Natasha Tripney: Battersea Arts Centre is more than a building

The aftermath of the BAC fire. Photo: London Fire Brigade The aftermath of the BAC fire. Photo: London Fire Brigade
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On Friday as I stood on the platform at Clapham Junction station and saw a sudden uprush of flame redden an already smoke-filled sky, it took me a while to understand that what I was witnessing was Battersea Arts Centre, on fire.

I know it’s only a building – brick and tile and timber – and that the most important thing by far is that no one was hurt. And yes, the image of Terry Pratchett on the front of many of that day’s newspapers was a reminder that all these things are proportional. But it was still a knock, genuinely upsetting.

Because BAC, as both an organisation and a building, is more than just an arts centre. It’s a creative and social hub, a place with an audible heartbeat. For so many artists it is a place of support and inspiration – a building in which one can grow.

A city needs its constants

I’ve lived in five different flats since I moved to London (the first of which was about a five-minute walk from BAC). Urban life can be transitory and fragile; a city needs its constants. And this place, for me and so many others, was one of them.

Over the years it’s been the site of some of the most memorable theatre I’ve ever experienced. I watched a group of school children release a Borrower escape pod up into a snowy sky while a group of work men in hi-viz jackets watched on and applauded; I had my hands bound and had words whispered in my ears by Ontroerend Goed; I’ve listened to Danny Braverman animate his family’s past; I’ve been reduced to tears watching Little Bulb smash Battenberg into their mouths and watched that same company transform the Great Hall into a Parisian cabaret for their production of Orpheus.

It’s the kind of place you want to share with people

I’ve clambered through its attics rooms and drank coffee from soup bowls in its chilly basement. I’ve been on semi, sort-of dates there; drank far too much wine in the bar; and dragged many friends there (once even my faintly bemused mother) because it’s the kind of place you want to share with people.

As well as being a place of great creative energy, BAC, under the artistic directorship of David Jubb, was always a place in tune with its history, its radical spirit, the stories contained within its walls. The Grade II listed former town hall was a place of accretion and palimpsest, where you might still see traces of 1927’s wallpaper or Punchdrunk’s paintwork.

It’s poignant to think about how alert BAC’s work was to London’s continual razing and rising. One of its recent pieces, The Good Neighbour, was in part inspired by the Arding and Hobbs department store fire of 1909. The plot next door to the Town Hall, now a Foxtons, was also once home to Sprague’s Shakespeare Theatre, demolished in the 1950s following serious damage during the Second World War. But while the Grand Hall – along with its gorgeous pipe organ, which was in the process of being repaired – and the Lower Hall, along with many of the administrative offices, have been lost, Jubb is determined that “we will get through this. Brick by brick.”

On Saturday night the building reopened and it’s since been confirmed that all shows, except for Gecko Theatre’s Missing, which was being performed in the Grand Hall, will go ahead as planned and the Scratch bar is also open again. Over £60,000 has now been raised to help the building rise again and according to Jubb’s latest update the community support has been overwhelming.

BAC’s heart hasn’t stopped beating yet.