diamond geezer

 Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Over the years I've been round ten London borough town halls as part of Open House but never my own. That's because Tower Hamlets' was a hired fortress close to the mouth of the Blackwall Tunnel and no great architectural shakes. But the council's just moved into a new base in the heart of the borough on Whitechapel Road inside the original incarnation of the Royal London Hospital, and the borough was therefore very keen to show the place off. Hourly tours of a landmark building led by the chief architect is almost as good as Open House gets.

Open House: Tower Hamlets Town Hall (Whitechapel)

It was Lutfur Rahman's idea to repurpose a vacated Georgian hospital into a civic centre, snaffling it off the NHS for a knockdown £9m. All the nitty gritty planning and construction got carried out under his successor John Biggs and then, after his seven year enforced removal from politics was complete, Lutfur swanned back in time to get his feet under the Mayoral desk. We didn't see his office, which apparently is in the former hospital chapel, but we did get to see the amazing transformation wrought during an efficiently brisk circuit of the building laced with plenty of inside detail.

From Whitechapel Road you'd almost not know anything had changed, bar some gold lettering announcing this as the Town Hall. That's because the retrofit retained the shell of the 1757 hospital as well as the facades of the later wings added to either side. One of these, the Grocer's Wing, is now the chief public space within the building, although I confess that as a local resident I hadn't realised it was OK to just wander in. Nor was I prepared for the size of the void beyond the sliding doors, it's absolutely massive and it continues up some steps and along the rear of the building too.

This J-shaped area is also lined with bookshelves because the architect said she was tasked with creating a library space here, despite there being an award winning 20 year-old Idea Store immediately across the street. It'd be ridiculous to close that - what were they thinking? - hence all the shelves are empty and the public space is something of a damp squib. Apparently a cafe is due to open at the far end later in the year and they're looking into alternative temporary uses, but in the meantime there's not much to do here bar attend an event, inspect the ship's badges or pass straight through to the hospital beyond.

Oh, and stare in admiration at those original 18th century walls which have been retained on all sides and now find themselves inside the new building. This edifice is a seriously striking feature, all heritage brick and geometric windows, plus an arched doorway the architects only discovered after ripping off all the NHS fascias. If you're one of the 2400 council employees assembled here you might find yourself working in the old bit or the new bit, so at the upper levels overbridges now connect the two. Tower Hamlets saved a lot of money by closing its five former council hubs, in case you're wondering how a local authority ever afforded something that looks like this.

At the focal point, where the main entranceway feeds through from the high street, a security guard keeps watch from behind an unnecessarily high desk. That entranceway used to be the hospital's reception and is now a broad passageway, pleasingly busy the architect said, enlivened by pillars painted "unexpected red". We also got taken into the Residents Hub where I might expect to end up if I were ever made unexpectedly homeless, hence the surfaces in there are particularly resilient to citizen fury. Given the need to cram in office space it's impressive how much of the ground floor remains publicly accessible.

Crucially the council chamber is accessible too, or at least its windows are, to create a deliberate feeling of permissible citizen scrutiny. Architects AHMM are particularly proud of the coffered ceiling, a waffle-shaped chunk set in situ which helped get the building shortlisted for the 2023 Concrete Society Awards, and their ribbed timber walls also impress. But the lack of fixed furniture - a deliberate decision to use moveable tables and chairs instead - gives the interior an oddly bland feel like a sixth form college classroom. Only the Chair's bench and public gallery can't be wheeled away.

The lifts, for those with passes, were deliberately positioned by the stairs to give people a simple chance to take the healthy option. Both of the main hospital staircases have been retained, one at each end of the building, with the asbestos-free flight glowing up particularly well. We were led up to the 3rd floor because that's where most of the quirky stuff is, bypassing a heck of a lot of mundane meeting rooms, seminar spaces and hotdesk warrens. Somewhere in here are the team that coordinate the bins, the department that oversees highrise development and the individual who rubberstamps the Mayor's expenses.

Two of the original 1906 operating theatres, operational right up to the last day in 2012, have been dramatically transformed. One is now a cosy breakout space with matching sofas, terrazzo flooring and an abundance of natural light (because early surgeons needed as much illumination as possible). The other has become an extraordinary meeting room whose table is overlooked by two rather scary 50s-style spotlights, plus a leftover panel on the wall which would once have been used to inspect x-rays, plus a stepped alcove decked out with John Lewis cushions in complementary shades. They've even kept the sign outside that used to be illuminated only when the laser was on, and now glows permanently yellow.

The East London Mosque isn't far down the road but it does get very busy so the council wanted an internal prayer space to efficiently support the devout. This has been fitted into the prime attic space behind the pediment, indeed immediately behind the building's clockface which additionally doubles up as a circular window. The room's multi-faith, not just for Muslims, but you do have to take your shoes off and pass a shower area for "male ablutions" before you reach the soft blue carpet.

The architect got a little round of applause at the end of our tour, in part for her enthusiastic delivery with barely a moment wasted but also I suspect for the building itself. It's much better than it ought to be, perhaps even inspirational, such that even if your job's miserable it's not the working environment that's primarily to blame. It's also almost unrecognisable from the inside, so much so that I couldn't tell you which passageway a porter once pushed me along to get a scan, nor locate the room where I once watched Bargain Hunt while waiting to be discharged. But from the outside it's so coherent I can now point out where the operating theatres used to be, and I will no longer be so reticent to go back through the main doors and gawp again.

Sorry I'm still not done, I have three more reports to bring you, but you really ought to be used to me rabbiting on about buildings every September by now, and somehow my album on Flickr now has 80 photos in it, many from Tower Hamlets Town Hall, and deep breath because we're nearly there.

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