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Tucked away in one of London’s most historic quarters is the glass-wrapped and gleaming Goldsmiths’ Centre. Don’t know the area? Let’s change that now.
Have you ever heard of the knights of St John of Jerusalem? Well, they once dwelt in Clerkenwell and, besides other benevolent causes, maintained a chain of hospitals in this nook of the capital, providing lodgings and a safe refuge for pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived in London, the city still surprises in places you’d least expect. As I exited Farringdon station recently, on to streets I thought I knew, I lost my bearings. Out of nowhere, I found myself at the south entrance to the Priory of those knights I just mentioned, which today is the home of the St John Ambulance. The spot is marked by St John’s Gate. Originally built in 1504, it’s now a beautiful Victorian gateway and one of the few tangible remains from Clerkenwell’s monastic past.
I was looking for The Goldsmiths’ Centre, a purpose-built events venue and charity that opened two years ago, which just so happens to sit within the outer precinct of St John’s Order. While the inner precinct remained St John’s Ambulance HQ, outer areas were given over to commercial activity and became a popular place for artisans and tradesmen to live and work.
Many of those artisans would have been watchmakers and smiths of precious metal. Today, as a charity that supports young people entering the jewellery trade through vocational training, The Goldsmiths’ Centre on Britton Street helps maintain traditions dating back to the 14th century.
The building is as fascinating as the area that surrounds it. ‘It was originally the second of the London Board Schools, built to educate the masses following the 1870 Education Reform Act,’ says Peter Taylor, director of The Goldsmiths’ Centre charity. ‘Before that, it was part of a house owned by one of the Abbots who belonged to the St John’s Order.’
In 2005 the lease expired on one of the Goldsmiths’ Company’s other sites (a plot of land close to Fleet Street left to the organisation in 1514 by Agas Harding, the wife of the prime warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company). The company decided to dedicate some of the money raised from the sale of a new lease to build this venue. Harding’s 500-year-old bequest has ensured people will continue to have access to training and education in her husband’s craft.
It took another five years for the £17.5 million centre to be built, owing to myriad challenges associated with renovating a Grade II-listed Victorian school and the creation of a four-storey building on the same site. After being declared a regional winner of RIBA’s Workplace Design Awards in 2013, the project earned one of the 31 Civic Trust Awards handed out in March this year. Civic Trust accolades are awarded to projects that are sustainable and accessible to all users, and have made a positive cultural, social or economic contribution to their community. Taylor believes the building was ‘well worth the wait.’
Architect Chris Bills says: ‘The Goldsmiths’ Centre is a one-off. The company wanted a building that would be timeless, and still look fresh and unique in 50 years. Our involvement was designing and seeing it through to completion, but that’s just the start of its life. A building like this is ultimately about the people that fill it and what it gives to the area.’
Centre of attention
The centre is now delivering on its purpose, providing pre-apprentice training via a Foundation Programme, as well as co-ordinating the Goldsmiths’ Company’s Apprenticeship Programme. It also provides subsidised workspace for craftspeople starting out in the jewellery business.
Funding comes in large part from the hire of the venue for meetings, exhibitions and events. Regular event clients to date include that local St John Ambulance HQ, Save the Children and numerous architects and design agencies located in the vicinity of the venue. The centre has four rooms, a bright, glass-roofed atrium and a community café.
The largest space is the Public Exhibition Room, which can seat up to 126 delegates theatre style and features adaptable lighting, a built-in PA system and state-of-the-art projectors. It also benefits from an acoustic wall that can divide the room into two self-contained areas. Beyond the venue’s high-security barriers (imagine all the precious materials on site) are the modern Agas Harding Boardroom and the Grade II-listed Creative Base.
The latter is the only meeting space in the old school building and features original sliding doors and a characterful Victorian fireplace. Both rooms seat 26 theatre style or 16 around a single table, but the Agas Harding Boardroom doesn’t have the Grade II-listed restrictions, so comes with cutting-edge AV kit.
Also in the modern part of the building, on the fourth floor, is the Agas Harding Conference Room, seating up to 55 delegates theatre style. This white-cube space provides access to the roof terrace, which offers views over central London, taking in landmarks such as St Paul’s and The Shard.
Sustainability sits at the heart of the charity. Heat and light across the site are provided by renewable energy, supplied by air-source heat pumps and photovoltaic cells. The venue also deploys rainwater-harvesting technology, while the roof terrace has a biodiversity garden that grows herbs and supports wildlife.
It’s really when you stand on this roof terrace, with your back to London’s more familiar landmarks, that you realise the charm of this cobbled enclave in London. If you think you know Clerkenwell, then look again.
This article was first published in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, spring 2014.