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Changing places: reuse of obsolescent buildings in south London

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Driven by culture, commerce, convenience and the vogue for adaptive reuse, south London’s current wave of gentrification is still problematic

Southwark Council’s website refers to the Rye Lane Multi-Storey Car Park as ‘one of Peckham’s great buildings’. Although Peckham is not overburdened with great monuments of historic architecture, it’s hard not to imagine that whoever wrote this had their tongue in cheek. The car park was designed as part of a miserable 1980s shopping mall, where all the worst things about 1960s architecture – car-centric, introverted planning, obnoxious massing – were given touches of parodic-historicist brick detailing in order to make it ‘in keeping’ with its surroundings. It’s not Preston Bus Station, it’s not even Owen Luder’s monumental car parks in Gateshead or Portsmouth, and the Twentieth Century Society won’t be campaigning for its listing anytime soon. But Southwark saying this at all is testament to what a change of use and some new ideas can do for a building and an area. The Rye Lane Car Park is now Peckham Levels, a multi-storey fun palace of street food, start-ups and galleries, and it originally being the place to leave your car while you go to Safeway is forgotten and irrelevant. London – especially south London – is currently full of experiments in reuse like this. In places like Rye Lane, the future of London is being forged, for better and worse, out of the materials of the past.

A list of London experimental adaptive reuse projects is dominated by south London, in boroughs like Southwark, Lewisham and Lambeth, which are going from being relatively low-rent into becoming frontiers of gentrification. Since the ’70s, gentrification has involved taking old buildings and reusing them. It has also been pioneered by the arts, whether institutional or underground. So there is something familiar about, say, the ruin-fetish reuse of Battersea Arts Centre (by Haworth Tompkins, as an arts centre) and the Caroline Gardens Chapel, formerly the Licensed Victuallers Benevolent Institution Asylum in Peckham (as an occasional arthouse theatre). These projects take buildings that were subject to fire and bomb damage, respectively, and make them safe and useful while refusing to clean them up and make them nice in the process, leaving all the mess that regulation can allow, a frisson of the post-apocalyptic for your visit to the theatre. Both of these, though based on listed buildings – a florid Victorian town hall and a late Georgian asylum, respectively – have a similar impulse to Peckham’s car park fun palace, to take what exists and play with it, rather than building something big and shiny to signify regeneration. 

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Frank’s Cafe

Sitting on the roof of Peckham Levels, Frank’s Cafe looks out over London’s skyline foregrounded by Will Alsop’s Stirling Prize-winning Peckham Library. Photograph courtesy of Monica Wells / Alamy

This is a sharp break from how things have been done here over the last 20 years, which has been driven by a deep embarrassment by the area’s working class past and present. Some famous New Labour-era cultural buildings are here, whether stratospherically high-end (Tate Modern) or mundane and municipal (Will Alsop’s Peckham Library). As you get closer to the centre, these boroughs are full of high-density ‘luxury flats’, often on sites of demolished council estates; and the shadow of the disastrous redevelopment of the space between Battersea Power Station and the new US embassy into a sub-Singapore high-rise suburbia under the name of ‘VNEB’ (Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea) hangs over everything. The new has obviously failed here, with hundreds of empty flats. The turn to what already exists can be seen either as a critique of this failure or a moving on to new frontiers.

‘Putting cultural spaces into antique bathhouses and fire stations is one thing; putting them into 1960s car parks and malls is quite another’

The two most purely architecturally interesting of these projects are reuses of old utilitarian, municipal buildings as art galleries, both by public institutions that have been here for over a century, but are keen to shake off any image of being merely ‘local’. One is the new building for the South London Gallery, just over the road from their original Victorian home. The gallery has been one of the better institutions for ‘outreach’ into the working-class area around them. This has been mirrored in its buildings – the gallery’s last expansion project, 6a’s Clore Education Studio, the No 67 café and Orozco Garden provided a new connection to the Miesian Sceaux Gardens council estate just behind.

They’re clearly aware of the polarising effects that these institutions can produce – a new gallery meaning the rents go up, in short – but these gestures at connection have been subtle and intelligent. The SLG’s ‘new building’, meanwhile, is London’s oldest purpose-built fire station, built in the 1870s. It’s a dour, dark-brick block that looks more like a slightly scaled-up private house. Again, the building hasn’t been sandblasted into heritage culture timelessness, with the delicate white staircase inserted into it leaving the rough brick stained and weathered. The result is domestic and relaxed, with the original doors for the engines opened wide to the street, at least when the weather allows. 

