Culture triumphs: the National Theatre and BCA

Wednesday 12 August 2015

National Theatre © Philip Vile

Two NLA award-winning architects were at the Store Street gallery this morning to show the inspirations and implications of their work – at the Black Cultural Archive in Brixton and National Theatre on the South Bank.

And one of the key messages was that, following Sir Denys Lasdun’s lead in 1976, arts institutions are now much more public-facing as facilities-rich centres for the community, and new projects would do well to get more locals and community groups onside before they go for planning.

Pringle Richards Sharratt director Malcolm McGregor said that the BCA was set up in 1981 after the riots but had taken ‘quite a lifetime’s work’ to come to open in July last year, drawing on ideas of authenticity and a sense of place. The scheme fronting Windrush Square, created from the existing but derelict Raleigh Hall building of two semi-detached homes was once the Liberal Club before disappearing behind a bus garage in the 1970s.

‘It was really forgotten about’, said McGregor, ‘and was quite a lost soul. No-one really knew what to do with it.’

Happily, the Heritage Lottery Fund allowed the project to go ahead, coupled with the local authority gifting the building. PRS has created an annex of stone for the archive and exhibition space linked to the main building via a glazed link, along with a café hub space and shop and a formal court frontage. The project has proved a hit with schools, with two parties visiting every day on average. ‘It’s a civic building within the main civic square of Brixton’, said McGregor.

Haworth Tompkins partner Steve Tompkins said that the revitalization of the National Theatre – called NT Future – had been a complex and interesting project and ‘labour of love’ of over a decade for a client – also honoured by the NLA in its awards – that was ‘incredibly risk taking in the best possible way.’ The scheme essentially aims to make the building as ‘porous’ as it could be, improving its accessibility and popularity and building on its appeal as a ‘heroic’ masterpiece that was from the outset a new, democratic space. Key moves included ‘reading the building as a series of chronological layers’, adding new restaurant fit-outs and a popular new Understudy bar, transforming service yards and access roads into new public spaces and entrances, activating the riverfront and creating the Max Rayne Centre, a new aluminium clad extension to the south for the paint and design studios. This, said Tompkins, is the ‘lightweight vessel moored alongside the mothership’, and the scheme is one around which the community can ‘cohere’.  ‘Overall we feel we have really managed to gnaw on the problems of the National, hope we’ve respected the original, haven’t been sentimental about it and that it has equipped the theatre for the next generation’, he said.

The event also heard from Lambeth director of planning and development, business, growth and regeneration delivery cluster David Joyce, who said that the borough could claim to be at the heart of London’s cultural scene. Lambeth had, he said, managed to negotiate a rare Section 106 for a visitor management contribution at the time of the London Eye permission, which will help fund relief measures for the high pressure on services in the area caused by so many tourists. That will only rise with the permissions for the Shell Centre and Elizabeth House, and with more tourists coming prospectively for the Garden Bridge. But a key move had been in working with the South Bank Employers Group to manage that change, said Joyce, and the BCA had helped to convince the Heritage Lottery Fund that Lambeth is keen on heritage-led regeneration. This will be important, said Joyce, when it comes to the regeneration of Electric Avenue in Brixton. On the National, said Joyce, it had been crucial that the Theatre team had decided to involve the Twentieth Century Society and others from early on. ‘By the time the planning applications were submitted, we had an easy job to do’, he said.

John Langley, Director of External Relationships and Partnerships for the National Theatre, added thatLasdun had ‘completely broken the mould’ for arts buildings when he created the National in having so many catering spaces and other facilities for the public aside from the main theatre. But it was now connecting better with the city and wider community, right around the building. ‘The kind of breakthroughs that Steve and his team made in those areas, which has opened up the building through 360 degrees has meant an immense change’, he said.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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