundreds of Jewish Community Centres in both urban and country locations. Yet the idea had never taken root in the UK until philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield took a tour of the American examples and decided to donate £25m towards setting up a London version via her Clore Duffield Foundation. Designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, the 30,000ft2 centre is due to open next September, a decade after Duffield first had the idea.

Duffield has had considerable experience as an architectural client at the Royal Opera House and South Bank Centre, as well as initiating the Eureka! children’s museum in Halifax by BDP, plus many Jewish centres in Israel. Being told she was mad to attempt a London JCC only hardened her resolve. 

‘I like a challenge,’ says Duffield. ‘I hope it will provide a centre for anything to do with Jewish culture and Jewish life.’ 

It wasn’t just a question of handing over the cash.  As a member of the JCC building committee and board, she was keen to take a hands-on role in everything – from choosing the Finchley Road site, commissioning the architect and informing the design development, right down to debating the design of the bespoke lighting.

Under construction with the residential tower alongside
Under construction with the residential tower alongside

‘I’ve built more buildings than [the architects] have – at least, I like to say that. I know what I like and I know what I want. I’ve been there every step of the way’

‘I’ve built more buildings than [the architects] have – at least, I like to say that,’ says Duffield. ‘I know what I like and I know what I want. I’ve been there every step of the way.’

Before appointing an architect, Duffield and the JCC chief executive Nick Viner embarked on an intensive selection process with a long-list of 13 architects.  These practices, including David Chipperfield, Tony Fretton and Rafael Viñoly, were forbidden to show models or designs of what a JCC might look like in their presentations. The four shortlisted practices were then asked to take Duffield and Viner on a tour of buildings – by them or other architects – that they felt were relevant to the JCC and then hold a half-day workshop showing their process for working together with the client. 

Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands showed its own work at Coin Street and Oxo Tower on the South Bank and also took the prospective clients to the nearby Young Vic and Jerwood Space to sample their congenial atmospheres. The practice was appointed in 2007.

‘Alex Lifschutz was very sympathetic. He understood what it was all about,’ says Duffield. For his part, Lifschutz remarks: ‘I thought it was the most interesting competition brief we’d ever had.’

 

Entry over a bridge will take visitors in at mezzanine level where the building opens up in front of you: intentionally light and airy.
Entry over a bridge will take visitors in at mezzanine level where the building opens up in front of you: intentionally light and airy.
On site
On site

Then began the lengthy process of working with the client to help clarify the nature of the building, and its design response to this. The American model is focused on health and fitness and the initial concept for the London JCC included a swimming pool as well as a Jewish nursery, café, and other community facilities. 

The aim, says Viner, is to appeal to people who are interested in Jewish culture, although not necessarily those engaged in Jewish religion – there is no synagogue on site. These are likely to include young families and older people during the day, and perhaps students and professionals in the evenings, as well as members of the ex-pat Jewish community and local non-Jews. 

‘We’re very much looking to serve a very broad set of audiences and are also hoping the restaurant will appeal to locals,’ says Viner. ‘We’re really adding something to the London cultural landscape and providing a special home for people in the Jewish community.’

Lifschutz is particularly keen to appeal to those who may be moving away from Jewish religion but not necessarily Jewish culture as Jewish society has become more secular.

 

‘I’m interested in celebrating the meeting place between those who are Jewish and those who are drifting away. Where these two cultures meet, you get this rather interesting cultural expression’

‘I’m interested in celebrating the meeting place between those who are Jewish and those who are drifting away. Where these two cultures meet, you get this rather interesting cultural expression,’ he says.

The site is on the busy Finchley Road opposite the Camden Arts Centre. As well as the JCC itself, the development had to accommodate private housing to replace provision previously on the site.  Initially, it was hoped all the diverse facilities could be incorporated in one building but it was soon decided to drop the costly pool to focus instead on nursery, café and arts and cultural facilities, including an auditorium and dance studios. 

