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Rainham Hall in London, UK, by Studio Weave

Rainham Hall exterior Sophia Schorr Kon

A charming series of installations convert the hall into a false-memory palace

Rainham – even the name sounds a bit depressing, although a local company put it to cheerful use in a radio jingle: ‘It’s Rainham Sheds, hallelujah, it’s Rainham Sheds, amen!’ Topographically, though, the place is undeniably challenging: a small town 40 minutes by train from central London, separated from the Thames by bleak marshes and bounded to the north-east by farmland. To the west, Ford’s Dagenham plant lies stretched across 475 acres, a dying giant. Complete with a vast Tesco and some undistinguished housing estates, the place presents a dour expression on casual acquaintance. However, to those in the know Rainham has always had a secret: the rather tatty medieval village at its core. There’s a Norman church with a pretty graveyard, which abuts an 18th-century house, the grandly named Rainham Hall. Since 2011, thanks to the concerted efforts of the Greater London Authority and the local borough council, this bit of Rainham has improved dramatically. The station has been linked to the village by a new library, and the shops given fresh signage (the Cold Blooded Reptile Centre is particularly intriguing).

The jewel in Rainham’s crown, though, is the Hall, a Queen Anne house built in 1729 by a merchant seaman named John Harle. But although this has been owned by the National Trust since the 1940s, it was tenanted and so only intermittently open to visitors. Thanks to a £1.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, that has now changed. In opening the Hall to the public, the National Trust faced a significant challenge. There is no collection, little art, few pieces of original furniture. What then to do with this empty shell? Distinguished restoration architect Julian Harrap was engaged to conserve the building’s fabric, and in what seems an unusually bold move for a body more associated with cream teas than the improvement of run-down suburbs, the Trust picked London-based practice Studio Weave to make the Hall into a place that people other than architectural historians would want to visit, and a meeting point for the local community. The latter has been achieved by transforming the stable block into a café and function room, pleasant spaces that will undoubtedly serve Rainham well. The former, however, raises some more challenging questions about the role of the architect.

Rainham Hall  Sophia Schorr Kon

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon

Source: Sophia Schorr-Kon

‘This raises questions about the competences of architects as curators and as social workers’

With the 2015 win of the Turner Prize by Assemble, another amorphous gang of young architects (or in Assemble’s case, aspirant architects) known for their small-scale, socially engaged projects, as well as Theaster Gates’ feted work in Chicago, what Hal Foster called the art-architectural complex is a hot topic. Foster argued that, ‘the capitalist subsumption of the cultural into the economic often prompts the repurposing of such art-architecture combinations as points of attractions and/or sites of display’. But isn’t that just the point here – and in this context, is it even a problem? Foster coined his phrase in response to big-budget intermedial practice, the push-me-pull-you works of Gehry, Serra and Diller Scofidio + Renfro that hover somewhere between artwork and building. These figures have tended to enrage as much as engage local communities, whereas the likes of Studio Weave, Assemble and Gates work more on the borderline of community architecture and relational aesthetics. This raises questions about the competences of architects as curators and as social workers, and while confusing the boundaries of life and art is something that architects have been doing for a long time – from a certain perspective, it’s what architecture is there is nevertheless something troubling about Assemble’s Turner win. The provision of housing should be a function of the state, and while Assemble are certainly to be applauded for their engagement, that they are garlanded by the establishment with one hand while it wields the scissors with the other should give pause for thought.

Studio Weave’s projects have been somewhat different, in any case. Their Lullaby Factory, an installation in a dismal lightwell at Great Ormond Street Hospital, comprises a tangle of pipework terminating in trumpets, a visual toy for the diversion of young patients that received the AR’s Emerging Architecture Award in 2013. Midden Studio, a zinc-clad artist’s studio completed this summer on the west coast of Scotland, transports the practice’s fairytale aesthetic to an equally if differently inhospitable climate. Their descriptions of these works feature lyrical, rather fey stories; fantasy is a crucial element of this architecture, which is not to say that it doesn’t have an edge. The zinc cladding of Midden Studio is crisp and sharp, like a tin-can in a stream, the lullaby pipes have an industrial air, and in Rainham, the design conceit circles the theme of loss.

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon04

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon04

Source: Sophia Schorr-Kon

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon02

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon02

Source: Sophia Schorr-Kon

To come up with a programme for the building, the practice consulted local residents and groups, and students from Central St Martins. This resulted in the decision to host a series of changing installations that will periodically transform the building just as its motley bunch of tenants had over the years. Some of these were quite remarkable personalities, not least society photographer Anthony Denney, who lived here in the 1960s. But first things first: the inaugural exhibition is titled Everything Harle Left Behind, and imagines the house as it would have been when its builder lived here. This isn’t achieved via set-dressing; instead, a metaphoric logic takes the visitor into the depths of Harle’s past. Except, there is another problem here – Harle didn’t leave a great deal to go on, so instead we have an elusive figure conjured by rooms devoted to aspects of a typical 18th-century merchant’s life. The building becomes a false-memory palace, with objects standing for the story of a man.

‘Herein lies the magic of Studio Weave’s work: the transporting power of fantasy’

Some of these pieces are borrowed from national collections, others designed by the architects – perhaps the most charming of which is a model of the house encountered on stepping through the front door. Drawers pull out to reveal the layout of each floor, and in the bottom drawer we find a model of the model, with model viewers peering into its bottom drawer. Another display brings together period objects of the sort that Harle might have owned and misplaced, creating a poignant meditation on the theme of forgetting; the next room hosts a complete series of Hogarth’s Rakes Progress, another tale of loss, this time of innocence. Lest it seem maudlin, however, one of the building’s star exhibits is John Harle’s will, an almost miraculous discovery made during the project by the local postmistress (she tells the tale in an engaging video display). And downstairs at the back is my favourite room, solely occupied by a video installation that recreates the sensation of being in a storm at sea; spray drenches the walls, and the sound of crashing waves takes you from the suburbs to the wide ocean.

And herein lies the magic of Studio Weave’s work: the transporting power of fantasy. Architecture after Modernism has sometimes been found lacking this element, and while I’d counter that this usually betrays a lack of imagination on the part of the viewer, in Studio Weave’s work a smart design sensibility brings it to the fore, without the need for ornamental flourishes or bludgeoning symbolism. Instead, prolonged investigative thought is applied to producing an interface between the backstory and the experience of visitors. How this will be employed in bigger projects remains to be seen, but here it has created a treasure at the heart of a place that has long deserved better. I look forward to seeing what the next tenant will bring to the Hall.

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon05

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon05

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon03

Rainham Hall Sophia Schorr Kon03

Source: Sophia Schorr-Kon