The Notting Hill Carnival now attracts more than a million people to the streets of west London to join in what, after Rio’s, is the world’s largest street festival. It is one of the most diverse and exciting spectacles of social solidarity in the capital, and estimates say the annual event injects more than £90m into the local economy. Carnival Village Trust, an umbrella organisation dedicated to the promotion of carnival arts, approached London-based architecture practice Foster Wilson to design a new arts centre to house four of the principal groups that help realise the event each year: the Mangrove and Ebony steel bands, the Association of British Calypsonians, and Yaa Asantewaa Arts group.
The result is the new Yaa Centre building, named after Yaa Asantewaa, the warrior queen of the Asante tribe. Central to the continuing success of the carnival is the work done by the tireless organisers, artists, musicians and designers who create the colourful floats, music and spectacular costumes that define it. The Yaa Centre will promote African Caribbean art and culture through supporting and enabling emerging talent in dance, music, theatre, spoken word and carnival arts.
Tucked away behind a cobbled residential mews in Notting Hill, the Yaa Centre is reached through an archway. The archway opens to an irregularly shaped courtyard that has been resurfaced and decorated with a colourful pattern, an abstraction of the geometric designs that characterise traditional Ghanaian Kente woven cloth. Beyond a rogue outbuilding and a single tree is the solitary facade of the Yaa Centre.
It is clad in deep red Cor-ten steel, arranged in a random pattern of panels around large windows that work to allow light to penetrate through the rooms and into the central space and first-floor gallery. ‘We considered using masonry [instead of Cor-ten], but we wanted to make the facade special rather than blend in,’ says Matthew Baker, who led the project for Foster Wilson. ‘We wanted it to stand out of its context using the natural colour of the materials. The way the material will weather will give it a life beyond the expectation of the designer.’ The facade, although a deliberate juxtaposition to its immediate context, is a graceful use of a material that is more often used on a monumental scale. The pattern of the Cor-ten panels provides shadow and depth that brings life to the surface and complements the geometry of the pointing that prevails everywhere you look around the courtyard.
The building’s interior is finished in a manner that could only be deemed ‘honest’. Concrete blockwork is left exposed, the grain of the plywood formwork is seen on the poured concrete, powerfloat marks are left on the floor and steel beams are left exposed and painted red. Services are visible running across the ceilings and there is a sense that the building is expected to be bashed around with the relentless activity that will animate the spaces. ‘People think that when you go for the “industrial” look that we have here it’s easy and you just leave things half-finished,’ says Baker. ‘But it means you have to be more deliberate with everything you have left exposed so that it doesn’t look a mess.’
Providing ample space for a multitude of noisy and messy activities, the Yaa Centre has metal workshops, art rooms, sewing workshops, a cafe, a steel band rehearsal room, a steel pan tuning room, offices, a creative IT suite and an education room, all arranged around a large central space with a dance floor and bar and framed by a gallery. The back half of the building is retained from the site’s former use as a taxi-meter factory, with the building’s battered original brickwork cleaned up ready for a new lease of life. On a tight budget of £4.5m (from the Arts Council Lottery Fund), the architect has delivered a building that provides ample spaces and facilities for its users.
‘We didn’t have a brief as such,’ says Baker. ‘There was never a singular vision for the project from the client. Essentially what we have designed is a community centre with a workshop building for carnival arts.’ Operating such a building in a residential area meant that the architect had to ensure that the views from it did not overlook the neighbouring properties and that the tremendous sounds eminating from it were contained so as not to disrupt the genial atmosphere of the mews. The rehearsal room and steel pan tuning room – surely a once-in-a-lifetime specification – are designed as a box within a box. To allow for acoustic isolation, the rooms have suspended floors and there are acoustic gaps between the plywood finish and the concealed structural walls. The circulation spaces have been placed adjacent to the party walls to ensure another level of acoustic separation; with such a tight space, the architect has been canny in orchestrating the functions of the building. The high quality of light in the main hall and the workshops has been achieved through thorough testing and modelling with consultant Skelly and Couch – in a building with only a south-east facing facade there are few gloomy moments thanks to numerous rooflights in the main space.
Foster Wilson has delivered a welcoming yet robust community centre that is primed to become a lively home for the Carnival Village Trust. It also avoids the pitfalls of so many Lottery-funded community arts projects – ambiguous spaces and wasted cash on expensive finishes and equipment that is rarely used. The Yaa Centre has been cleverly designed to overcome the constraints placed on it by its unlikely setting, and almost finished, this surprising project will soon bubble to life.