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Natasha Tripney: Watching Battersea Arts Centre rise from the ashes

Detail of some of the fire damaged sustained by the building. Photo: Morley von Sternberg Detail of some of the fire damaged sustained by the building. Photo: Morley von Sternberg
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Last time I stood in this space it had a ceiling. Now the Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall resembles an ancient ruined cathedral, or, as more than one person comments – as we are guided around what remains of the space in our hard hats and hi-viz vests by BAC’s capital project manager, Scott MacColl – like a scene from the Blitz. Around us sit great trunks of twisted metal, warped and contorted chairs, and vast piles of bricks. Only the two gable end-walls remain, like twin peaks, still imposing though now supported by a series of girders, while above us, where the roof used to be, the sky glowers.

Battersea Arts Centre on fire. Photo: Paul Foxcroft (via Twitter)
Battersea Arts Centre on fire. Photo: Paul Foxcroft

The entire ceiling was destroyed when the building caught fire on March 13. You could see the sheeting flame from miles away. But, remarkably, the fire was quickly contained and while the damage to the Grand Hall was devastating, the rest of the grade II* listed building was spared; even the Lower Hall beneath escaped with only minimal fire damage, though it did suffer water damage. Within 24 hours of the blaze – the cause of the fire is still under investigation – Battersea Arts Centre was open for business again, albeit with a rather toasty odour, and both the local and arts communities rallied round in ways small and large. The Phoenix Fund, set up to help them meet the challenges of surviving without the space which had been their largest source of commercial income, has, to date, raised £962,235. One of the biggest hurdles, particularly in the beginning, was getting the word out that the building was still operational; the management also had to set about rehousing the shows which were due to play in the space, including work by Gecko and Jess Thom.

The gable walls, while still standing, were also not considered stable until groundwork contractor Deconstruct stepped in, working at cost to bolster them and allow for a major salvage operation to begin. They were able to save a surprising amount, including many of the building’s unique glass tiles. On one table sits a little cluster of microphone heads, contemporary relics. Even the finial from on top of the roof has survived, though it now looks like something sculpted by Giacometti, a charred bony finger. The bulk of the inner workings of the Robert Hope-Jones organ were also, fortunately, off-site being restored at the time and the intention is to incorporate the instrument back into the space during the next phase of restoration, albeit probably at the back of the room rather than in its original position.

The alien textures created by the fire, the weeping and peeling of plaster and paint, would also become part of it

There were two trains of thought when it came to restoring the building. The first involved as authentic a reconstruction of what was lost as possible, while the second proposal involved a redesign which would both honour the history of the 19th century building and tell its ongoing story, including the events of fire and what followed, while creating a more versatile and accessible performance space. The alien textures created by the fire, the weeping and peeling of plaster and paint, would also become part of it – there’s a strange kind of beauty to some of the damage, the way the decades have been stripped away in layers, creating an odd sort of fauna on the walls, a bloom.

A series of consultation sessions have taken place over the summer between architects Haworth Tompkins and groups including Heritage Lottery Fund, Battersea Arts Centre’s board, Wandsworth Conservation Team and Historic England; now the process is being opened up to include local residents and artists, everyone with stake in, and a relationship with, the building.

The most exciting part of the tour comes at the end when we are presented with a model box of the Grand Hall as it might one day look by Haworth Tompkins’ architect, Imogen Long. One of the biggest discussions has been about the restoration of the plasterwork ceiling and the roof space. It was one of the most distinctive features of the original venue but it was also limiting, not strong enough, for example, for proper acoustic insulation; one solution under consideration is to create a light-permeable ceiling, an echo of what was there, to honour the drama of the 19th century aesthetic, the curve of it, the elegance, but within a more open and modern structure. Even in miniature it looks beautiful. “This is a ceremonial space, not a black box,” stresses Long. That’s part of what the Grand Hall was, and what it will be: people get married here, they host tea dances – it’s a true community space.

The next step involves the erection of a huge temporary roof this winter. A planning application is due to be submitted by the end of the year and the current aim is that the new Grand Hall would open in autumn 2018. As distressing and challenging as the fire was, there is something energising about standing among this tangle of metal, this jigsaw of brick, and discussing the ways in which the Grand Hall can be rebuilt and remade – in seeing it begin to rise from the ashes.

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