Magazine article The Spectator

Public Faces

Magazine article The Spectator

Public Faces

Article excerpt

Gloomy academics suggest that, in the modern world, the remaining places where free speech and discussion can happen in cities are public libraries, theatres and academic buildings. Three such buildings in central London are the subject of this review. All are educational, although they differ in the kind of people they serve, and the kind of education they deliver. In Tower Hamlets, David Adjaye has designed two 'Ideas Stores', which are really public libraries under a new name.

The content differs from old-fashioned libraries, however. The larger of the two, at Whitechapel, includes a café on the top floor, and internet access points are distributed on each of the four levels.

Traditionalists would be satisfied, though, by the number of books available in serpentine shelving. In addition, there are many classrooms, and activities on offer include dance and alternative therapy. The Whitechapel Ideas Store stands in a significant position, between the thriving market stalls of Whitechapel Road, with piles of exotic vegetables, and a Sainsbury's car park and dull-looking supermarket at the back. I'd like to think the latter symbolises the world that is dying rather than the one that is coming to birth, but we can't be sure.

In the exhibition David Adjaye: Making Public Buildings along the road at the Whitechapel Art Gallery (until 26 March), the middle section consists of a slideshow of Adjaye's holiday snaps, ranging over many continents, including his native Africa. The message is one of close fit between people and their physical surroundings, natural, traditional or modern. Whitechapel Road is a pretty good context for making a public building, and Adjaye responds to it with a glass tower, composed of panels of green glass irregularly scattered among the plain.

From inside, one looks out across the rooftops, sometimes through tinted specs, and sometimes not. It is a fine feeling to be in this Outlook Tower, in the tradition of Patrick Geddes and his early-20th-century vision of public education reborn. Few of the other main projects in the exhibition are yet built, but I liked the look of the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham and a new covered market in Wakefield, made with slatted timber.

The south front of the Whitechapel Ideas Store is a double screen of glass, creating some acoustic protection and, although open at the base, perhaps some thermal shielding as well. …

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