BAM’s Kosher construction challenge
A Jewish community centre built by BAM is bringing much-needed visual stimulus and culture to an unappealing transport artery in north London. Stephen Cousins reports. Photographs by Geoff Crawford
Take a stroll along the Finchley Road in north London, and chances are you will be making a mental note not to return again any time soon. If the din of engine noise and fumes from four lanes of congested traffic doesn’t dampen your spirits, then the down at heel shop fronts and littered pavements probably will.
This may be one of the most important transport arteries linking London to the suburbs, but it’s also one of the ugliest and certainly not a place for quiet contemplation, a sense of community or the exploration of the creative life.
But now all these qualities are being incorporated into the new Jewish Community Centre (JCC), which is being constructed on a tight plot at the busy corner junction with Lymington Street in south Hampstead. Designed by architect Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS) and built by main contractor BAM Construction, the £38m centre is the first building of its type in the UK, commissioned by one-off client JCC Ventures to provide a gateway to all things Jewish and for use by Jews and non-Jews alike.
When handed over in March 2013, the 35,000ft2, three-storey main pavilion building will feature multiple spaces for classes, lectures and meetings; fitness and dance; eating and drinking; a day nursery, a screening room and a large 250-seat auditorium, all facing a large, sunken, tree-lined courtyard. Alongside it, and built as part of the planning consent, a block of 14 flats will replace the 14 dwellings lost when the previous buildings on the site were demolished.
As the variety of uses suggests, the JCC embraces flexibility as a core concept and is designed to be easily reconfigured to meet the changing profile and needs of its occupants. This flexibility is a longstanding interest of the scheme’s lead architect Alex Lifschutz, who based the design on the idea of a warehouse, or a “rack” into which different uses can be loaded or unloaded over time.
A giant partition door divides the cafe hub area from a multi-purpose auditorium
This flexibility in usage is offset by the solid insitu concrete frame and the use of robust, high-quality materials and fine detailing, evident to passers-by on the Finchley Road from the external facades, where intricately-moulded stone panels, hand-burnished brass, curtain walling and thin white concrete balconies vie for attention. The building is also highly sustainable and BREEAM “excellent” rated, thanks in large part to an innovative natural ventilation system devised to minimise heating and cooling loads.
The uniqueness of the community centre, in its design and future operation, has posed several challenges for BAM, not least the extensive quality assurance tests required for the high-spec materials, and acoustic dampening techniques to respond to the mix of uses. There is also the complex M&E installation, parts of which had to comply with Shabbat controls, which prevent orthodox Jews from operating electricity-triggering switches such as lights and lifts on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. As a result BAM had to make alterations to its building system control plans, then submit them for assessment by rabbis at specialist religious institutes in Israel.
“It’s tricky enough dealing with the architect and structural engineer’s requirements, let alone religious experts too,” says Simon Gray, project manager at BAM. “The importance placed on quality meant even procurement was challenging, and several potential suppliers dropped out as a result. But it has been worth it to get this far and see the reactions of residents who are really starting to see how the JCC will rejuvenate the area, there’s a real buzz around the building.”
Passers-by had an early sense of the drama unfolding inside when BAM adopted an unusual construction technique: supporting and casting and the facade’s slim profile white concrete balconies before the rest of the building to ensure they would not deflect from position. This striking example of building in “reverse” must have made for a surreal sight at the start of the job.
European Oak battens line the walls of the multi-purpose auditorium
Exposed concrete posed sound issues
The Jewish Community Centre movement was born in America in 1854, and was set up to help Jewish immigrants find their feet in a new country and meet with other Jews. The scheme has grown since then and today there are more than 1,100 centres worldwide, each dedicated to celebrating Jewish life through cultural, educational, recreational and charitable activities.
The idea of creating a JCC in London was initiated by the project’s director, philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield. Having been impressed during a visit to North American JCCs in 2002, Dame Vivien’s charitable foundation donated £25m for the scheme. The remaining budget has been provided by donations from Jewish community figures, plus money raised through the sale of the flats. Interestingly for a public building of this type, no public or lottery funding was sought.
LDS had to work hard to find inspiration for its design, developed in response to an architectural competition in 2007, as there were few reference points to work from. Jewish architecture doesn’t really have a distinctive style of its own, even synagogues tend to be modern in design rather than traditional. Existing JCCs in the US were not entirely helpful as they had a very different context. Instead, the design team chose to draw on ideas of Jewish values and temperament, explains Nick Viner, chief executive of JCCV. “Jewish people like a sense of serenity, of light and space and the idea of growth, hence the inclusion of a very bright open areas and a large courtyard surrounded by trees. We liked the concept that we were ‘greening the urban desert’ on our spot on Finchley Road, as Jews did historically in the Middle East,” he says.
