The Grand Hall Rises as Battersea Arts Centre Reopens

by Howard Sherman

That the Battersea Arts Centre in London is calling its current programming roster its Phoenix Season should come as no surprise to anyone aware of the venue’s recent history. In early 2015, an overnight fire rendered the Grand Hall, the largest space in the century-old facility, a charred wreck, with little but the exterior walls remaining. Fortunately, the construction of the building was such that the while the Grand Hall was a shambles, the other parts of the building, equally historic, escaped any significant damage. Unlike most organizations facing such devastation, BAC was already discussing reconstruction with architects the day after the disaster. How did they manage to set to planning so quickly?

“Haworth Tompkins Architects have been working with Battersea Arts Centre since 2006,” explained Martin Lydon, an associate at the firm. “The fire was in 2015. So that’s nine years of work that we’d already done to the front part of the building. Obviously no one anticipated the Grand Hall burning down.” BAC is a former town hall whose myriad spaces had been converted for use as performing and supporting spaces back in the 1970s. “The work at the front part of the building evolved very incrementally,” said Lydon, “because up until 2011, they didn’t have a long-term lease. The first few years were very simple scratching the surface projects, usually working with theater performers to try and make bits of the building work better for a particular show. The catalyst was in 2007, when Punchdrunk wanted to do an immersive performance in the whole building. [Punchdrunk, a leading immersive theater company, presented The Masque of the Red Death.] That was the spark for ourselves and BAC to think building-wide about the theatrical possibilities of this whole Town Hall.”

“The Punchdrunk show scratched the surface of that for a period of about nine months. Once that left, everybody thought ‘Wow, that was amazing. But how can we do this long-term? How can we make this stick?’ We did a year of master planning and thinking about the different types of activity and space, as well doing a conservation appraisal. We then did a series of quite small scale, light touch, low budget interventions, like temporary seating on a staircase, improving the café bar, external signage, draft lobby, trying to make this municipal grand staircase foyer feel more intimate and more theatrical. In 2012 and 2013, we managed to get some Arts Council Heritage Lottery funding secured. That was able to pay for more transformative building alterations to the rear part of the Town Hall building. 

“When the fire happened, we knew and understood very intimately what was great about the space in terms of its look and feel, and historic character and grandeur. But equally, all the technical constraints. Fortunately, the building was insured. “The building insurer’s initial default position was, ‘Well, you rebuild it as it was on the day of the fire.’ That’s what they were thinking. I guess that thought crossed our minds straight away at first. But then instantly, we were thinking on the flip side, ‘Well, that means we put back all the problems. That doesn’t feel right. We can’t rebuild in the 21st century and not put any insulation in roofs. We need to think about accessibility. Can we get a lift up to the balcony?’

“So we did a feasibility study of rebuilding, but improving where we could. There were things like the historic windows and the fiber plaster ceiling that were still massive technical constraints. We were also thinking from a conservation and aesthetic perspective, is it correct to rebuild in the Victorian style in the 21st century, essentially as a pastiche replica? Does that feel right intellectually? Does it feel right for the building? Does it feel right for BAC as an organization? Does it feel right in terms of conservation?”

“And that sense of thinking on a different thread made us question more what is the hall as a historic artifact? What has the fire left us? All the masonry walls, do we demolish those and start from scratch? Do we retain them? This building is full of history. London’s first black mayor was elected here in 1913, Suffragettes campaigned here. Battersea’s always been quite a radical part of London when it was a town hall. We wanted to honor that past. We felt that in the Grand Hall, if we just obliterated the walls and started again, we were losing all that history and memory.”

Lydon credits BAC’s longtime artistic director David Jubb, who has announced he’ll be stepping down this spring after two decades, with making certain the rebuilding proceeded swiftly but with great care. “David’s an incredible leader,” said Lydon. “He sets a very inspiring vision. We wanted to make this place more inclusive, more democratic. And all those ideals were supporting the vision of not recreating like for like as a pastiche, but trying to turn this into an opportunity.”

Lydon notes they worked with the insurers to make it possible to fund work that wasn’t merely a reconstruction, but a rethinking. That same process took place with local and national historic conservation groups, which placed a great deal of faith in BAC and Haworth Tompkins because of the prior nine-year history of respectful reinvention and renovation.

