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Battersea Arts Centre awarded for community focused architectural design

Battersea Arts Centre Credit Morley von Sternberg

Battersea Arts Centre’s “exemplary” and “ingenious” restoration recognised in this year’s Design and Architecture Awards

Creativity and community at the foundations of 12-year experimental collaboration with Haworth Tompkins to create a more flexible and inclusive cultural hub

Innovative changes bring hope and resilience for the future, with Battersea Arts Centre creatively responding to COVID-19 challenges this year

Battersea Arts Centre has received the 2020 Overall Winner Award and the Community and Experiencing Culture prizes from New London Architecture (NLA), whose annual awards celebrate the very best in architecture, planning and development in the capital. This marks five awards in recent weeks to 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 remarked that it is “the inclusive nature of the project that 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. Extraordinary.

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 on BBC iPlayer here.

Thanks to the National Lottery and 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 in a fast-changing world. A small outdoor seating area has been transformed into The Courtyardthe UK’s most intimate open-air theatre structure. This allowed Battersea Arts Centre 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 a breathtaking, 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 sensational, socially distanced, classical concert series, The Philharmonia Sessions. There was also Live from the Grand Halltwo-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.

Adapting to the needs of its neighbours, Battersea Arts Centre has transformed and expanded the way it works with communities today; aiming for access, inclusion and empowering positive social change to be at the heart of every decision. February 7 2020 marked the launch of the world’s first Relaxed Venue, using a methodology developed by Touretteshero in partnership with Battersea Arts Centre, following the principles of Relaxed Performances and removing barriers for anyone who wants to explore Battersea Arts Centre.

In 2008, BAC Beatbox Academy was born as a home-grown performance collective of young artists. Starting with a handful of local participants, it has since grown into a community of highly accomplished music leaders. The weekly drop-in sessions for 8-29 year olds have continued running via zoom during the pandemic, meaning international members were able to join for the first time. The smash hit theatre-beatbox hybrid show, Frankenstein: How to Make A Monsterco-created by Academy members over 10 years, embarked on an international tour in January 2020. After a sold-out run at the Adelaide Festival, the tour was paused due to COVID-19. The cast reimagined the production for the screen, commissioned by BBC Arts and The Space, and the original musical film was broadcast on BBC Four as part of Culture in Quarantine in October.

In partnership with Contact, Manchester and People’s Palace Projects, Battersea Arts Centre launched The Agency in 2013, to support the development of the next generation of socially-conscious entrepreneurs. By combining the best of creativity and enterprise, the programme helps young people take the lead to make meaningful change happen, both for themselves and for those around them. Starting in London and Manchester, The Agency has since expanded to work with 15-25 year-olds in Belfast, Cardiff, and boroughs of Waltham Forest and Brent, as part of their respective Mayor of London Borough of Culture programmes.

Over the past 7 years, 355 young people across the UK have gone through The Agency methodology, with 104 Agents going on to lead social change projects that have directly engaged over 19,000 people. The Agents have additionally raised £131,547 to develop their projects, significantly more than the £90,000 initial seed funding offered by The Agency. 46 of these projects are still running today, with many Agents leading COVID-response activity in their communities this year.

Steve Tompkins, Director of Haworth Tompkins, said:

“We’ve learned so much from our 12 year relationship with this extraordinary building and an equally remarkable team of people. Being part of such a slowly evolving transformation of both the building and the organisation has deepened our understanding of how cultural spaces can become genuine centres of community – we experienced at first hand the collective energy of improvisation and shared authorship, the multiplying power of mutual trust and the deep, sustaining affection that so many people feel towards Battersea Arts Centre. For all the technical complexity of the task and the unexpected twists of fate, it has been a joyful project to work on.”

Tarek Iskander, Artistic Director and CEO of Battersea Arts Centre, said:

Battersea Arts Centre and its work have always been defined by the unique architecture of the old Town Hall: a place of true gathering, welcoming to everyone, a space to house endless reserves of refuge, creativity and hope. And also somewhere that the difficult politics of the day can be tackled head on, in the feverish search for a more just future.

With Haworth Tompkins’ truly remarkable renovation of our burning Grand Hall, new layers of meaning have been added – and ones that are even more relevant in these difficult times. That the memories and stories of a place matter as much as the bricks and mortar that house them. That we mustn’t hide the scars of the past, instead they can empower us to strive for an even better future. And that through collective effort and true generosity, everything destroyed can be rebuilt, nothing is lost that can’t be rediscovered, and even from despair we can create things that are full of joy and beauty, that will delight the many generations to come.”

