Walter Menteth’s deliberately raw refurbishment of two decrepit sacred shells has transformed the best-kept arts secret in Britain, writes Rory Olcayto. Photography by Ben Blossom
Built at a reputed cost of 2,718 pounds, sixteen shillings and four pence in 1911 by John Simpson & Maxwell Ayrton, architects of the old Wembley stadium, the Church of the Epiphany in London’s Southwark Park was something of a wonder when under construction.
As church records show, it was ‘built in reinforced concrete on a concrete raft and specially designed to prevent all future risk of collapse… Architects from many parts of the country visited the site and took a keen interest in the building operations.’
A century later, this monolithic, Tuscan-inspired church is Grade-II listed Dilston Grove, ‘the best-kept arts secret in Britain’ according to Olympic-baiting, hidden London obsessive Iain Sinclair. One year into Walter Menteth’s refurbishment, which has breathed new life into its extraordinary ferrocement reinforced concrete shell and adjacent parish hall, it continues to be a site of interest: for architects keen to explore new ways to refurbish and extend the life of our built heritage on a small budget.
Menteth was commissioned by the Bermondsey Artists’ Group (BAG) in 2008 to lead the £500,000 renovation. BAG had occupied the building since 1999, rescuing it from the Heritage at Risk register after four decades of disuse. Despite its status as a unique and early concrete exemplar, nothing remained of the original interior finishes and fittings.
That, however, is central to its charm: it is one of Britain’s most raw and cavernous art spaces, and like Glasgow’s Tramway, attracts large-scale, site-specific experimental art that plays against the building’s impressive scale. Menteth explains: ‘It is simple, robust and poses few constraints on the artists, leaving enormous scope for creativity. The client wanted to keep the space’s ‘as found’ qualities and, as it is the main reason for the building’s listing as well as its success as an arts venue, the exposed internal concrete.’ The architect was also required to renovate the ivy-covered parish hall, the roof of which had collapsed.
Menteth’s approach is mainly, necessarily, a light touch. The top and underside of the nave roof have been refurbished, interior lighting and electrical services installed – where none previously existed – and the vandalised leaded lights of the nave windows have been encased between sheets of clear polycarbonate. New entrance and escape doors with level access have been provided.
Elsewhere, the apse roof has been rebuilt, the choir floor and ceiling restored and the interior wall surfaces have been selectively stripped or repaired. Utilities, in the shape of a changing room, WC, store and boiler room, have been added.
The most inventive upgrade applied to the project is in the way the parish hall facilitates a stronger relationship between the building and the park. The north-facing wall of the hall has been replaced with a fully glazed elevation of sliding doors, shielded by a security screen which doubles as a hydraulically operated canopy, further wedding building to site.
The interior of the parish hall is enhanced with reclaimed timber elements, which add to its handcrafted charm. Plain white walls are ranged under a restored herringbone ceiling with a new semicircular window set into the gable end. A large new doorway, clad with recycled floorboards, beckons to visitors. To go through the door is to enter a wonderland – the main exhibition space within the nave beyond is an architectural experience worth travelling ‘from many parts of the country’ for.
Dilston Grove is currently applying for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for final external concrete works.
Client Bermondsey Artists’ Group
Architect Walter Menteth Architects
Quantity Surveyor & Cdm co-ordinator Appleyard & Trew
Engineer FJ Samuely and Partners
Services Pearce and Associates
Conservation architect Bates Zambelli Architects
Main contractor Killby and Gayford
Building control MLM Building
Architect’s appointment June 2008
Planning submission August 2008
Planning granted October 2008
Start on site October 2009
Completion May 2010
Site area 469m2
Gross internal floor area
Former parish room: 88m2
All other areas: 229m2
Contract Two-stage negotiated JCT Intermediate Contract with Contractor’s Design 2009
Doors and windows Glass sliding door assembly: Kaba Door Systems
Fixed lights CSG Ltd
Steel doors Clarke Doors
Internal doors Main contractor’s own joinery division
Entrance screen Express Hi-fold Doors
Steelwork Capital Steel
Roofing Norman & Underwood
Corian worktops Decra
Ironmongery Macwood Door Controllers, Hafele UK, Hillaldam Coburn
Blinds De Leeuw
Floor ducts Cableduct
Rainwater goods Alumasc
Sanitary ware Ideal Standard, Twyfords
Special finishings Francis Coleman (Bermondsey Arts Group)