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Competition: Arches Challenge, London

Meanwhile Space community interest company (CIC) has launched a design contest for a £60,000 overhaul of several disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London (Deadline: 14 August)

The competition is open to multidisciplinary teams of emerging architects, structural engineers, product designers and fabricators, and seeks ‘cost effective’ proposals to transform eight abandoned Victorian arches into start-up business spaces.

The project, supported by the Greater London Authority, Lambeth Council and Network Rail, aims to restore dilapidated spaces that remain vacant because the cost of conversion outweighs any income they could generate. Three finalist teams will work with Atkins to further develop their schemes, which could also be rolled out to other similar locations in the future.

Disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London

Disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London

Disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London

According to the initial brief: ‘The task is to deliver a realisable design solution to allow currently underused arches to be reoccupied quickly and efficiently. This should be a demountable structure, which can adapt to the different sizes and conditions of individual railway arch spaces.

‘The solution should have the ability to be redeployed and relocated to another arch when required, with minimal cost implication. The full design brief will be made available to the shortlisted applicants.’

Loughborough Junction lies between Brixton, Camberwell and Herne Hill, and has suffered from decades of underinvestment following abandoned plans to create a raised motorway through the area in the 1960s. Nearby landmarks include Zaha Hadid Architects’ 2011 Stirling Prize-winning Evelyn Grace Academy.

Disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London

Disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London

Disused railway arches in Loughborough Junction, south London

Meanwhile Space CIC has been operating in a series of disused railway arches in the area since 2014, hosting start-up businesses and a community food project. The company recently teamed up with Architecture 00 to deliver a multifunctional workspace complex nearby, and the latest scheme aims to further expand the organisation’s presence beyond its current 13 arches.

The competition invites ‘realisable’ proposals for demountable structures that could adapt to different sized railway arches and allow them to reoccupied quickly and efficiently. Proposals should be freestanding, easily repeatable, flexible, low cost and high quality while also providing a secure, warm and dry space for start-up businesses.

Three shortlisted teams will receive £500 each to attend a two-day workshop with Atkins during which they will further develop their designs. Judges include Matthew Turner from the GLA, Tom Bridgman from Lambeth Council and representatives from Meanwhile Space, Network Rail and Atkins.

An overall winner or winners will then be chosen in October and given the design commission. The design is due to be rolled out the following month. Between £5,000 and £7,000 is available for the conversion of each of the eight arches.

How to apply


The deadline for applications is 14 August

Contact details


View the competition brief for more information

Archway Studios case study: Q&A with Didier Ryan

The director of Undercurrent Architects discusses lessons learned converting a similar railway arch in south London

How did your Archway Studios project deliver an appropriate new use for a former railway arch?

Archway Studios provides a template for transforming the toughest of site conditions – noisy, vibrating, wet, dark, and poorly ventilated railway arches – into viable and attractive buildings. The project works with the challenges of a fortified design that overcomes environmental and technical constraints while engaging its surroundings with a unique design.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Which architectural, material, planning and other methods did you harness in your design?

Archway Studios was severely constrained by its narrow plot and limited access to light, aspect and views. The building subverts these tight site conditions to encapsulate light and lofty interiors and offer release in spite of constraint. The design contrasts the compressed, cavernous qualities of the railway arch with slender, ecclesial spaces around an atrium. A protective acoustic shell on the outside of the arch scoops daylight into the deepest recesses so that the arch feels connected to the outside rather than hemmed in under a railway line.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

What advice would you have to contest participants on designing a future use for a disused railway arch in Loughborough Junction?

Railway arches are attractive spaces which have their own unique quality and value to the city. There is huge potential with over 10,000 arches in London, so what you achieve here could have a broad effect across the whole city. Look for opportunities in the constraints and aim for a design that is more than problem-solving.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects

Q&A with Alison Minto

The general manager at Meanwhile Space discusses her ambitions for the competition

Alison Minto

Alison Minto

Alison Minto

Why are you holding a contest to rethink several disused railways arches in Loughborough Junction?

The project seeks to create demountable structures to sit within currently vacant railway arches, bringing them back into active use by providing adequate shelter, insulation and security for future tenants. We are running a competition for designer/makers to work with our partner engineer Atkins, with the aim of creating up to three alternative prototypes that meet our objectives.

Running a competition allows us to draw upon a broad range of talent and to find designers that we otherwise wouldn’t reach. Meanwhile Space has run competitions before and we have found it gives us greater access to committed, talented designers. We feel running a competition in this instance is a fantastic opportunity to find people from a broad range of disciplines, not just architecture, who can get their teeth into a small-scale but challenging problem.

There is a benefit in building three different prototypes because we don’t want to limit ourselves to one solution at this stage; there is rarely one answer to a problem.

What is your vision for the future of the spaces?

Along with its seven railway bridges, Loughborough Junction is defined by 252 railway arches. While they are a major feature they are also an unrealised resource and a contributing factor to anti-social behaviour problems in the area due to their poor condition and associated high vacancy rates.

Working with Lambeth Council and Network Rail, Meanwhile Space already rents out several, previously vacant, arches in the area on meanwhile leases. These are mainly occupied by businesses with a practical background, such as carpenters, craftspeople and other makers. However, many other vacant arches are in such a poor state of repair it is difficult to justify the investment needed when the rental periods available are so short. There is also a need to offer arches to a broader range of meanwhile tenancies, such as offices, textile designers, tech companies or shops. This has required a fresh way of thinking about the problem.

Innovation and quality are important to the outcome of the project, but our budgets are always challenging as our spaces are for meanwhile use. We need to ensure that the project is cost-effective and of high quality. We recognise the need to marry innovation with practical commercial drivers/considerations.

The project needs to be easy to construct, move and reconstruct and therefore should see the arch as a framework rather than a prescriptive brief. At present we have earmarked three arches, each between 50m² and 60m², but arches vary greatly in depth and height and this will be part of the challenge. We anticipate that the front elevations will require planning permission and Building Regulations will need to be met as appropriate.

We anticipate that the designers will have experience of freestanding structures, temporary workspaces, exhibition design, or low-cost lightweight engineering solutions to practical problems. Unrealised designs will be accepted, however, it is essential to be able to demonstrate a capacity to deliver physical interventions to a high standard on minimal budgets.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

We are particularly looking for submissions from emerging practices and undiscovered talents who know how things are built. They must have an eye for maximising the design within a very limited budget and be creative in the fullest sense. They should demonstrate an ability to construct the project with evidence of where they have solved similar awkward problems presented in the submission.

The design process will be in conjunction with Atkins, and applicants must embrace this approach and tell us how they feel they can benefit from it. Atkins has extensive experience of working on railway infrastructure and is excited about this small-scale opportunity and collaborative approach.

We hope that if the winning designs are successful and cost effective, thry will be repeatable in other arches and potentially other sites – there are hundreds of unused arches in London.

What other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

MS is managing several award-winning projects. We are proud of our track record of commissioning either by ourselves or in partnership with local authorities. These include: Central Parade by Gort Scott; Granby Place by If-Do; Place Ladywell by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners; and our most recent launch Blue House Yard by Jan Kattein. We have further projects in development of various scales but nothing ready for promotion yet.

Are there any other railway arch conversions you have been impressed by?

Railway arches are used in so many creative ways, often fitted out beautifully outside but invisible from the street. We are fond of the Whirled Cinema – also in Loughbrough Junction. We are also impressed by the David Adjaye Architects scheme in Morning Lane, Hackney, especially by the way the arch fronts are dealt with – but that scheme, of course, had a much larger budget.


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