The restoration has recently been recognised as “ingenious”, “exemplary and scholarly” by the NLA 2020 Awards, with Battersea Arts Centre receiving the Experiencing Culture Prize, the Community Prize sponsored by ft’work and was announced this week as the Overall Winner. Battersea Arts Centre also received the prize for best Restoration/Conversion at this year’s biennial Wandsworth Design Awards, as well as the chief prize, the Mayor’s Design Award. Further recognition so far for the “imaginative” and “outstanding” architectural collaboration include two RIBA Awards, Civic Trust’s AABC Conservation Award, a Wood Award for the new Grand Hall ceiling, an International Architecture Award and The Stage Award for Theatre Building of Year.

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British theatre’s most influential person – Architect Steve Tompkins: “We have to think in terms of maximising theatrical affect while minimising resource and energy use, in construction. All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”

Steve Tompkins

The prolific architect was named most influential person in British theatre but the world is in the grip of a climate emergency – and he says we all have to act.

Whenever there’s an announcement about an exciting UK Theatre building being built, redeveloped or revamped – whether it is the £45 million renovation of Grade I listed Theatre Royal Drury Lane , a pop-up community theatre in Manchester or a new commercial London venue with flexible auditorium-  it’s a fair bet that architect Steve Tompkins and his team are involved.

In the past two decades or so, Haworth Tompkins  has been responsible a number of high-profile theatre building projects including the Royal Court, the Young Vic, the Bush, and Chichester Festival Theatre. Tompkins celebrated work has also included the recent £13m rescue of Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall, which was partially destroyed in a fire, and the 2,135m £25 million refurbishment of Bristol Old Vic, one of Europe’s oldest theatres.

Bristol Old Vic Front of House

Bristol Old Vic Front of House

When I meet Tompkins, 59, he had just flown back from America.

“Well,” he begins, “I got back from the States 24 hours ago, so I am in a slightly heightened state, 100% Jet-lagged. We have a new job there, the first project in our studio that involves some flying, so we’re working out how to approach that.”

“There are two dozen projects on the book at any one time in the studio, ranging from a 1600 seat lyric house to a demountable 200 seat auditorium which can be carried from location to location – by the audience,” Tompkins tells me.

Steve Tompkins

Steve Tompkins

Earlier this year, Tompkins was named the most influential person in British Theatre, in the annual 100-strong power list, published by The Stage. Tompkins, who placed 23rd in last year’s edition, came in above prolific figures including producer Sonia Friedman and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Where was he when he got the news? “I was in the Lake District for New Year and I was running on the hills and got home to this email with a full-page mugshot,” recalls Tompkins.

And it felt like a huge thing? “I suppose it is a huge thing if you want it to be a huge thing,” he says, finding a sigh and a smile. “Last year was good with Vicky (Featherstone) – saying we are going to situate you in this spot because it allows us to talk about something arguably more interesting than the usual suspects producing fantastic shows – as they always have and they always will. I think it is interesting to adjust the levers – so that the odd outlier can come through on the rails. Choosing me, representing Haworth Tompkins, meant we can talk about the importance of theatre hardware.  I got many lovely messages from friends who are theatre designers and makers saying – fantastic – this feels like it is on behalf of all of us.”

He adds: “We’ve been trying to emphasise collective authorship, so in that sense  the personalisation of the Stage thing was a setback but this is on behalf of the whole organisation and the studio gets good acknowledgement and profile.”

Reflecting on the studio’s journey and the collective endeavour, Tompkins says: “I started the studio with my partner Graham Haworth – we did all the early thinking about what the studio should be about  –  then Roger Watts (Tompkins’ long term collaborator and now co-director)  and I took the theatre thinking forward and now we have a team of two dozen people in the performance design group– all of whom are really knowledgeable, technically far more knowledgeable than I am – and who are now building their own client relationships and running their own teams. It is high time that it is seen as not just me because it never was about just me.”

Tompkins’ first major theatre project was the transformation of the Royal Court in London. Even more remarkable considering his background was in social housing. His first theatre job, though, amuses him. “We got the job in 1995 and it opened in 2000. In 1995 we were a couple of early 30’s gobshites who had never done a theatre,” he laughs drily.

“We introduced ourselves to Iain Macintosh at Theatre Projects; a great theatre guru and hugely knowledgeable– one of the first books about theatre that I read was Iain’s Architecture Actor and Audience. It is the perfect introduction to the field. Again, it is symptomatic of the state the world was in in 1995 – the lottery was starting up – at that time Iain could envisage suggesting an inexperienced architect for the shortlist as a wild card to see what happened. Today that would be seens as too risky, meaning younger practices get less of an opportunity to break through.”

The 59-year-old smiles at the memory. “We were interviewed on stage at the Royal Court and I guess we were just enthusiastic because we got the gig.”

