Citizen's chic

This elegant construction, believe it or not, houses the Citizens Advice Bureau for residents of Chessington in Surrey. It's what public buildings should be like, argues Gabriele Bramante, the architect who moved heaven and earth to get her way. Report by Michael Evamy
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Everyday existence in this country brings with it visits to places most of us would rather not go near, but have to. There is the GP's surgery, typically now a bare, echoing room with a few rudimentary probes and gauges on a creaking desk. What about the dole office, which, despite its new open-plan, plastic-plants-and-computers makeover, remains a dreaded destination? Or perhaps your local purgatory is the Citizens Advice Bureau, in all likelihood confined to a murky, chaotic cell up a staircase or in a basement at the back of town. If you even know where it is, you're doing well.

There is a CAB just opened, however, which is about to become nationally known, and for all the right reasons. It is in Chessington, Surrey, in the plainest of suburban settings, yet it has reached the final short list for the 1996 BBC Design Awards environment section. The building sets new standards for public facilities and for access by the disabled - but by rights it shouldn't be there at all. Were it not for a visionary architect and an untiringly charitable set of suppliers and builders, Chessington CAB would still be sweating it out in the old lean-to shed nailed to the community centre hall next door.

The new building has space, light and order. On what used to be the dog- leg to a small car park now stands a seamless, two-storey glass box. Its sharp edges may put off a few, but this is no cold, functional cube of a building. Once inside, there is the welcoming, calming presence of wall-to-wall natural materials, including sandstone and beech, with York stone on the floors. On a hot day, the shady, ground-floor waiting room is a cool oasis. Sunlight floods the upper floor and, when evening falls, artificial light washing over the delicately-hued walls makes the building glow.

Its looks are only half the story. The building was designed from top to bottom with disabled employees and clients in mind. There are no steps or ramps outside, but a level entrance across a smooth stone floor. There are extra-wide doors, plus cantilevered desks, and bookshelves with room for wheelchair users to get their legs underneath. All the light switches can be reached from a wheelchair, and staff can set the building's temperature and its lighting, and even turn on the kettle using a small, hand-held remote-control box specially developed for the building.

How did the CAB end up with such a place? It was its good fortune that just a mile or two up the road in Teddington was Gabriele Bramante, a German-born architect with her own practice. Bramante combines a love of Japanese architecture with a determination to make public environments accessible to everyone, able-bodied or otherwise. She is used to working with limited resources. But this client was asking the impossible. The CAB had been holding raffles and jumble sales for ten years to pay for a new building, but still had just pounds 48,000 - not enough to buy a two-up- two-down in Chessington.

Undeterred, Bramante designed the building she thought the CAB should have and the public deserved, and then got on the phone. She sent her drawings to builders and suppliers of top quality fixtures, fittings and materials, and cajoled them relentlessly to give their products or services free or at cost price. Having secured the goodwill of some major companies, such as the structural steel giant Cleveland Bridge, the architect tackled smaller firms. In all, she raised pounds 200,000 of sponsorship. "It was the most extraordinary effort of the building industry to come together in the way they did," says Bramante. "It was like a chain reaction." The foundations were dug and cast in a day, despite the site being flooded by a punctured sewer pipe. The steel frame was erected in three days by a gang brought down from the massive Drax Power Station project. And, throughout the heat of last summer, the joiners and fitters from Ashby & Homer toiled in greenhouse conditions.

In between visits to the site, Bramante fought local authority officers who refused to understand why she had bothered to design wider-than-average doorways, and resisted the more carping reactions of the CAB management committee. This was made up of numerous volunteers, many of them determined to object to something or other. "After this, my body is covered not in skin, but in hide," says Bramante.

The building is a rare balance of beauty and function. In answer to the voices who were heard to mutter at the opening that the building is "too good" for the CAB, Bramante quotes fellow emigre Berthold Lubetkin, the modernist architect: "Nothing is too good for ordinary people." Bramante and her builders have created the kind of community meeting place that the drive towards market forces in public services has prohibited. "A lot of the visitors don't like modern buildings, but say they like coming here. They had 14 people in that waiting room the other day, which was far more than in the old place. People seem to have more problems now! But it's just the building"