It's not an obvious austerity move. While other councils are closing things, Brent have splashed out £90m on a brand new administrative building alongside Wembley Stadium. It's called Brent Civic Centre, and it's a key part of the redevelopment of the area from light industrial backwater to gleaming investment hub. And it opened a fortnight ago.
The new building is one of the most environmentally friendly in the country, with automatically adjusting windows and a boiler that runs on fish oil. Structurally it's a seven storey office block with a huge wooden drum in one corner rising through the building. On the lower floors of the drum is the new Wembley Library, while the circular space above contains the new council chamber. Most council chambers sit empty most of the time, but this one's a multi-purpose space available to hire when there are no meetings on. A lot of the building is hire-able, which is one of the ways Brent Council plan to see a good return on their investment. They've also brought together all their staff from 14 municipal buildings around the borough, which means most of those 14 buildings can be sold off or redeveloped making a tidy packet. It's a public building, so it's hoped the community will visit and make it their own. And they also do weddings. [photo]
There was a wedding party milling around when I arrived, probably cursing their luck at picking a miserable summer's day for their nuptials. They were standing around in the vast atrium, the focal point of the building, and a bit of a wow when you walk in through the doors. A grand staircase leads up to the first floor, cunningly set out with benches to act as an impromptu auditorium as necessary. Someone's added a few trees to soften the visual impact of the steel and glass inner walls, behind which (for staff) it's hotdesks-a-go-go. I understand there's a garden out the back and another upstairs, but the latter was probably full of suits and dresses so I didn't risk venturing there. [photo]
Instead I wandered into the library, still less than a week old and thus far only partially colonised by readers. It's a very modern library, in the same vein as many I've seen open in the last few years, by which I mean fewer shelves and more places to interact. One long wall featured "Books To Go", all placed cover up, which presumably shifts units faster even though it crams far fewer in. Screens and iPads play an important part, as you'd expect, but it was reassuring to hear the sounds of "The Wheels On The Bus" drifting from the children's library suggesting that not everything's yet irrevocably changed. And then in the corner facing the stadium I stumbled on the cafe, entirely unsignposted, its cluster of tables unsurprisingly empty. [photo]
Indeed Brent Civic Centre's biggest problem, if you're a member of the public, is the lack of signage. Someone's written "Wembley Library" across the front window, so that was easy to locate. But as for which other parts of the building I was allowed into, not a clue. No signs to the gardens, no signs to the restaurant or community hall which supposedly exist upstairs, no signs to anything whatsoever. I wasn't even sure if I was allowed to ascend the central staircase to view the grand atrium from above, which surely I was, but it would have felt wrong. A couple of security guards stood by the main desk but, wedding party aside, the place was essentially dead. It's early days yet, and presumably weekdays are more vibrant, but Brent's fresh heart has yet to beat.
Meanwhile... Nextdoor, where the Palace of Industry used to be, there's now nothing but an empty space. Back in 1924 this whole area was used for the British Empire Exhibition, and its buildings have been gradually removed over the years until finally the last one has gone. I spotted the demolition notice back in February, with the old concrete palace (a Yodel distribution centre) looking rather worse for wear. And now there's a vast blank space, which'll probably be a car park to start with, and then definitely flats. Quintain, the developers, have a masterplan to transform Wembley North West into "a fully integrated and lively neighbourhood providing up to 1300 new homes, a vibrant shopping street, a hotel, affordable workspace, community and leisure facilities". In truth it's more boxes in the sky for aspirational professionals, and the one thing noticeable by its absence will be Industry, palatial or otherwise. [photo Feb 2013][photo Jun 2013]
Meanwhile... Construction continues at the London Designer Outlet alongside Wembley Arena. The capital's latest megamall is scheduled to be open before Christmas, although there'd appear to be plenty of building to do yet, let alone fitting out. All your favourite brands will be here, if branded fashion is your thing, selling off lines they can't sell elsewhere at discount prices. According to the website, which is dripping with prize marketingspeakdrivel, "London Designer Outlet will reflect its vibrant and culturally diverse urban setting, and attract a sophisticated, affluent and style-conscious consumer catering for the key groups within the its catchment." Armani, M&S and Nike are coming, and I suspect lots of Chinese tourists will be coming too. So far only TGI Fridays is open, and not exactly buzzing, but you'll be hearing a lot more about this retail honeytrap before the year is out. [photo]