Liverpool Everyman

Liverpool Everyman

Fast forward a decade, Tompkins had won the 2014 Stirling prize for the innovative £27m redesign of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse – his first theatre built from scratch. Director Gemma Bodinetz believes it is Tompkins’ love of theatre-making that makes him so unique. “Steve and his team are wonderful because they understand the art form, how it works and they love theatre; they understand magic,” says Bodinetz, who runs the Everyman.

“We were his first all-purpose new build; a complete new build and when you walked into it you felt that it was completely loved. He has a fantastic way of creating democratic theatrical spaces with pure soul and that is what theatre is truly about. Because of an erratic funding landscape – we worked together for 10 years on this Capital project and every so often the process would have to stop.”

“A lesser man and architect would have dropped us,” she says. “Months at a time the project was frozen. We kept moving the design forward even when we were in this wobbly place – he and his team gave us his complete backing and unwavering belief. When I stopped working with Steve and his team it felt like a bereavement. He is so much more than an architect.”

Recently, though, Liverpool Everyman crashed out of Arts Council England (ACE)’s National Portfolio for the 2018-22 period, after a disastrous but acclaimed experiment with a repertory company of actors that pushed it into serious financial trouble. Increasingly theatres are running to stand still. Government cuts and those by local authorities mean that many regional theatre’s futures are at risk. “I have watched a brilliant director like Gemma do impeccable work with real courage and creative vision,” says Tompkins.

Years of austerity cuts and the national state of Brexit uncertainty make it particularly hard for arts organisations to take risks. Does he think that Capital projects are vital to secure regional theatre’s past for its long-term future? “It’s a really complex question.” He considers it carefully. “The situations are all so different, aren’t they? Liverpool Everyman is a building which has garnered a lot of public praise and yet still, still it is really difficult for her and her team to generate financial steerage,” he says. “All the recent travails that Gemma and her team have gone through, you think, God, what more can you do, actually. Her commitment to Liverpool is unimpeachable, and so if somebody like her is struggling to find the sweet spot, then it suggests to me that something is fundamentally broken in the funding system.”

“I do not know what the long-term answer is but it helps to have a building to that is on your side in terms of theatrical possibility, running costs and capacity to supplement revenue income.”

Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall 3D model

Battersea Arts Centre Grand Hall 3D model

On the subject of saying no to prospective collaborations, “It’s not hard,” he says quickly. “It’s about self-protection and respect for your team. You have to take a hard line on what your capacity is at any given time. In a way it is a self-fulfilling issue, and we have occasionally got it wrong – in both directions. After the Royal Court, we had no work for a year because naively we had put all our creative capital into getting the thing open.”

“Brexit is going to be disruptive,” he adds, voice trailing off.

Of the many challenges facing society in 2019, the first and most overarching is the one so essential to the future of civilisation itself: the climate emergency . We touch on politics, but you can glean his beliefs from his Twitter feed: pro-European, and climate-change activist.  “The international – the debate around the climate and bio-diversity emergencies are taking a huge amount of my headspace – we have to be the exemplars,” he says, and he looks genuinely pensive. “All bets are off otherwise – so how do theatres show the way?”

Haworth Tompkins principle aim is to make buildings they design accessible to everyone. “The listed status of many theatre buildings means that many are still trying to get around the problem of providing adequate access to disabled theatregoers,” he says.

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Designs

Theatre Royal Drury Lane Designs

Certainly, relaxed performances are offered at many theatres – these aim to provide performances for those in the autistic spectrum and those with sensory and communication disorders. But progress is slow with many physically disabled audiences still miss out. “A lot of theatre hides behind the fact it is working it of historic spaces and if it doesn’t affect the bottom line it feels like it is not a priority,” he adds, quickly. “It is absolutely true and less the case in publicly subsidised buildings – we need to get off our asses and get on with it – none of it is that difficult  – even at Drury Lane we have managed to make that accessible on all levels – most of those barriers are easy to take down if it’s made a priority and the proper resources get committed.”

Would he say that success fundamentally depends on client relationships? “Absolutely,” he nods. “All projects completely rely on the strength of the relationship between architect and client,” Tompkins says. “Nick Starr has been an incredibly important person in our studio’s creative life – not just, because we have done so many projects together –now The Bridge and the next one for the London Theatre Company. Roger has the same thing – you have a telepathy and common set of references, which means you, can move very quickly.”

The Bridge Theatre, foyer London

The Bridge Theatre foyer,  London

Starr’s affection and admiration for Tompkins is mutual. “Steve is a genius. Truly. I can feel his respect for Dennis Lasdun – it is very distinguished architecture – the quality of materials, the scale,” says Nick Starr who ran the National Theatre for 12 years, collaborated with Haworth Tompkins on London’s Bridge Theatre and is currently working with Haworth Tompkins to open a new 600-seat venue in King’s Cross in 2021.

