Battersea Arts Centre awarded for community focused architectural design

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.