‘The swimming pool was a casualty but there are a lot of swimming pools in the area [already] and it was taxing the project,’ says Lifschutz, adding that the pool had taken up a large proportion of the lower levels and its removal could free up the design.

Duffield was determined spaces should be designed to realise their full community and commercial potential. The hall has been designed as a multi-purpose space
Duffield was determined spaces should be designed to realise their full community and commercial potential. The hall has been designed as a multi-purpose space

Another big move was the decision to create an outdoor space in front of the building, made possible by removing parking spaces  (apart from those for the disabled) and the decision to locate the housing to one side of the site in a nine storey tower. This allowed the architect to push back the JCC, conceived as a simple pavilion, to the rear of the sloping site to create a large piazza between the centre and the busy Finchley Road. A glass screen will provide acoustic protection. Access to the building is via a footbridge over the piazza that enters it at mezzanine level. The service zone is at the back of the concrete-framed pavilion building with all active space arranged at the front.

 

‘Is there such a thing as Jewish architecture? The architect swiftly concluded that there wasn’t – and opted to use long-lasting, industrial materials’

There was also the issue of what expression the building should have – is there such a thing as Jewish architecture? The architect swiftly concluded that there wasn’t – and although Jews were often very interested in the modern movement, there was no particularly established Jewish built form. So Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands opted to use  long-lasting, industrial materials: the residential tower is clad in brick with ribbed reconstituted stone panelling facing the plaza, and the pavilion is extensively glazed with bronze anodised mullions.

Duffield was closely involved in this design development process, meeting the architects every month or two, and getting involved in the technical nitty-gritty as well as spatial, functional and commercial issues. She was instrumental, for example, in getting the architect to increase the auditorium space to maximise its artistic and commercial potential, and in repositioning the bar, which she felt was too tight.

‘She’s added hugely to the creative process. She has a great eye and is very interested in detail. She’s very challenging, but great fun’ - Alex Lifschutz

‘She’s added hugely to the creative process,’ says Lifschutz. ‘She has a great eye and is very interested in detail. She’s very challenging, but great fun.’

‘Dame Vivien has been tremendous,’ adds Viner. ‘She has real intuition and experience and a very, very good feel for the things that will work and the things that won’t, and also for the aesthetics. ‘

In the final configuration, the ground floor contains a screening room, café, bar, 270-seater auditorium, screening room and youth centre. The mezzanine level – reached across the bridge – contains a gathering space, library and JCC offices. On the first floor are multi-purpose rooms for meetings and other uses, dance studios, and a demonstration kitchen for cookery classes. On the second floor is nursery accommodation for 85 children.

The east elevation of the community centre and flats: the exterior uses industrial materials
The east elevation of the community centre and flats: the exterior uses industrial materials

The architect hopes the £50m building will be very open, light and airy with a sense of generosity of space. Finishes will include oak and rubber flooring, brass ironmongery, teak veneer doors and plasterboard walls. It will be naturally ventilated apart from the auditorium, dance studio and screening room. Flexibility is important, stresses Lifschutz, since the building’s role is to be a framework for the cultural programme.

‘We hope the atmosphere will be both very fresh and very welcoming and that people will feel that it’s their building,’ adds Viner.

Duffield says the JCC will be her last big UK project. If so, she is ending with a flourish. ‘It’s turned out beautifully. The building is fabulous – much better than I expected,’ she says.

Although JCC is now fast taking shape, Duffield’s hands-on involvement is not over yet. She is, she says, a fantastic snagger.

Credits

Client:  JCC Ventures
Architect: Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands
Structural engineer: AKT II
M&E engineer:  Norman Disney & Young
Theatre consultant:  Charcoal Blue
Lighting consultant:  Speirs & Major
Acoustic consultant:  Cole Jarman
Main contractor:  BAM Construction Ltd
Project manager:  Davis Langdon
Quantity surveyor:  Gardiner & Theobald

 

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