5 August 2009

Peckham library (Will Alsop, 2000)



I stumbled across Peckham Library quite unexpectedly the other day. It won the Stirling prize in 2000, and high words are said about its social responsibility - thus an appropriate find when I was in the neighbourhood to explore a charity's work with the socially excluded. But does the building work, does it really change anything? I was unsure.

Undoubtedly it's interesting to look at, and for architecture (a discipline that does not convince me with its political convictions) this might be everything - instead of a mere fragment of the building's impact, a fraction of its function as an assemblage of space-movement-people-meaning in a specific socio-economic context. Some authoritative voice tells us that "Peckham Library is not an irreverent post-modern architectural joke. It is a very serious building with a strong social mission" - and then indicates that said social mission goes as far as some nice but hardly revolutionary sustainable cooling measures. Woo. Critical urban theory has apparently not made enough an impact on designers yet, even though they can buy the latest City journal on this very topic in Borders no fancy academic subscription required.

But despite my scepticism, some of Peckham Library's social misssion seems to be working. It's shown in the increased visits to the library, and Alsop's 'civism'
"where civic space is defined as a place where you can meet someone outside, name the place and know where to go"
would indeed seem to be boosted in Peckham: this is a memorable place, it puts Peckham on the map for the right reasons rather than shootings, and there is indeed outdoor seating for meeting people. Nonetheless, nine years on the public square is a little run down, weeds colonising the paving, repairs needed and not forthcoming. The regeneration the library was supposed to herald does not seem to have arrived - perhaps there have been repairs, but no change of mood, no boost in image - and the locality remains very isolated: even the buses take convoluted routes to get there. The highstreet was covered in litter; so much for reputed Anthony Gormley street art.

This regeneration has entailed £275m in investment; 2500 new homes; a £5m new library (which admittedly Gordon the postman thinks is "beautiful"). But if you want to put an end to the ghetto then stop locking the gates at night - this is what's wrong with many smaller-scale housing projects too: impeding porous movement between neighbouring areas creates a them/us mentality and stops deprived areas integrating into wider society. Peckham needs a tube station and the access to the wider London jobs market that would facilitate; without this the gates are locked and the whole neighbourhood is socially excluded. However lovely the access to knowledge it may promise, a pretty green library is fairly cosmetic.

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