Is it a home? Is it an office? A shop, a theatre or maybe a bus station? Well, all of the above – and more besides. In fact, Ruddle Wilkinson Architects’ latest development in north London combines nine uses in one building. Martin Spring finds out how.

Mixed-use, high-density development has rarely been more mixed or, indeed, more dense. The £45m Tally Ho Corner development, in the north London suburb of North Finchley, combines no fewer than nine uses. In the private sector, it brings together 158 flats, five shops, offices and a health club with swimming pool, and the public sector can boast two theatres, an exhibition hall, a community art club, a drama college and a bus station. It is claimed to be the largest project to have been completed by a public–private partnership so far in Britain, and was developed in a single phase. Perhaps most impressively of all, this rich mix of uses, located in the heart of an old town centre, is compacted into a single building that rises to a height of 50 m.

It is, in short, an urban planner’s dream.

Predictably, this highly complex development has had a complicated birth. Named after a nearby pub, the site once housed a Gaumont cinema, which was demolished in 1987. It was then acquired by Barnet council, which let it out as a street market while earmarking it for community use. The use favoured by local residents in a consultation exercise in 1996 was as a purpose-built venue for the thriving local theatre, whose premises in another former pub, the Bull, were bursting at the seams.

The theatre’s first bid to win development cash was turned down by the Lottery Fund. In a quick change of tack, the council then drew up a feasibility study and invited bids from private developers.

In 1999 the tender was won by Chiltern Investment Properties, a firm that had developed a public theatre alongside a commercial supermarket in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. The developer commissioned the design from Ruddle Wilkinson Architects and then passed the equity of the scheme on to Wilcon Homes, which was later taken over by Taylor Woodrow Developments.

Even more challenging than funding the project was the task of physically splicing together all the divergent uses on a peninsula site that was smaller than a football pitch and hemmed in on three sides by dual carriageways. “We had to weave them all together in a 3D jigsaw,” says John Thornberry, Ruddle Wilkinson’s associate director. “We were given a base set of requirements by Chiltern and we had to explore what density could be achieved.”

Ruddle Wilkinson’s solution was to build two of the elements up high: the private flats and the theatre fly-tower rise up like bookends at either end of the site. The 158 flats rise to 18 storeys, the most possible within the 50 m height restriction that was set by council planners to match the highest existing buildings in the borough. All the other accommodation is either sandwiched between the two towers, or in the case of the shops and offices, tucked in directly below them. Residents’ car parking is efficiently disposed of in one-and-a-half basement levels.

One item of accommodation that played havoc with the architect’s 3D jigsaw was the bus station for Transport for London’s double-deckers. The existing site was the town centre’s only public transport node, so it was immovable. The problem was that it bored a large hole through the heart of the new building.

The bus depot’s claims on ground and first-floor space had the effect of pushing the two theatres, their foyer and all the other accommodation upstairs to the second floor. This limited the civic presence that the scheme’s five cultural and educational elements could have in the town centre. Partly in compensation, they joined forces to share a communal foyer with cafe bar that remains open all day and evening. This civic hall is a large airy atrium that takes pride of place at the heart of the scheme and is bounded on three sides by the cultural attractions on offer. Yet here again, the hall’s inviting civic character and public cafe is undermined by being on the second floor, where it is tucked above and to one side of a double-height reception hall, and barely visible from the street.

Visitors who venture up as far as the civic atrium are rewarded with a top-lit rectangular hall that is three storeys in height, populated by spare cafe tables and chairs and surrounded by smooth, flat, white-painted plaster surfaces. The effect is cool, modern and elegant, yet also intentionally neutral, as it will be enlivened by colourful, kinetic art works and displays. Overlooking the hall on two sides are wide galleries that serve as internal streets traversing the width and length of the building and giving access to the cultural activities on offer. A second bar for theatregoers lies at the intersection of two of the upper-level streets.

The main theatre is a well-upholstered crimson affair that is set off by the neutral white foyer. “We wanted a larger space, but we didn’t want to lose the intimacy of the Bull,” says Alison Duthie, the theatre’s director. It is a 400-seat auditorium in which stage, proscenium arch, orchestra pit and raked stall seating can all be mechanically rearranged to suit drama, musical concerts or flat-floored events. Alongside it lies the 150-seat studio theatre.

One of the main innovations of the cultural complex is its comprehensive disabled access. This goes well beyond the public access requirements set out in the Disability Discrimination Act and covers all of the backstage facilities of the two theatres. Even the lighting gantries above the auditorium are wide and level enough to allow wheelchair access.

Externally, the building is north Finchley’s prime landmark. It could easily have become a blot on the landscape, not least because it was procured through a design-and-build contract. Fortunately, it has turned out to be a large exclamation mark, thanks largely to the fact that the concept architect, Ruddle Wilkinson, was novated to the contractor, Gleeson, and took its well-considered modelling, materials and detailing with it. As Thornberry says, “We wanted a single identity for the whole building, but we also wanted to articulate the individual elements so it wouldn’t be too monolithic.”

The dominant 15-storey slab of flats is articulated by indented balconies on the west side and projecting balconies on the east. The location of the projecting balconies alternates on each floor to set up a lively rhythm. On the two lowest floors, the building’s irregular collection of volumes is bound together by a continuous perimeter wall that sweeps around the sharp corners in smooth curves. Neatly detailed cladding in stack-bonded terracotta on the upper floors and stack-bonded black granite on the ground, gives the building a clean-cut, suave, urbane character.

As for the cultural complex, its only external manifestation is its reception and main entrance in the side street. They make their mark with a high, clear-glazed facade like an outsized shop window. It would gain even more civic impact if the street were transformed into a small piazza.

As well as architectural benefits, the Tally Ho’s high-density mix of uses provides significant cultural, social and economic ones.

For one, the coming together of two professional theatres, a community art centre and a drama college presents exciting opportunities for arts participation and learning, as well as spectating. “There are no boundaries here between artists and education,” says director Duthie. “There are opportunities for collaboration, and we have put equality of access as central to the ethos.” Some £15m of cultural riches came as planning gain, with the council providing no more than the site and a £2.5m top-up.

Nor does this rich interplay of public-sector cultural activities get in the way of the private developer’s commercial aims. For Taylor Woodrow Properties and anchor tenants Marks & Spencer and Canons leisure centres, they are fundamental in attracting people to the development throughout the day and into the evening.

As for North Finchley town centre, there are already signs that regeneration is spreading, with empty premises flowering into coffee bars, wine bars and designer clothes shops. Just what urban planners dream of.

Project team

Barnet council, Taylor Woodrow Developments, Chiltern Investment Properties
Ruddle Wilkinson Architects
Structural engineer
Walsh Associates
Services engineer
WSP North
Gardiner & Theobald
Project manager
Gardiner & Theobald Management Services
Theatre consultant
ACT Consultant Services
Design-and-build contractor
MJ Gleeson