Poplar Works by Adams & Sutherland

A £6m project by architect Adams & Sutherland has transformed two strips of lock-up garages into Poplar Works, an east London hub for the fashion industry, with community amenities.

The A12 Blackwall Tunnel Northern Approach cuts across Poplar, east London, through a cityscape of light industrial, car part traders and social housing. It passes Erno Goldfinger’s iconic Balfron Tower (1967), the landlord of which — Poplar HARCA (Housing and Community Regeneration Association) — recently sold off its refurbished flats to fans of brutalism to fund new affordable housing. The association had very different assets some 400m further up the highway. Two north–south strips of lock-up garages, built for the run-down, post-war Aberfeldy Estate and Teviot Estate, lie south-east and north-west of a junction respectively. A £6m project by architect Adams & Sutherland has transformed them into Poplar Works, a hub for the fashion industry, with community amenities.

Elizabeth Adams, director of the London-based practice who designed the project with senior architect Sarah Shaw, says it took the project on after considering ‘the long view about seeding creative industries in an area that will undergo enormous change as a housing zone’. The practice has a track record of socially relevant projects dating back to a Migrants Resource Centre in an old Pimlico basement in 1996. It knows east London well, with local works ranging from the Olympic Greenway (2011), a 2.5km-long linear park, to the 2016 revamp of Holcombe Market in Tottenham. Poplar Works fitted in with the practice’s agenda of ‘transformation without destroying a place, or taking away more than it brings,’ says Adams.

With support of the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, Poplar HARCA has two delivery-tenant partners in Poplar Works, both with east London roots. The Trampery is a social enterprise fostering co-working hubs for creative industries, and it is establishing another fashion work hub in nearby Fish Island. The other partner, the London College of Fashion (LCF), actually started out as the Leather Trade School in east London in 1887. The college is moving from its 1960s LCC Architects Department-designed Oxford Street base to a new campus in Stratford’s East Bank in 2022, but its first step back east is into workshops at Poplar Works where the school will offer hands-on manufacturing skills to the disadvantaged, and host its Centre for Fashion Enterprise.

Adams describes the two strips as ‘challenging sites’ physically, and also because, as she says, ‘car parking is one of the most volatile subjects we come across in almost all projects’. Nevertheless, Alex Jeremy, head of partnerships at Poplar HARCA offers that perhaps 70% of the sites’ garages were unoccupied.

So, how exactly will garages along a highway become a car-free hub in what is being promoted as east London’s new ‘fashion district’?  The northern strip of 40 garages, between the highway and Teviot Street, have become The Makery (run by The Trampery), consisting of 20 workshops for fashion and creative uses. Most of the alternate walls between them have been removed, but they share the estate’s original brick cornice, and grassed concrete roof, which continue north above garages still in use. The units present facades of warm colours from red to yellow to the estate, but from the A12, they are invisible behind an original brick wall.

In total contrast, the main part of Poplar Works to the south is not just visible from the highway, it shines electric at night. A zig-zag line of light traces the roof eave of a linear structure along two of three connected volumes just 5.5m wide, which stretches 170m along the site where Aberfeldy Estate garages had been. Black EDPM rubber covering the roof also clads this facade where it cantilevers over landscaped embankments. Like black latex, it’s a membrane suited to a tight fit and is recyclable. The rubber is ‘like a macintosh’, says Adams. She was inspired by the Black Rubber Beach House in Dungeness, a fisherman’s hut clad in rubber in 2003 by Simon Conder Associates.

But in two sections, colours from red to yellow break out on vertical timber slats, and there is a lot more of it in the long active facades on the other side, facing Abbot Road. In two of the volumes, a covered first-floor walkway cantilevers above the street with a full-height wooden fence screen perforated with window-shaped openings. There are 25 work units here, including the southern-most building where seven garages were converted under the old vegetated roof, as at Teviot Street, and includes kitchenette and toilets.

With a Thames Water sewer running below the site, new groundworks had to be minimal. The lightweight solution was to build over old garage structures using CLT (cross-laminated timber), with no more mass than the roof, soil and plants that it had carried. The soil was re-used on site. In the first floor, built over steel decking, wood gives interiors a sense of calm and warmth. At the northern end, foundations work took place. The building slopes up to a 9m-high, prow-like head, clad in black-stained timber, accommodating a cafe open to all and an almost church-like enclosed space with a 5m-high vertical northern window. The interiors further south provide teaching and studio spaces on both floors — for LCF and local community groups. In addition to the workshops is a long first-floor Garment Manufacturing Unit, run by LCF, which is ‘really the heart of the building’, says Adams. It’s the only space not naturally ventilated, and feels huge with natural northern light from windows in the vertical drops of the saw-edge ceiling above.

When life returns after the coronavirus lockdown, manufacturing and the ‘rag trade’ — lost engines of east London’s economy — will re-ignite Poplar Works. Jeremy reckons 80% of the pre-lets are to local businesses. But another aspect, says Adams, is that ‘the whole thing is a buffer (against) the pollution and noise of the A12’. This extraordinary project will bring colour and style — in the building, its users, and the gritty environment of a six-lane highway.

All images: Radu Malasincu

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