HAT Projects’ refurbishment of run-down exhibition spaces and studios at the Oval sustains artistic endeavour against the grain of sterile gentrification in Kennington, says Catherine Slessor
One of the more dismaying side-effects of London’s petrifying tide of gentrification has been the progressive squeezing-out and marginalisation of artists. Studio space is becoming harder to find as rents soar and property is gobbled up by developers intent on getting more bang for their buck. Yet artists are essential to the life of the city. As imaginative outliers, they fertilise and animate disregarded neighbourhoods by adapting, colonising and transforming. But, having catalysed that crucial regenerative impetus, they are invariably swept aside when the commercial winds start to blow. It’s chastening to think that Bankside, now forever associated with NEO Bankside and its looming, cross-gartered silos of vacuous luxury living, was originally a rich terrain of abandoned warehouses inhabited and subverted by a colony of artists that included Derek Jarman.
Yet amid this perpetual cycle of artistic colonisation and diaspora there is the odd stubborn barnacle of resistance. For 20 years, Gasworks in Kennington has been a defiant standard bearer for artistic production and activity, combining exhibition spaces and studios on a low-key site behind the Oval Cricket Ground. Newly remodelled by HAT Projects, it occupies a modest three-storey building that was originally a storage depot and house for the manager of the neighbouring Oval Gasworks. Now decommissioned, the assemblage of heroic Victorian gas holders is a south London landmark but, in a familiar pattern, the site has been sundered from its industrial origins and is currently awaiting redevelopment by Berkeley Homes. At present, however, the area is still dominated by the curiously delicate structure of the gas holders and the considerably less delicate cricket ground, which consumes the eyeline like a huge vessel in dry dock, looming over the surrounding brick housing estates.
Gasworks was able to cling on to its historic locale by the expediency of buying the building freehold, assisted by a grant from the Arts Council and a vigorous campaign of fundraising. But, having secured its existence, the building was found to be in a fairly parlous physical state with a leaking roof, incoherent circulation and little street presence. HAT Projects, founded in 2007 by Hana Loftus and Tom Grieve, prevailed in a limited competition for its renewal and reconfiguration.
The white-painted brick is spruced up and the gallery’s graphically monochrome palette amplified
The essence of the project is a quiet but creative rationalisation through small but significant moves that conceive the building as a rigorously functional setting for artists and art. On the street frontage, the white-painted brick is spruced up and the gallery’s graphically monochrome palette amplified by elegantly minimal signage in the form of vertical and horizontal lightboxes. This small but precise move instantly gives it a sharper and more legible public presence. A language of cannily improvised detailing adds honorific touches, such as the curved wall clad in mosaic-like hexagonal tiles (‘just ordinary bath tiles’, says Loftus) that beckons you into the building.
In the reorganised plan, ground floor functions radiate from a central hub, connecting the two exhibition galleries, an enlarged participation space, offices and a staircase to the studios above. A section of the stair tower is removed to expose the staircase, signposting circulation more explicitly. Permeability and clarity are important. ‘It’s about making visible and distinguishing the various elements in a logical and intuitive way,’ says Loftus.
The gallery spaces are of a decent size but not naturally lit, as Gasworks frequently shows video and installation art. The current exhibition, ‘God’s Reptilian Finger’, by Guatemalan artist Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa, perfectly exemplifies this, with a deliciously unnerving installation of multicoloured polystyrene blocks suspended in space and illuminated by ultraviolet light.
First and second floors are devoted to studios. Gasworks combines studios for rent by London-based artists and a residency programme aimed at African and Asian artists, which enables them to live and work in London for three-month stints. Like the galleries, studios are simple, white-walled spaces to be colonised at will by their occupants. Art practice can be a solitary, even hermetic activity, so a collective kitchen and dining space aims to inculcate a measure of social interaction. Here the monochrome palette gives way to a flash of blood-red encaustic tiles. There’s even a smoking terrace, overlooking the industrial panorama of the gas holders. Upper floor studios are more dramatically proportioned, with the original timber trusses slicing through partition walls in odd and accidental ways. New conjoins with old through processes of grafting, enhanced by a subtle dialogue between materials and textures. The building is consciously raw-boned and functional, capable of being mucked about a bit, but always subsumed to the greater task of being a crucible for art and providing a generous and sustaining environment for artists. There should be more like it. ‘Fundamentally, it’s an armature for creativity’, says Loftus ‘and within that it’s about eking out the moments that matter.’
Gasworks by HAT Projects
Source: Andy Keate
Type of project artist studios
Client Triangle Arts Trust
Architect HAT Projects
Structural engineer Momentum
M&E consultant SGA Consulting
Quantity surveyor William G Dick Partnership
Access consultant People Friendly Design
CDM coordinator Andrew Goddard Associates
Approved building inspector Wilkinson Construction Consultants
Main contractor ARK Build
Start on site date February 2015
Completion date September 2015
Gross internal floor area 619m²
Form of contract and/or procurement JCT Intermediate
CAD software used Bentley Microstation
Total cost £690,000
Construction cost per m² £1,114/m²
Annual CO2 emissions 23 kgCO2/m²/annum