Sidcup Storyteller – ADC

DRDH Architects has delivered a combined library, cinema and residential building for the London suburb of Sidcup. Madeleine Jacob examines the tensions between commercial viability and civic ambition.



Madeleine Jacob


David Grandorge

Sidcup Storyteller is the product of an all-too-rare investment in civic life. Under the heading ‘In Store for Sidcup’, £1.2m from the Mayor’s Outer London Fund and £582,000 from Bexley Council have been earmarked to attract business to Sidcup town centre. One of the key moves has been the decision to relocate the library from a single-use single-storey building just off the high street to a prominent location on the high street itself, giving it a more public presence and attracting a wider demographic, including students of the two performing arts colleges Sidcup hosts. DRDH won the commission in part on account of its proposal to broaden the brief to include nine apartments, as a means of offsetting some of the costs.

Cost is always a factor in public sector buildings, but perhaps never more so than in the current climate of austerity. DRDH’s Daniel Rosbottom reels off a litany of statistics which detail the extent of the London Borough of Bexley’s deprivation, and is justly proud of the role the library has had to play in the regeneration of Bexley’s once deprived high street. DRDH was fortunate to encounter the first generation of city planners to come out of Public Practice, the organisation founded in 2017 to recruit talented placemaking professionals into the public sector, finding a ready audience for its ambition to deliver high-quality architecture perhaps best characterised as ‘affordable civic’.


The new building strikes a confident focal point amid the clutter of the typical suburban high street.

That said, the project’s evolution has been informed by the need to balance the books. The public library, which occupies most of the ground floor, is the only part of the building that the public can inhabit unquestioned and free of charge, and the architects have taken care to reinforce the public nature of the space by positioning the ‘front desk’ away from the entrance and halfway down the plan. The remaining floorspace is taken up by the apartments and a cinema franchise, a commercial enterprise which, however socially valuable, provides its contribution to life in Sidcup for a price. The question is whether the architecture is robust enough for the building to deliver on its civic ambitions, despite the commercial elements of the brief.

Certainly, it succeeds in signalling a new or renewed investment in this suburban high street; a haphazard collection of buildings in awkward relation to each other that suggests a history of unkempt negotiations between civic and commercial demands. Situated on the corner where the A222 crosses the High Street and becomes Station Road, a narrow rectangular site previously occupied by the two-storey Blockbuster video and carpark, the red brick library and cinema seems to shyly – or slyly – play its part in this array. The High Street elevation, which from the front or left of the building shrinks into the typical rectangle of a retail shopfront, uses glossy salt-glazed bricks. Although the building is rarely in direct sunlight, viewed obliquely it’s a slim glinting column.


The project was partly funded by nine apartments, which are stacked at the rear of the site and partially screened by a 150-year-old oak tree.

Rosbottom explains how the practice took pains to align the engraved panel reading ‘Library & Cinema’ with the high-street windowsills alongside it. The building’s topmost height completes the geometry of a flattened classical façade overhanging a newly opened lounge. Rosbottom points out that the entranceway drum relates to the height of the buildings on the three other corners of the junction. But despite its reticence to outdo the High Street, the building springs unmissably into view as you ascend Station Road. It is now the first view afforded to Sidcup’s visitors.

The shape of the site – a narrow rectangle set against the rising road – is a recurring motif reproduced in miniature on the soldier course brickwork of the exterior, and in the bright and intricate hardwood tiling in the interior entrance hall. A language of high ceilings, timber floors, wide windows and mauve tiles combines to create an architecture that is generous, robust, easy-to-maintain and designed to last – and only marginally compromised by the synthetic carpet tiles that the cinema chain has installed in the community room upstairs.







Ground, first, second, and third-floor plans; long section; cross section.

From the entrance hall, the staircase winds across and around the building’s large square windows. Its slim rail has a slightly baroque curvature and, like a palatial gallery’s enfilade, there is an unbroken sightline from children’s section in the library’s furthest recess to the glass entrance doors and high street beyond. But here the sequence of rooms gradates privacy rather than privilege. A would-be meeting room (currently used as storage) is behind reeded glass and timber at the very rear. The children’s library is next in the sequence, at this point beneath the level of the street, so that the shins or ankles of passers-by are at head height. The librarian’s desk and computer room pinch the passageway into a narrow corridor, before opening to the stacks, a series of partitioned desks, and a table available for community groups to reserve. The road beyond the expansive windows has now come level with the surfaces of the desks, positioning readers just below street level.

