The 2023 Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize, awarded to John Morden Centre – a community hub in Morden College – for its sustainable features, has elicited mixed responses from its residents and staff.
Ellen van Loon, who chaired the Stirling Prize jury, said: “The John Morden Centre sensitively and seamlessly integrates medical facilities and social spaces, delivering a bold and hopeful model for the design of health and care centres for the elderly…This building provides comfort and warmth, with thoughtful features designed to prevent isolation. It illustrates how buildings can themselves be therapeutic…”
Designed by Mæ, the centre complements existing buildings of the almshouse in south-east London’s Blackheath.
Sam Taylor, community engagement manager at the college, told Raven News: “The brickwork, high chimneys, and picture windows were inspired by the 300-year-old Grade One-listed Quad building. The initiative has definitely encouraged the residents to step out and interact more after Covid’s knock-on effect with people cooped up inside.”
Liz Harker, housing officer at Morden College, said the centre has seen a slight increase in inquiries after the prize was announced. “It’s a magical place, and there is never a dull moment,” she added.
However, some retirement community residents complained about certain design elements of the building. Jack Kelly, a long-time resident, feels that the architecture is faulty to some extent, and a few things need to be rehashed.
According to Kelly, the centre gets heated up quickly in the summertime. “It feels like a greenhouse in summer with all the glass. The huge chimneys are supposed to take the hot air out, but they don’t seem effective.”
He added that the staff working in the kitchen also found it unbearable in the summers. “When the weather was around 30 degrees Celsius, the people working in the kitchen had to come out for air at regular intervals,” the 83-year-old retired engineer said, “But these are minor problems that can be resolved.”
According to RIBA, the centre’s structuring reduces carbon footprint with the effective use of cross-laminated timber and passive ventilation, utilising the chimneys, minimising the energy needed for heating and cooling.
Alex Ely, founding director of Mæ, explained to Raven News that the John Morden Centre will cool down quickly if the doors or windows on both sides are opened and air is drawn through the building. “Timber construction is thermally lightweight and there is no thermal mass that would keep the building cool. It relies on ventilation and good building management to ease the heat,” he added.
Jackie Percy, another resident, expressed disappointment at the lack of a proper stage for theatre productions at the Merchant Hall in the centre.
“The worst thing was a gap at the back of a temporary stage they had set up prone to accidents. I nearly slipped once as the stage was too high,” Kelly said, “Although we were promised a ‘portable stage’, it still hasn’t materialised.”
Kelly, who is on the social committee of the college, is unhappy that the hall is not being utilised to its full potential. He said: “We could bring in indoor bowling, table tennis, golf croquet, anything to get people moving and arouse interest.”
Percy, born and raised in South-East London, is not too chuffed about the diversity or lack thereof in the community. “Most people who work here are Black, and there is no representation from the Afro-Caribbean community among the residents. I miss the unique culture of Lewisham sometimes.”
The 80-year-old former lecturer added that some residents in wheelchairs also faced issues in getting down to the centre.
Incorporated into the design are features like concealed wooden handrails and level thresholds to cater to the residents’ various abilities/disabilities. However, Percy, who suffers from tendonitis, finds it difficult to use some handles on the toilet doors. She said: “I don’t think I should complain, but it gets painful at times.”
Ely said they were unaware of this problem while designing the building and said: “We would need to talk to ironmongery designers to check if they have designs that cater specifically for this condition.”
The residents also criticised the description of the building as a ‘day centre’.
“It is a community centre,” Percy and Kelly chime in unison.
Despite the drawbacks, Kelly strongly believes that the centre has been successful from the social aspect.
From lectures on dementia to dance, technology and craft classes, and laughter therapy, the residents have access to a wide range of activities to keep their liveliness intact. Along with a hair and nail salon, the centre also houses three bars, a plush library, a health centre with a visiting GP, and many other amenities.
According to Percy, the centre is not clinical in the traditional way. “Unlike other retirement homes, we’re not supervised. Instead, we are encouraged to enjoy our freedom.”
Kelly, excitedly, chipped in about the recent Abba concert at the centre. “Such events take us back to our childhood,” he said.
Percy nods in agreement. “The architects at Mæ were keen to lose the conventional image of a home where old people gather.”
Peter, another active resident of the college, said that the centre becomes a hub of social life during the day. He said: “No one has to eat alone. You can walk into Cafe 19 any time and always find someone to chat with.”
Kelly prefers the cafe over the dining hall. ”It’s not pretentious,” he said, “The dining hall is symbolic of the Victorian era and reeks of colonialism.”
Sharon Hutton, manager at the centre, ensures that everybody has choices, irrespective of their disabilities or age.
“They live their lives to the full here. The other day, residents were encouraged to splash around in the puddles and have fun in the rain!” she adds with a laugh.