After a Devastating Blaze, London’s Battersea Arts Centre Makes a Dramatic Comeback
London-based firm Haworth Tompkins has given the 19th century performing arts hall a sensitive, yet triumphant, new lease on life after a 2015 fire.
When the Grand Hall of the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) burned down in 2015, nearby residents and the London theater community mourned. Already struggling to survive cuts to arts funding, the fire threatened to deliver a fatal blow to the civic stalwart which has occupied its southwest London site since 1893. One hundred and twenty-five years on, the Grand Hall has reopened as a triumphant centerpiece thanks to a masterful series of interventions by London-based performing arts specialists Haworth Tompkins.
Before the fire, the BAC’s history was far from straightforward. Originally constructed as the Battersea Town Hall with a design by E.W. Mountford—architect of the Old Bailey courthouse—the building once contained the Battersea council chamber and administrative offices. Its crown jewel was the Grand Hall, a separate building (connected to the back of the Town Hall via a small domed octagon) that featured a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with an elaborate plaster filigree.
“[The Grand Hall] was built as a community hall for the local people of Battersea for debates lectures, evening concerts, trying to bring culture to the masses,” explains Martin Lydon, project architect at Haworth Tompkins. “But over its 50-year life that hall was also used for political gatherings, community tea dances, weddings, and so on, so it became a really loved venue within Battersea.”
When the council moved out in the early 1960s the building was saved from demolition by Battersea residents and briefly run as a council-operated arts center. By the late ’70s it was again under threat of closure, but rescued by the independent Battersea Arts Centre in 1984. The subsequent decades saw the BAC run on a shoestring budget with shows performed in the council chamber, while the Grand Hall was hired out by the council.
In 2006, in conjunction with a landmark performance of the Masque of Red Death by the immersive theater company Punch Drunk, the gradual yet dramatic transformation of the building began. Punch Drunk sought to use as much of the BAC building as possible for their work and so Haworth Tompkins, fresh from their retrofit work on the Young Vic theater in Waterloo, came to provide simple consultancy on how to adapt the former council offices into performance spaces. One project, begun in 2014 as part of their ongoing work, was to reorganize the BAC offices into a converted attic and to adapt a central courtyard into another new performance space.
As this work was underway, disaster struck in the Grand Hall. A still unknown source caught fire in building’s roof lantern and flames licked through the structure, sending up smoke visible across south London, and eventually causing the roof to collapse in on itself.
Amidst the destruction there were miraculous moments: nobody was hurt, many parts of the theater organ, which dated from 1901, happened to be out of the hall for refurbishment, and Pluto the theater cat survived three days stuck in the basement. What’s more, the fire was held at bay by the hall’s inner doors, meaning the octagonal hall and the rest of the town hall building—and Haworth Tompkins work in the complex—were left unscathed. Two performances even went ahead the night after the fire.
With the roof of the grand hall entirely destroyed, the remains entailed gable walls standing at the north and south ends, and buttressed walls retained up to the bottom half of the previously arched windows. Haworth Tompkins clearly had more work to do. In order for the hall to have a reprise, the entire roof was to be reconstructed with crowdfunded support, as well as some public funding. Following consultation with local residents and building users, the first of which took place in the open air of the destroyed hall (“There were tears,” Lydon recalls), the final, vaulted form of the roof was decided.
“When we showed that [new vaulted roof design] to people there was a deep sigh of relief,” says Lydon. “I think because people could identify that the space was still the Grand Hall and that without this barrel vault it was sort of missing something.”
The reopening of the Grand Hall thus represents only the latest act in a 125-year drama, with architectural scenes across sites and scales unfolding throughout the BAC’s raw, sprawling interior. For the most part, Haworth Tompkins’ work over the last 12 years has been remarkably light, aiming to bring out the character of the building in a way reminiscent of David Chipperfield’s work at Berlin’s Neues Museum or, more recently, Assemble’s work at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art: Walls have been stripped leaving a scrappy collage of paint and plaster; a series of carpet covered seating booths augment the processional staircase; suspended ceilings have been removed to reveal the generous dimensions of the Victorian structure; light and sound facilities have been added to the former council offices for performances.
The more substantial structural moves also slot into the BAC’s messy palette: new interior corridors join previously disconnected sections of the first floor to create a more straightforward promenade architecturale. Here the seams are visible, but they are unremarkable in the midst of a building that feels a perpetual work in rehearsal.
In the courtyard, completed in 2016, Haworth Tompkins make their touch visible with white glazed bricks that contrast with the red Victorian masonry, plus a removable steel structure that allows spectators to watch plays from above with a Globe-like intensity.
In the hall, rather than copy the earlier ceiling design, Lydon and his team abstracted a version of the pattern across three layers of CNC-cut plywood which simultaneously hide technical facilities in the rooftop and create a striking contemporary take on the Grand Hall’s original elaborate ceiling. On the outside, the architecture has been replicated more traditionally down to its rebuilt roof lantern. On either side of the hall, the singed corridors have been left untouched, pronouncing the tender scars of the building’s history in the same way as the aged facade masonry.
The building’s 19th century mosaic floor, replete with intricate flowers and bees, remains a particularly remarkable feature: the work, designed by mosaic manufacturer Jess Rust, miraculously survive steel-warping heat and a barrage of falling rubble. During their work, Haworth Tompkins found a spare section and carefully relocated it in an elevator—an interpretive move, cheeky yet charged with history, and typical of this near perfect architectural performance.
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