Tower Hamlets in London was one of the first local authorities to face up to the bad news when it discovered that fewer than 20 per cent of its residents ever set foot inside a library. The council is making drastic changes and it looks like kill or cure. It will close all its libraries and replace them with just seven ‘Idea Stores’ that put a library, cafe, adult education classes and computer access under one roof.
This is the result of a poll of residents, whose biggest complaint about the old libraries were that they weren’t conveniently located. ‘People wanted them to be in the high street, where they could pop in while shopping,’ says Heather Wills,who is in charge of the programme. ‘They were put off by the dusty image of the old buildings. We knew that the replacements would need the same high-quality design as the shops which are the biggest competition for people’s time.’
Which is why the council commissioned David Adjaye, an architect best known for a series of enigmatic houses designed for a range of artists including Chris Ofili and Jake Chapman, to design two of the Idea Stores.
It’s a formula that could have been disastrously gimmicky, but the results are impressive. The first Idea Store, which opened in 2002, was a conversion (not by Adjaye) of an existing building in Bow. ‘It has tripled the visitor numbers of the two old libraries it replaced,’ says Mills. Adjaye’s first new library in Poplar’s Chrisp Street Market is about to open, a sophisticated piece of architecture that does exactly what the council asks, in an uncondescending and subtle way.
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