Konishi Gaffney’s refurbishment rationalises an incoherent community centre into a thriving hub of local delight
By evening, office partitions are folded back, desks and chairs stored away and a partition slid across the auditorium steps, transforming this co-working space for the neighbouring student community into a place of celebration. Tonight is Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan.
Directly above, sharing the same entrance, a former Presbyterian church hall comes to life as friends enjoy a ceilidh late into the evening, to strings playing the familiar melody of a Gay Gordons. Passersby this evening might peer through the newly replaced multi-storey windows facing onto Edinburgh’s Pleasance Street and see both these scenes, as the split level building showcases its events as an invitation to the surrounding community.
Kieran Gaffney, one of the founders of Konishi Gaffney Architects, describes this scene with great enthusiasm – the multiple uses and configurations of the space serving as a shining example of the project’s success.
The Greyfriars Charteris Centre was previously spread across several buildings and needed a clear entrance point and accessibility upgrades. The centre ran a competition, won by Konishi Gaffney, to unite the two spaces and refurbish the 1912 church, which had been turned over to community use in 2017. Flexibility and accessibility became the foundation of the practice’s winning design, and the key principles in its collaboration with the client and contractor to overcome the obstacles that working with a historic building presents.
The centre stands in the looming shadow of Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, just off the spine of Newington in the south centre, among a mash of student housing, council estates and classic Edinburgh tenements. Standing outside it, you are drawn to the central sliver of the building, an incredibly elegant elevation resting lightly between two edges of terrazzo and timber.
Discussing the requirement for one central entrance, Gaffney explains that visitors had previously been faced with a variety of doors of equal authority, with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment as any chosen door led them to fire escapes, corridors, secondary exits, or for the lucky few, the front entrance. There is now no confusion, as a large glass door in the central facade shows you from the street to the main reception. The elevation complements the building’s stark verticality, with deep narrow grooves rising to eye level, and a lattice of zig zags, inspired by an unravelled doric column, that are cast into the facade for a metre or so above. Even if you had not been seeking the entrance, you would almost certainly end up there if only to run your hands into its deep grooves.
Ensuring this main entrance was accessible to all became a huge focus for KGA. Before the refurbishment, the centre had four steps at its entrance, with the only ramped access located at the opposite end of the building, leading down into the basement. Bringing together the wheelchair access and main entrance played a defining role in the arrangement of the space. With a hefty 2.5m of underpinning, the floor level was brought down to match the street level, introducing level access for everyone. Inside the 3.8m wide entrance building, KGA has also managed to squeeze in a lift in the only place that would give access to all levels. Although this significantly reduces the space in the entrance, the introduction of transparent glazed doors, maple and plywood finishes and a flexible spatial arrangement creates a far more spacious entrance than the meagre measurements would suggest. Replacing all the glass in the front facade and introducing glass partitions mean that light pours into the space and creates a permeable connection to the street.
Many of the refurbishments undertaken here focus on opening up the space, with glazed open-plan flexible volumes that support a bespoke set of functions. Suspended above the 10.8m high central hall is the ‘Sacred Space’, a quiet room for prayer or reflection. This sits high above, at the top of the tall windows. Soundproof glazing separates it from the main hall to provide privacy, while a vertical arrangement of timber fins opens out above eye level to bring light through the quiet space and into the central hall.
Throughout the building, the removal of partition walls and insertion of glazing creates permeable boundaries; previously hidden spaces are now closely connected to the centre’s central activities. To achieve this, KGA specified a wide range of different glass, from fireproof to soundproof, with graphics and kinetics, helping to make the building more connected, welcoming and flexible.
Catering for the different sound conditions needed in the quiet room and the central hall is an impressive achievement, although it is the detail in this space which catch your eye. From outside, the 5.4m high windows, originally built as a part of the worship space, give an unobstructed view into the building having been upgraded from translucent single glazing to fully transparent double glazing. These offer an unobstructed view, opening the building out to the street and creating a more welcoming facade. From inside, you can see that the window is in fact made of several panes of glass, with the frames stealthily placed behind a narrow area of external decorated stone surrounds. For such a large-scale change, this step had to be carefully phased, bringing the glass in via the central hall before the Sacred Space was completed, to access the facade from the inside.
Catering for the different sound conditions needed is an impressive achievement, although it is the detail which catches your eye
The project was not without its challenges. Without access to all the spaces in the existing structure until after the initial design had been drawn, Konishi Gaffney was surprised to find an unusually wide door swing, cutting into the location of a long bench along the edge of the quiet space. This led the practice to finish the end of the benches to coincide with the curvature of the door swing, finding opportunities for elegant detailing in the difficulties faced in working with existing buildings. These small, smart details extend from such visible flourishes to incredible small nifty technologies such as a button hidden in a door frame that would come into action in the case of a fire, allowing the door to swing in both directions.
Taken together, each detail and design decision creates a building that encourages lingering, flexible use and, most importantly, a visibly welcoming space accessible to everyone. Sitting on one of the many benches fitted into any remaining nook or window sill, our visit ended beside the lofty facade window, looking into the central hall and the basement, where if we stayed long enough, we would witness a plethora of activities as the spaces morphed from worship to performance, or offices to dance floors.
Client Greyfriars Charteris Centre
Architect Konishi Gaffney Architects
Structural engineer Entuitive / Forshaw Gauld
M&E Irons Foulner Consulting Engineers
Main contractor SJS Property Services
QS Thomson Gray
Lighting Francis Milloy Lighting Design
Sculptural collaboration Chalk Plaster
Graphics/ signage Esther Clayton Designs
Joinery Old School Fabrications
Structural glazing Gray & Dick
Windows & doors Hall & Tawse
Glazed partitions Komfort
Rooflight Glazing Vision
Lift Invalifts/ Lifted Services
External cladding Accoya w/ Anker Stuy Ankolux woodcoat
Precast cladding Cambridge Architectural Precast
Internal lighting Erco, Deltalight
External lighting Stoane lighting, Bega