6a Architects Converts a Dilapidated Victorian Fire Station Into an Art Gallery
The local firm has created a charming, yet sensitively-designed new annex for the South London Gallery in the city's Peckham neighborhood.
Four years ago Margot Heller, director of the South London Gallery, was invited to take a tour of a derelict 19th century fire station in Peckham, south London. “At the end of a tour of this curious building that had every kind of rot you could imagine,” she says, “the owner asked if I’d like to take on the challenge of doing the building up, as they would like to donate it to the South London Gallery.”
Following this serendipitous opportunity from the anonymous donor, and the subsequent challenge to raise the $5.3 million to convert the deteriorating fire station, the gallery this week opens its new Fire Station annex following a design by 6a Architects.
Founded by philanthropist William Rossiter, the South London Gallery has been a staple of the area’s cultural life for nearly as long as the fire station. The site where it has been since 1868 is a stone’s throw from the former fire station was built two years prior, after the establishment of London’s first fire brigade and the subsequent construction of 26 fire stations across the city.
The Peckham Road fire station is the last surviving of those original structures. Predating shift work, the early fire stations had to include domestic facilities for the families of the firemen. As Stephanie Macdonald, founder of 6a Architects, explains, “architect Edward Cresy was trying to work out what this was as a typology. It was a collective house for the firemen, so it has a nice scale for the rooms.”
This scale has been retained as part of 6a’s work for the South London Gallery, a series of refined moves that continues their work on the gallery’s main site in 2010. The dimensions of original rooms across the building’s four-stories have been retained while original floorboards have been exposed with the subtlest of matte finishes.
The main structural move by the London-based firm has been to open up an atrium and stairwell on the west side of the structure where there was once a jumbled circulation space. A new skylight and winding staircase opens up the space to natural light and leads visitors to the domestic-scale rooms on the upper floors. Besides three straightforward gallery spaces, a kitchen has been installed which will be used for public events and artistic projects working with food. In-keeping with the gallery’s focus on international contemporary art, the first exhibition at the new space, KNOCK KNOCK, explores humor with works by Roy Lichtenstein and Sarah Lucas, among others. The exhibition spans across both SLG sites, emphasizing the dramatic increase in display space that the annex facilitates.
On the top floor, an attic with exposed beams creates a dedicated education space which will build on the gallery’s deeply-engaged work with local schools and residents.
Large doors on the repaired and restored facade provide a clear point of welcome to the building that will no doubt continue to draw in visitors from south London and beyond. This exterior view “returns the building intact,” as Macdonald puts is, and gives the impression that the four year, multi-million-dollar refurbishment never occurred—that the gallery was behind the firehouse facade all along.
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