“Steve can draw in three dimensions upside down,” reveals Starr. “So, when we were looking at a future project – and he is sat opposite you – Steve can take a point and expand. And then you realise he’s drawing it so that they are the right way up for you – so that’s quite interesting – the hand-eye paper co-ordination allows those early discussions in which the problem solving and creativity is right in front of you.”

Architect Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre – one of London’s best-known and most contentious Brutalist buildings – is a layered concrete landscape that Prince Charles once described as being like “a nuclear power station.”  I ask Tompkins why he thinks the National’s architecture is so divisive. “The more we got to know the detail of the National the more awe and respect we had for the designers,” he says. “Of course, the building is flawed in so many ways – it’s also kind of magnificent –and it will continue to be magnificent. It had a really difficult birth- it opened to austerity and a loss of nerve around modernism and the classical as opposed to the picturesque.”

National Theatre

National Theatre

Asked about the controversial National Theatre’s ‘no laptop’ foyer policy during peak times, Steve’s answer is: “I think there is a logic in asking people to vacate the foyers before shows. In one sense, you think its public funding and a democratic space I have a perfect right to be here,” he says reasonably.

“I can also understand from the point of an organisation that the publicly funded mission is to host 3 shows and make sure the audiences are having a good time for the price of their ticket,” he continues. “If it’s impossible to get a seat then that can’t be right either – in defence of the National – and I’m not their spokesperson – I think its joyful for them to have the foyers full of people doing their thing and hanging out – it’s the same “problem” that the Young Vic foyer has  – you come to the show and there’s already 300 passers by having a ball in there – if you try to make a foyer that people will find convivial then you can’t complain when people find it convivial – I guess there is a civilised conversation to have there– I think it will find its balance – I’m an optimist.”

The narrowing of the state school curriculum, squeezing out arts subjects in favour of the more traditional and academic is also a threat to culture for all. For example, young people living in the country’s most deprived areas, and those with lower than average attainment levels, are the most likely to miss out on studying creative subjects. “It is about opportunity,” he says decisively. “Culture is under threat in so many ways and the government’s lack of concentration on arts education is another symptom of a wider malaise. Everyone should have the opportunity to experience and participate in the performing arts early in their lives and its not happening.”

“In a way the lack of concentration on arts education is yet another symptom of that more general and tendency – the only thing that will motivate the government – it is about opportunities it and a start in life that you may not have,” he says, shaking his head.

An artist’s impression of the Theatr Clwyd redevelopmen

An artist’s impression of the Theatr Clwyd redevelopmen

Anyway, as if Tompkins and his team aren’t busy enough currently the studio is working on a 180-seat pop-up theatre for Manchester Royal Exchange’s community outreach work has been announced, complete with canvas roof and cardboard seats. The mobile space will tour disadvantaged areas of Greater Manchester and will be “very low carbon and super-lightweight”. Hayworth Tompkins and Theatr Clwyd has also just begun an extensive public consultation on their multi-million-pound redevelopment designed by Haworth Tompkins which will see the 43-year-old north Wales venue future-proofed.

“Theatre Clwyd will be interesting,” Tompkins says, “there is a fantastic artistic team with Tamara (Harvey) and Liam (Evans-Ford) making all sorts of waves and leading the way; brave as you like. There is a strong sense of continuity at Clwyd both in term of affection for this friendly giant of a building and in terms of a buy-in for what that team is doing.”

“We like to think of us as having accompanied a building for a few years of its life, either from birth or later on. The building will be there after us, as will the organisation.  So, I do think architects can have a false idea of their capacity to stop time – we like to think that when we leave the building it will be complete and all will be frozen at that moment. You can acquire more modesty if you imagine yourself entering the life of the building and working with it –working with it and leave it in a healthier state than when you found it. Our approach entirely is instinctive and collegiate and democratic – that’s where we feel our power is.”

Most significantly, the devastating impacts of global climate change and the part he plays, of all the wide-ranging topics that we discuss is one we keep returning to. Tompkins is instinctively conscientious. “We need to work out what our most positive cause of action is,” he says. “That is the overarching project of this studio and should be of anybody’s work. Architects actually do have clear possibility of affecting positive change; construction accounts for nearly 40% of energy-based carbon we produce.”

Steve Tompkins and Carl

Steve Tompkins and Carl

We really covered a lot. So much that the office ceiling could have fallen in and we wouldn’t have noticed. It is clear that business as usual is not an option and in the context of social cohesion and the nature of modern society – Tompkins and his team are working through theatre towards something – impressionistic – and bigger than theatre itself.

And there is no doubting his purpose. “If we – as makers – can devise in-roads into the climate emergency that then we can have a direct effect and we don’t need to feel helpless.”