Gold Quoins

A new smithing school in Britton Street celebrates the cornerstone of Clerkenwell culture, says Riya Patel

The heaving stink of Smithfield was what first attracted craftsmen to Clerkenwell in the 1800s — or rather, the cheap rents afforded by putting up with it. Taking up residence in the narrow streets surrounding the meat market, Huguenots and other immigrants flocked to the area, bringing with them their specialist skills of clockmaking, joinery, engraving, enamelling, gunsmithing and jewellery-making. Together, they turned EC1 into an artisanal hub, laying the foundations of its craft heritage.

Apart from the pockets of industry that remain (most notably the jewellers who still lay claim to Hatton Garden) and individuals with workshops, these crafts have gone from the area, most of which is now devoted to office space. However, one new building here is setting out to reverse the trend. The Goldsmiths’ Centre, which is currently going up in Britton Street, aims to keep craft at the heart of the area and to provide opportunities for young people who are interested in working with gold and silver.

Funded by The Goldsmiths’ Company, one of the oldest City livery companies, the £17.5 million project will see a half-acre site opposite Janet Street-Porter’s famous former home become a state-of-the-art learning facility, with education and exhibition spaces, conference rooms and a café.

The design, by John Lyall Architects, is part new-build and part refurbishment of the existing Grade II Listed building. “It was a school initially,” explains project architect Chris Bills. “Then a butchers’ institute, being so close to Smithfield, and then a fashion college. It’s always had an educational purpose and so it’s nice to be continuing that tradition.” The Goldsmiths’ Company acquired the lease from the London Development Agency, which at the time was looking for a tenant that could bring certain economic and social benefits to the area.

The new-build element is a five-storey tower, joined to the school with a glazed atrium and clad in hand-patinated brass, to echo the precious metals being crafted inside. “The Goldsmiths don’t commission buildings very often,” says Bills. “And when they do, they want to make sure that everything is right. They were keen on materials that were high quality and had a long life-span.” Yorkstone and London stock bricks have also been chosen for the cladding, to respect the historic local context.

The building will house the newly formed Goldsmiths’ Institute: an educational scheme with post-graduate and preapprentice training programmes. Described as a “radical approach” to remedy the decline of craft in Britain generally, the courses were conceived as a reaction to those offered by London’s top art colleges – which the Company sees as taking an increasingly academic, rather than vocational, bent.

As a continuation of the Company’s 700 years of experience in establishing relationships between apprentices and mentors, part of the centre has been set aside for “incubator units” – studios for the newly graduated artisans to start their own businesses while still receiving the support of their tutors.

The facilities, which are due to open in November, will also be available for use by local jewellers who are keen to brush up on their skills. And anyone, of course, be they creative or not, can seek inspiration in the café.