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Bussey Building

Street-food markets have appeared in post-industrial pockets across London, including Copeland Park in Peckham. Photograph courtesy of Nicola Ferrari / Alamy

More ambitious than this is Assemble’s Goldsmiths CCA, in New Cross. Here, that collective’s first full-scale building turns the functional back end of a red-brick Baroque bathhouse (long used as studios by Goldsmiths College students) into a gaunt and haunting frontage, like a Bernd and Hilla Becher photograph turned from a gallery exhibit into a gallery. The interiors are maze-like, and particularly in the gallery fitted into old iron water tower, the sheer strangeness and smell of the place is captivating. Next to it is a decade-old ‘iconic’ building, another south-east London monument by Alsop, once intended to put Goldsmiths ‘on the map’. The contrast couldn’t be greater. Ten years ago, Alsop’s building felt like a gestural imposition onto the anarchic squatland of New Cross. Now all the squats have gone, but Assemble’s building tries to resemble one, something which could be uncomfortable, given that the CCA is not a squat, but a new art gallery run by a hugely successful art school, whose success has had major knock-on effects for the affordability of New Cross as a place to live.

Putting cultural spaces for universities and Victorian municipal galleries into antique bathhouses and fire stations is one thing; putting them into 1960s car parks and malls is quite another. Doing this is a challenge to the lazy idea that 19th-century buildings are inherently ‘adaptable’ and 20th-century Modernist ones permanently determined by their original function. The transformation of the Rye Lane Car Park into Peckham Levels, designed by Make Shift and Carl Turner Architects over several years, began, as always, with art – Bold Tendencies and Frank’s Cafe, on the car park’s roof. This was a pretty typical exotic gentrification project, where you could go and look at contemporary sculpture and drink expensive coffee in lightweight wooden buildings with a panoramic view of the London skyline – but in an edgy way. Now there’s six whole floors where you can go to places called things like ‘PickyWops’ (they do vegan pizza, if you’re wondering). But in other ways, Peckham Levels is not a straightforward gentrification project – there is community infrastructure here too, with cheap spaces for charities and local groups. The Peckhamplex on the ground floor and basement is an independent community multiplex, mostly showing standard Hollywood fare, and attracts many people who wouldn’t necessarily go to ‘PickyWops’.

In this, it contrasts with two straightforwardly commercial projects in the Elephant and Castle, where the changes in south London are most dramatic and most contested. One is the Mercato Metropolitano. This is, in its own description, a ‘sustainable community market’, in a series of sheds between railway arches and old printworks. It has a similar scuzzy, adhocist aesthetic to Peckham Levels, but none of the cultural pretensions, or its attempts to serve the established local population alongside the wealthier incomers – an interminable series of benches and craft beer emporia, numbingly twee and predictable. 

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Mercato Metropolitano

The overpriced craft beer and artisan food of Mercato Metropolitano in Elephant and Castle contrasts sharply with the fare on offer at the nearby shopping centre. Photograph courtesy of Nicola Ferrari / Alamy

The other is, well, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre itself. This is south London’s original adaptive reuse project. The failure of Boissevain and Osmond’s 1965 building, a curtain-wall tower above windowless interior halls, as a normal shopping mall led to it being painted blue and pink by its owners – but more importantly, to its low rents attracting genuinely unusual shops and spaces, inserted into its spacious, linear International Style interior units and arcades. By the 2000s, it had among other things an Irish Republican bookshop, a Polish restaurant, a bowling alley, a bingo hall and most famously, many shops, cafés and restaurants owned and used by the local Latin American population. 

The place is being deliberately run down, but many of these still survive. The centre’s owners are evidently indifferent – a sign outside directs you to Poundland, Greggs, Boots and Tesco, its only big business retailers – but there has been a campaign to save it against their own disinterest. The removal of this place was meant to be the crowning glory of the changes in Southwark, where the prosperity that began at Tate Modern would spread south, incidentally displacing thousands of council tenants from the area. Finally, the ‘eyesores’ that announced you were now truly in south-east London, could be removed. Yet in 2018 campaigners managed to get approval of the demolition blocked, due to the fact that spaces for the elderly (the bingo hall) and the Latin American community were not being replaced in the mooted new mixed-use development. There is now a major battle within Labour-run Southwark Council over it, with most councillors opposed, but with the leadership under Peter John still firmly committed to the centre’s destruction. At the time of writing, graffiti scrawled on the facade reads ‘CLLR PETER JOHN IS A TOENAIL’.

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Cllr Peter John is a toenail

Photograph courtesy of Southwark Notes

The battle over the Elephant and Castle, when compared with the cultural projects and hipster reuse spaces elsewhere in south-east London, provides some sharp lessons. The architecture – better than the Rye Lane Car Park, but nothing special – has been irrelevant compared with what its Modernist spaces make possible. Campaigners have focused not on the image of what it was, but on the complexity and diversity of what it is now. So why is Peckham Levels or Mercato Metropolitano acceptable for Southwark Council and the Elephant and Castle not? 