Beyond the library, public toilets (the only ones on Sidcup High Street) and the café (run by the cinema franchise) take up the rest of the ground floor. Thanks to careful acoustic planning, the sounds of the café don’t travel the few metres to the library’s entranceway and study desks. Rosbottom explains how the practice, which has previously worked on concert halls and auditoria, is focused “as much on how a building sounds as how it looks.”

In the 1930s, London was fringed with art-deco cinemas – and libraries – compacting American ‘dream palaces’ for more provincial tastes. In the same palatial style, the library’s sequence of courtly rooms makes clear that the public library is no silent study closet: it is a place of community happening and social mobility, at least in its design.


The double-height café and library enjoy a direct relationship with Sidcup High Street.

The building – just about – manages to house the conflicting spatial demands of library and cinema, but there are moments when the strain is more evident than others. The council has sold the wraparound gallery, accessed from the second floor and originally intended to be a part of the library, to the cinema franchise along with the entirety of the second and third floors. The plan is that it will operate as an extension of the café – you can order a hotdog or toastie from the desk – and visitors can use desk space there – for a price. The cinema’s general manager tells me that locals who turn up hoping to use the library are redirected here on the three days a week when the library is closed. One can’t help but wonder what happens to would-be-readers without cash to spend on a desk.


Designed as a series of contrasting spaces, the interior is inspired by one of Bexley’s most esteemed buildings: William Morris’s Red House, which was designed with help from the architect Philip Webb.

Rosbottom explains that the entrance hall and stairway were designed with the entrance of a large house in mind: a welcoming civic house that is open to all. Since the upper floors have been sold to the cinema franchise, this upstairs-downstairs dynamic equates to downstairs for members of the local community, and upstairs for paying customers.

Within the library’s bounds, DRDH has balanced community engagement with the sensory cloistering a library needs; a view to the street on one side; a quiet, cavernous space on another. Rosbottom reflects that this is something DRDH has done for a while: design buildings with strong character that can bear some conflict between their inhabitants. While the building’s fragile ecosystem seems to be under threat by the way in which spaces have been subsequently repurposed, the thoughtful, public-spirited, nuanced approach to its architecture is at least hopeful of a more civic use.


Weaponising the organisation of a palace or a stately home in favour of Sidcup’s reading public, the building rejects being a shared space – a library/cinema/café – and instead attempts to distinguish its many uses from one another. Likewise, the building gives us two versions of a corner, many heights in conversation with the street.

The suburban high street has, for almost a century, been negotiating commercial and public planning. Sidcup is a typical 1930s suburb, with acres of prefab housing estates built in the early 20th Century. Rosbottom suggests that if new housing is going to be built here in the coming years, it should feel like an aspirational place once again. And maybe aspirational feelings usher in genuinely aspirational planning.


Two of the neighbouring shopfronts are still engraved with patronymics: ‘Police’ above a newly opened family grill restaurant and ‘Bank’ above a defunct branch of Barclays. The ‘Library and Cinema’ engraving on the street elevations each make a stab at this kind of permanence. Whether that permanence is going to end up another reminder of what high streets across the country have lost (‘this building was once a library and cinema’) or a testament to their longevity (‘this building was and can again be a library and cinema’) is out of DRDH’s hands. It has, at least, made a building which lends itself to civic life.

Additional Images


Architect, principal designer

DRDH Architects

Structural engineer

Engineers HRW

Services engineer

Harley Haddow

Quantity surveyor

Playle & Partners

Project manager

LBB Regeneration Team

CDM coordinator

Playle & Partners

Acoustic consultant




Approved building inspector

Neilcott Construction


London Boroughof Bexley


Vande Moortel

Precast stone

Classic Masonry

Curtain walling




Curved entrance


Green/blue roof


Source: Architecture Today