Battersea Arts Centre has been named the 2020 overall winner and awarded the Community and Experiencing Culture prize from New London Architecture (NLA). The annual awards celebrate the very best in architecture, planning and development in the capital, and this marks five awards in recent weeks which pay tribute to the community-driven vision at the foundation of a 12-year collaboration with Stirling Prize-winning architects Haworth Tompkins. The partnership project has opened up the building and led to the development of flagship Battersea Arts Centre programmes such as the BAC Beatbox Academy, the Scratch Hub and The Agency.
The international jury of architects, critics and cultural figures said: “The inclusive nature of the project signifies a new community-centred era for cultural buildings. It wasn’t just a restoration. It was a dedication to innovation, to craft, yet a really thoughtful way of evoking the spaces that were there before. You can read the story of the building by looking at it. It communicates to the visitor on so many levels and does that by being of service to a community.”
Architecture critic Andreas Ruby added: “I also like the interpretation of what culture is. It’s not this kind of highbrow exclusive club kind of culture where you’re happy to be chosen while others are not. It’s integral and it’s inclusive and a kind of statement for our time.”
In 2006, Battersea Arts Centre and Haworth Tompkins embarked on an ambitious capital project by applying the principles of developing a new show, Scratch, to the renovation of the building. The aim has been to open up the Lavender Hill premises into a vibrant, welcoming and more accessible hub, and to become one of the most flexible venues for performance in the country. Theatre artists, audiences and the local community have taken part by testing out and feeding back on ideas to reimagine the possibilities for the physical space, which all celebrated the rich and radical heritage of the former Town Hall building.
During Punchdrunk’s groundbreaking, immersive performance of The Masque of the Red Death in 2007, disused spaces were opened up and audiences invited to follow their curiosity and explore every corner of the Grade II* listed site. Today, performances can take place in any corner of the building, the architectural innovations giving artists the freedom to take creative risks.
Last week, Director Suri Krishnamma and his crew won a Royal Television Society Craft & Design Award for masterfully realising an immersive theatrical journey through Battersea Arts Centre on screen. Performance Live: The Way Out (Arts Council England/BBC Arts/Battersea Arts Centre) was shot in an unbroken, continuous take and described by judges as “an astonishing technical feat” and a “seamless piece of storytelling”. The film is available to watch here.
Thanks to the National Lottery and a range of corporate and individual funders, the £13.3m redevelopment effort has seen the Victorian fabric of the building conserved while ensuring its future as a resilient cultural hub. A small outdoor seating area has been transformed into The Courtyard, hailed as the UK’s most intimate open-air theatre structure. This allowed Battersea to be one of the very first venues to re-open after the first lockdown, hosting live comedy gigs to in-person audiences during the summer.
In 2015, before the capital project was completed, the building’s flagship auditorium was destroyed by a fire. This devastating set-back provided another moment for evolution. Out of the ashes, the Lower Hall area was redesigned into a new creative co-working space. The Scratch Hub has provided a home for local businesses, start-ups, artists, creative companies, charities and social enterprises in a COVID-secure environment this year.
When restoring the Grand Hall, Haworth Tompkins devised an innovative, lattice structure, inspired by the pattern of the original ceiling, which has made way for a more advanced technical infrastructure. The stunning atmosphere and enhanced audio capabilities of the space allowed Battersea Arts Centre to welcome new partnerships in a year defined by isolation. This includes the London Philharmonia, who made their Battersea Arts Centre debut with a socially distanced, classical concert series, The Philharmonia Sessions. There was also Live from the Grand Hall, two-way live streamed music and comedy gigs throughout October. Audiences tuning in from home were beamed in real-time into the auditorium to interact with the performers.
The process of opening up the building brought new possibilities to the artistic programme, but also renewed Battersea Arts Centre’s link with its heritage as a space for gathering, fostering new collaborations and radical ideas. Since it first opened in 1983, the old Town Hall has been a home to the Trade Unions movement, the campaign for Women’s Suffrage, and the first Black Mayor of London, John Archer. Its existence has also been repeatedly, and fiercely, defended by the local community since first being threatened with demolition in 1965.