When Hackney town hall opened in 1937, mayor of the borough Henry William Butler called it “that great dignified centre of public life”. Civic life was a powerful ideal in pre-war public architecture, palpably demonstrated in the egalitarian bearing of the hundreds of town halls, public baths, libraries and courthouses built across Britain during this period. It was an ideal that easily straddled political divides: while it was a Labour mayor who opened the town hall, it was Hackney’s last-ever Conservative-controlled council that commissioned the competition for its design three years earlier.
Of all public buildings, it is town halls that offer the most stirring renditions of local democracy and civic pride in action – and few do it better than Hackney town hall in east London. The building was designed by architect Lanchester & Lodge in a version of art deco so cool and tempered that it borders on neoclassicism. Like the best town halls, its grandiose council chamber, vast assembly halls, symmetrical composition and whitewashed palatial character combine to offer a superlative example of the principle of parliament miniaturised to the scale of a postcode.
But as ex-Hackney mayor and current deputy London mayor for planning, regeneration and skills Jules Pipe explains, these principles did not stay untarnished for long.
“At the turn of this century, Hackney town hall, like the rest of the borough’s civic infrastructure, was shabby and in need of investment […] It was clear that this once state-of-the-art building […] should undergo the same renewal as the borough in which it has now stood for 80 years.”
Jules Pipe Deputy London Mayor for Planning
A 12-year programme of restoration
That renewal has come in the form of an exhaustive 12-year restoration and refurbishment programme by architect Hawkins\Brown, just recently completed and throughout which the building remained fully open. Hawkins\Brown has form in both this sector and the borough; founding partner Russell Brown is a local resident, and the practice has worked on scores of Hackney projects, including the mammoth Woodberry Down regeneration. It also completed the much-lauded £5m refurbishment of nearby Stoke Newington town hall in 2009 and Barking town hall in 2005.
At Hackney, this process was aided considerably by the fact that many of the building’s original art deco fittings and fixtures had been left intact, a circumstance that had nothing to do with its grade II listing. In the closing decades of the 20th century, Hackney council was infamous for political turbulence and chronic underinvestment, both of which meant there was no money to afford the kind of “modernising upgrades” that scarred so many historic buildings from the 1960s onwards.
“We’ve brought old, beautiful buildings back to life by integrating new facilities like energy-efficient heating and ventilation, IT and lift access into fragile listed buildings.”
Russell Brown Partner, Hawkins\Brown