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Domestic civic: 6a’s South London Gallery annexe

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6a architects’ retrofit of a Grade II-listed former fire station doubles the gallery’s exhibition and education space

6a’s bright, imaginative conversion of a former fire station into an annexe to the South London Gallery (SLG) – doubling the gallery’s floorspace for exhibitions, education and events – is a deceptively simple exercise in what 6a director Stephanie Macdonald calls ’frugal conversion’.

‘We didn’t want to override the building’s character, maintaining the original layout of the rooms as far as possible to preserve the sense of the domestic in many of the upstairs spaces, where the firemen lived with their families when it first opened,’ she says.

05 slg firestation jd

05 slg firestation jd

This accommodation – for the fire brigade officers and their families on the upper levels above where the appliances, horses and equipment would once have been – evidences a golden age of the fire station building. Originally built in 1867, the oldest surviving purpose-built fire station in London and the first of this building type, it is the last one surviving of the first tranche of 26 fire stations commissioned across London.

‘It was a new typology which they were inventing, so they were trying things out – hence this interesting mixture of the civic with the domestic,’ says project architect Matt Atkinsg. 

When built, it was one of several new pieces of Victorian civic infrastructure that lined the Peckham Road – also including the main gallery building of the SLG as well as the Technical Institute, which is now the Camberwell College of the Arts. 6a describes how they were very keen to preserve the sense of ‘a big house with civic intentions’ in the retrofit.

‘We like the idea of preserving this as a space for public benefit, open to all,’ Macdonald says.

Arranged over four floors, the development provides 425m² of public space: with new exhibition galleries, an archive, education space and artist’s studio – as well as a communal kitchen.

’Providing one space as a kitchen, was part of our aim to maintain an anti-institutional feel – of an artist’s house – reversing the expected role of a gallery: inviting people to come and cook,’ says Macdonald of the space, which can be used for projects by artists in residence at the gallery or local community groups.

14 slg firestation jd

14 slg firestation jd

The building was donated to the gallery by an anonymous benefactor in 2014. 6a architects won the commission to convert it a year later.

It is the third time 6a has worked at the gallery. Its involvement began when in 2006 it was commissioned to refurbish a neighbouring derelict Victorian house to provide additional gallery spaces, an artist’s flat for residencies, a café and education studio.

More recently, 6a worked with the gallery and artist Gabriel Orozco in creating the Orozco Garden, incorporating a new gallery entrance directly from Sceaux Gardens Estate. The gallery, under the directorship of Margot Heller, has seen visitor numbers increase since 2006 from 25,000 to 130,000 a year. 

01 slg firestation jd

01 slg firestation jd

The north, main entrance façade to the building, directly facing onto Peckham Road – a handsome, vaguely Queen Anne-style gabled frontage – is the most carefully conserved element: repaired and restored to its original condition – but within limits. 6a decided to not clean the exterior bricks – feeling the whiteness of the original gault brick would feel too bright if cleaned back. This is an example of the sensitive yet pragmatic take on retrofit throughout the project. Thus windows have been restored across the front elevation but with secondary glazing internally to enhance the building’s thermal and acoustic performance, while the building’s envelope has been ’radically’ insulated and a controlled heat-recovery air supply installed.

The main entrance is on the right hand side, through new double-doors which reinstate the original opening where horses and fire engine appliances would have passed through to a courtyard and stables behind.

These now open into a passageway, reinstated with a clear view past reception and a shop to a small south-facing rear garden. But the big move has been the removal of floor plates above this, creating a double-height entrance space. At the back, the space is voided out all the way up through four storeys, with a white, perforated steel staircase leading up towards a new skylight and windows – creating a numinous slice of circulation space. 

10 slg firestation jd

10 slg firestation jd

’The idea is that you can get the measure of the building as soon as you walk in,’ is how Macdonald puts it. 

Off this space, four floors of relatively modest rooms – two per floor – open off a stair and lift landing, with fire curtains used to avoid the need for built-in fire lobbies.

The ground floor – primarily an archive – and first floor are designed to always be open to the public, with the second and third floors providing flexible spaces for events, exhibitions and education projects as well as an artist’s studio.

Overall this is finely judged retrofit – made to look simple. Effort is spent pragmatically but imaginatively where needed, rethinking gallery and art space as a series of welcoming domestic-sized, yet civic-spirited spaces.

Simplified slg plan section

Simplified slg plan section

Architect’s view

Over many years now the SLG and 6a have worked together on a gradually evolving ‘campus’ bringing together a variety of different buildings and outdoor spaces. There has been a consistent emphasis on developing the whole site, with external spaces being as integral to the artistic programmes and experience of visiting the SLG as the internal spaces. The gallery has literally spread out into the local area, where it has been creating connections with residents since its inception in 1868.

Stephanie Macdonald, director, 6a architects

Stair details

Stair details

Stair details

Project data

Start on site March 2017
Completion August 2018
Gross internal floor area 425m²
Form of contract Traditional (JCT intermediate)
Construction cost £1.5 million
Construction cost per m² £3,750
Architect 6a architects      
Client South London Gallery
Structural engineer Eckersley O’Callaghan
M&E consultant Serge Lai Engineers
QS Stockdale
Garden design Fraser & Morris
Approved building inspector MLM
Main contractor Lengard
CAD software used MicroStation, Rhino

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