Part of this is the way the shift has happened – the actual lowering of rents made something new happen, rather than their increase. Most notably, it happened not because a gallery or a university wanted to make it so, but through the concerted actions of the local population, embarking on a gradual transformation of a dull developer’s programme into a humane and unique place. 

There is one reason why this isn’t officially celebrated – class. Street-food entrepreneurs and start-ups, well, messy as they may be, they attract the right kind of people. Caffs, bingo halls, Latin American supermarkets and bowling alleys on the other hand, well, they tend to lower the tone. The transformations of London’s buildings, in their imagination, wit and intelligence, can offer some hope in a city that can feel crushed by the overwhelming pressure of real estate; but the Elephant shows that only select groups are allowed to do the transforming.

Peckham Levels by Carl Turner Architects

Conceived as a kind of kunsthaus, Peckham Levels cannibalises the brooding hulk of Rye Lane Car Park to provide space for a community of artists, makers and entrepreneurs. Originally built as part of a 1980s shopping mall, in its new incarnation it sustains a rich ecology of shared workshops, co-working, kiln rooms and 3D printing, among other uses, and is home to a diverse community of tenants, ranging from individual start-ups to organisations working in arts and culture. The concrete shell is now transformed by dint of a riot of cheap and cheerful materials, and a spirit of adhocism predominates. 

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Peckham Levels – Carl Turner Architects

Photograph courtesy of Carl Turner Architects

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Peckham Levels – Carl Turner Architects

Photograph by Tim Crocker

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Peckham Levels – Carl Turner Architects

Photograph by Tim Crocker

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Peckham Levels – Carl Turner Architects

Photograph by Tim Crocker

South london reuse drawings peckham levels

South london reuse drawings peckham levels

Click to download

The conversion and restoration of London’s oldest existing purpose-built fire station is the latest in 6a’s series of projects for the South London Gallery. It follows on from initial works to the main gallery site in 2010, and an art block for families and a Gabriel Orozco-designed garden in 2016. The nuanced, sober remodelling provides gallery spaces, an archive room, artists’ studio, kitchen and terrace, together with community and education facilities. The main structural move has been to implant an atrium and stairwell on the west side of the building. A new skylight opens up the interior to natural light, and  a white-painted metal staircase winds up to the more intimate domestic-scale rooms on the upper floors where the firemen and their families once lived. 

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South London Gallery Fire Station – 6a Architects

Photograph by Johan Dehlin

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South London Gallery Fire Station – 6a Architects

Photograph by Johan Dehlin

South london reuse drawings south london gallery

South london reuse drawings south london gallery

Click to download

Battersea Arts Centre by Haworth Tompkins

For over a decade, Haworth Tompkins has been working alongside Battersea Arts Centre, locals and theatre artists on a series of ongoing experimental phased projects that are gradually transforming the building into a locus of creative communal activity as well as an explicit record of the building’s vivid history.  The reconstruction of the Grand Hall after a fire that partially destroyed it in 2015 marked a highly significant moment of evolution and change. The former decorative plaster vault was a starting point for a new timber-grid ceiling, while surrounding surfaces have been preserved in their extraordinary, almost Pompeiian post-fire richness and complexity.

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Battersea Arts Centre – Haworth Tompkins

Photograph by Philip Vile

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Battersea Arts Centre – Haworth Tompkins

Photograph by Fred Howarth

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Battersea Arts Centre – Haworth Tompkins

Photograph by Philip Vile

South london reuse drawings

South london reuse drawings

Click to download

Goldsmiths, CCA by Assemble

Originally designed in the late 1890s as swimming pool, slipper baths and laundry, the Jacobethan palace of Laurie Grove Baths has an eclectic provenance, also functioning as a music venue and social club. Goldsmiths acquired the building following its closure in the ’90s, using it for student studios. Now it has been been further transformed into a centre for contemporary art, with seven gallery spaces, a café, curators’ studio and event space, offering a programme focused on exhibitions, events and education, intended to act as a ‘cultural resource’ for both students and artists. Old and new elements deftly play off each other, notably in the reuse of the carcasses of the Baths’ original cast-iron water tanks and the addition of two new top-lit ‘white cube’ type galleries. While some walls have been removed to open up floorplates as gallery spaces, the most radical additions are in the vertical dimension, with a series of key moves and cuts that work up through the building, prising it open to reveal its geological layers and spatial anatomy. 

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Goldsmiths, CCA – Assemble

Photograph by Assemble

Goldsmiths cca view from entrance gallery copyright assemble

Goldsmiths, CCA – Assemble

Photograph by Assemble

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Goldsmiths, CCA – Assemble

Photograph by Assemble

South london reuse drawings goldsmiths cca

South london reuse drawings goldsmiths cca

Click to download

Lead image: Frank’s Cafe sits on the roof of Peckham Levels. Photograph by Tim Crocker

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today

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