Inspired advice for 1996

Forget retro and repro as examples of innovative design. Michael Evamy talks to architect Gabriele Bramante, whose outstanding work in making a Citizens Advice Bureau realistically accessible for the disabled wins his nomination for the most inspired project of 199EVAMY

Inspiration is one of the words that has almost lost meaning in the design business. The kind of “inspiration” talked about most often is the kind that accompanies a lack of imagination, rather than the type that suggests a new attitude or approach to a problem. It’s the “inspiration” of rustic architecture in the design of out-of-town supermarkets or the “inspiration” of using a 1956 peanut butter label in a design for a 1996 peanut butter label.

Inspiring acts by designers often occur on a small scale away from the glare of publicity, the outcome of a personal campaign or labour of love. This is true of my pick of 1995: a modest building, but a giant achievement.

The new Citizens Advice Bureau in Chessington, Surrey, opens on 6 March when Princess Anne pays a visit. The Princess will be shown around a building that is a statement of elegant modernism, a two-storey box compartmentalised by surging flat planes of colour and, after dark, by washes of light from discreet sources. When available, daylight floods the first-floor offices through wide, full-height windows that also prevent the building from appearing as a closed and unwelcoming blockhouse. Greeted by the kind of sight that adorns the covers of architectural journals and is usually the result of a slightly avant-garde architect commissioning himself, the Princess may not expect the building to go far in accommodating the needs of disabled users. But it does. I doubt whether any building in the UK goes further. Which makes the building not just beautiful to the able-bodied, but to all those whose way into stunning buildings is so often barred.

The designer was Gabriele Bramante, a German-born architect and student of Japanese building styles who co-owns a small practice in Teddington. Designing thrilling spaces for universal usage has become her living. Some time after qualifying as an architect, she developed a condition that confined her to a hospital bed for the best part of a year. The deprivation she felt after staring for months at the same dismal fixtures and fittings, such as the metal rings on the curtain rail around her bed, forced a re evaluation of her priorities in designing buildings. “If you lie in hospital for a year, it makes you totally aware of the unmitigated ugliness of so much in the health sector. You stop being a patient. You become a victim,” she says.

Bramante has since gone far beyond the rules on designing for the disabled, and rejects standard fittings and the minimum allowable dimensions of the Building Regulations. At Chessington, for example, a local council access officer insisted that 1.10m width for the doors was excessive, that 90cm would do. The doors were made 1.10m anyway.

The ground floor and approaches to the CAB offices are on a single, uninterrupted plane. There is a wide staircase with handrails on both sides, and a lift. Bramante developed a range of ironmongery – door handles, kickplates and so on – for the building, and a hand-held infra-red “bus” system programmed with a range of settings to control the lighting, louvre blinds and ambient temperature. Then she took a standard BMW locking system and adapted it to allow a transponder mounted on a wheelchair to unlock the front door automatically, without any need for pressing buttons. BMW is now wanting to manufacture the modified product.

The CAB’s numerous committees and user groups presented Bramante with a multi-headed client. She was left to chase dozens of building companies and component suppliers for contributions to the project, without which the building would not be standing. As it was, it had to be constructed in bursts of frenetic activity, co-ordinated by Bramante. The steel frame was donated by Trafalgar House. A piling contractor offered his team and two JCBs for a day. In 12 hours, all the foundations were built. The project was like a long-lasting “Challenge Anneka”.

Through Bramante’s unfading commitment and persistence, the remarkable triumphed over the restrictive and mundane. That is what makes the building breathtaking. And now the CAB, previously better known for tatty offices in inaccessible basements, has a premises that is the complete reverse.

For some real inspiration in 1996, call the CAB in Chessington on 0181-391 2065 and arrange a visit .

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