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A renovation that looks to the future while respecting a much-loved past

Emily Booth
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Haworth Tompkins’ Battersea Arts Centre project shows how the best architects know that they mess with the ‘story’ of buildings and places at their peril, writes Emily Booth

Battersea arts centre fred howarth

Battersea arts centre fred howarth

Source: Fred Howarth

The Grand Hall at Haworth Tompkins’ Battersea Arts Centre

The emotional pull of a building is beautifully described by AJ competitions editor Merlin Fulcher in his appraisal of Haworth Tompkins’ work with Battersea Arts Centre. Merlin’s memories of the centre – going to birthday parties there as a child, working behind the scenes at Punchdrunk’s atmospheric production of The Masque of the Red Death – underline the power that buildings have in forming our impressions of the world.

The sensitive renovation achieved by Haworth Tompkins – after this Victorian gem was gutted in a devastating fire in 2015 – has been arrived at through a productive relationship with a forward-thinking client and an understanding of the role of much-loved buildings at an individual and community level.

The superficial, borrowed certainty of Classical detailing often cannot impart a history that isn’t there to begin with

The best architects know that they mess with the ‘story’ of buildings and places at their peril. They understand the importance of the layers of meaning and memory. They know that exceptional retrofit, renovation and heritage projects are not merely about additions of new bits or replicas of old bits; these stand-out projects address buildings and their meaning in the round.

It’s why so many architects rail at the ‘style wars’. It’s why it is so very difficult to successfully masterplan and build an entirely new town. It’s why rebuilding exact replicas after fire damage is so fraught. The superficial, borrowed certainty of Classical detailing often cannot impart a history that isn’t there to begin with. Buildings grow as people interact with them; they become part of a community experience and a community understanding. This takes time and it takes integrity.

At one point, when Merlin saw the plume of smoke rising from the Battersea Arts Centre, it seemed that memories would be all that remained of the charred building. But the triumph of this architectural project is that many new memories can now be created – ones that include the old story of this building, and delight in its rebirth.

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