Rather than locate the site in the Jewish heartlands in north-west London, it was decided that a site farther south, in Camden, would provide an ideal location to attract both nearby Jews and a wider public venturing out from the city centre.
A key aim was for the centre to be a place where Jewish culture is made, rather than experienced, and that visitors would actively participate in creating culture. It’s a feature of Jewish life that chimes with Lifschutz’s interest in flexible buildings that people can adapt and colonise.
“It’s always been about future-proofing the building,” says Douglas Inglis, project architect at LDS. “The project has been on the drawing board for several years and as it has developed new operators, for the nursery and demonstration kitchen, for example, have come on board with their own specific requirements. No doubt other operators will change going forward, so the architecture needed room to develop without radically altering the structure.”
The building’s service cores, including toilets, stairwells, the lift, changing rooms and plant rooms, are housed in a solid thin strip at the rear of the building, and the functional space at the front is very open with large, light rooms suitable for different purposes. Partitions between the rooms can also be added or removed in future to change the layout.
At ground level all the wide glazed doors open out onto the courtyard, which itself can be adapted for various uses — for instance ice skating in winter, or food and book markets in summer. The double height multi-purpose auditorium at the north end of the building converts from raked seating for nearly 300 people, used during music concerts or theatre, into a huge room for functions, weddings and bar mitzvahs.
This mix of uses raised complex acoustical issues. Sound reflections from the mostly exposed concrete frame will be dealt with using fabric acoustic soffit panels, soft finishes in the hub cafe area and extensive use of rubber and carpeting. The walls of the multi-purpose auditorium will be covered with horizontal battens of European oak, which will act as a visual device but also break up soundwaves. The battens will also run across the surface of a very large 6m-high, 12m-long movable partition door, manufactured by Alco Systems, which divides the auditorium from the adjacent hub area.
At the opposite end of the building, a 60-seat film screening room has been constructed as a dry-lined room-within-a-room, designed to prevent noise transference into the offices above and the adjacent cafe. All the ductwork and electrics are fitted with flexible connections to prevent sound transfer during a screening.
The project’s emphasis on high-quality, natural materials and finishes was driven both by the architect and by Dame Vivien Duffield. Details such as rich brass bespoke cast door handles and teak veneered doors will give visitors a very tangible sense of quality. As Inglis puts it: “Quality, quality, quality has been our mantra throughout the entire project, we wanted to create a very beautiful building that would encourage people to linger and enjoy it, not just come for the events.”
Such an emphasis on build quality meant running various benchmarking trials and product inspections, which even included a last-minute three-hour return trip to Venice just to check the burnished finish on the brass cladding panels. “In the current climate it was difficult getting subcontractors willing to be scrutinised to that degree and to deliver what we wanted to an acceptable cost,” says BAM’s Gray.
There’s plenty to please the eye of Finchley Road pedestrians too. The residential block’s courtyard elevation is clad in a random pattern of 24 pre-cast ribbed stone panels, the largest weighing about eight tonnes. Although supplier Sterling Services only created four moulds for the panels, each cast panel is only ever used twice in the same orientation, creating an exciting play of shadows as the sun rises and sets. “It’s a subtle effect that many people will not notice, but lot of care and attention has gone into it,” adds Gray.
And with that sense of quality and care being communicated outside and in, there’s a very good chance that the JCC will turn chance passers-by into visitors, and that a wide cross-section of the north London public will convert their first visit into multiple trips. A truly unique project — for contractor, architect and client — looks as if it’s going to pull off the tough challenge of “greening the urban desert” of the unlovely Finchley Road.
Catherine Yass on site
The Jewish Community Centre building will also incorporate an art installation by Turner prize-shortlisted photographer and film-maker Catherine Yass. Called Decommissioned, it aims to forge a connection between the existing buildings on the site and the new structure that replaces them.
The 49-year-old Jewish artist, whose work often attempts to capture the psychological impact of architectural space, first took a series of photographs of the original buildings on the JCC site, which included a large car showroom, a dance studio and various flats, then placed the negatives in different locations around the site so that they would be damaged or otherwise affected by the demolition process.
The photos were then retrieved from under the detritus and transformed into small transparencies which will be placed into several 20cm x 20cm square lightboxes that BAM is building into the fabric of the new building. These are placed in locations that roughly correspond to the locations depicted in the original photographs.
For example, the site was home to a famous dance studio founded by Stella Mann, the transparency of which has been placed into a lightbox built into the wall of the new dance studio on the first floor.
“The idea is that the photos have undergone a physical transformation, which should help visitors viewing them make a connection between what is there now and what was there before,” explains Nick Viner, chief executive of JCC Ventures. “It was very important for us to show that while the JCC is new and exciting, we’re also part of a community that maintains a strong connection with its heritage,” he concludes.