The reinvented Great Hall now features an all-new grid system, with steel I-beams hung from the existing walls, motorized winches, improved climate controls and entirely new electrical systems throughout the space. A vintage organ has been relocated and reconstructed. One doorway was expanded to allow for the load-in of larger set pieces. Acoustic concerns were addressed. Yet for anyone who hadn’t previously known the space, it’s possible to walk into the Great Hall and feel one has gone back in time, with the BAC’s history etched into the walls with some of the scars of the fire still visible as part of the aesthetic, which could easily be taken for a restoration instead of a reinvention.

Speaking in September, just three weeks after the start of the Phoenix season, Jack Champion, the centre’s head of production and technical, who was not part of the staff when the fire struck, noted that the very first show in the rebuilt hall, Missing, by the company Gecko, was the very show that was in production when the fire broke out, truncating its planned run. But with the rebuilt facility, there were new possibilities. “In terms of what they’d been used to,” Champion explained, “as they’d done half of their show in the old hall, it was now much more flexible than what they needed. And safer.” Champion points out that while visiting companies will still need to bring in some of their own equipment, or rentals, the possibilities are now much more expansive. He said, “The infrastructure we’ve got in the venue has enabled us to accommodate everything so far that they’re bringing in, which is brilliant in terms of future-proofing for events and performances.”

Observing that just getting the venue back up and running was the first priority, Champion said he’s already looking forward to the second season, and the challenges posed by new companies. Lydon concurred, saying “Hopefully once the next season comes along, once people have got over the fact that it’s a new hall, hopefully they’ll start asking the more difficult questions like ‘Can we rig something from all the way over there?’ or ‘What if the audience came in another way” or ‘What if we don’t have the stage in the proscenium?’”  Champion chimed in, “It’s much more flexible than you first realize in many aspects. Martin and I had many late nights redoing plans. One of the things we tried to factor in is flexibility for the performers and the artists coming in, and their technical requirements. So far, we’ve been able to accommodate everything.”

With a date set for reopening while work was still underway, it’s impossible not to wonder whether the tech shakedown went smoothly. “It was, dare I say, surprisingly painless,” Champion stated cautiously. “Obviously there are snagging issues, like with our house lighting control, on the programming side of it, what we wanted certain buttons to do. But none of it has affected performances, it’s not affected the public’s opinion of the place. It’s been stuff that we’ve been able to manage.”

A Phoenix Soaring
Speaking to the response of audiences in the early weeks, Champion said, “The biggest thing that everyone mentions to me is the ceiling. The aesthetics of it. They go, ‘Wow, that ceiling is amazing.’ They often ask, ‘Have you made it bigger?’ No. Honestly, it’s the same footprint. It has a bit of a wow factor, which is nice.”

While the upgrade of the Grand Hall may have happened much sooner than the BAC’s long-term plans called for, the result was a space that afforded more flexibility than before the fire. Champion noted, “I think in terms of the opportunities from a technical side of our work, the safety that we now have to be able to do that scale of work, in terms of the technical galleries and all of those sort of things, it’s opened up a huge amount of possibilities for us. It is enabling us to be able to push the boundaries of what BAC has ever been able to do before.”

So does this mean that the now 12-year relationship between BAC and Haworth Tompkins has finally reached its conclusion? “There are still projects very much in the pipeline,” remarked Lydon. He smiled wryly and said, “I think it’s the project that never ends.

In his own words, Jack Champion, head of production and technical for the BAC provides the details of the technical equipment in the Grand Hall.

 L-R: Martin Lydon and Jack Champion (photo:Howard Sherman)

For the lighting control system, we run a main lighting console of an ETC Gio 4k channels and we have three ETC Sensor3 dimmer racks with ThruPower modules, which can be changed from dimmable to non-dim as well as lock a circuit to a constant hot output override without changing modules.The architectural side of our lighting control is via an ETC Paradigm system. This controls the work lights/houselights/window blinds with three touch screen panels (two fixed and one wireless roaming panel). All of the lighting control systems (dimmers and networking, etc.) were supplied by Hawthorn. We owned the lighting console. Our side lighting (up and down bars) have a total load of 175kg and a point load of 120kg. These are also controlled via the main touchscreen engineering control panels (jog boxes) that can be plugged in in the technical galleries above the roof but also in the USR production lighting cabinet.

There are 19 acoustic banners above the ceiling which can be dropped in to just above the ceiling line or retracted into their storage boxes. Each banner is a roll-down double roller banner with a powered aluminum top roller and free travelling bottom roller. They are arranged to create a double layer of carpet with an air gap in the middle.

We have 12 1-ton chain motors that run on I-beam tracks above the ceiling line. There are a series of stops with a spring-loaded locking mechanism on the motor trolley. The motors are 1,000-kg LoadGuards supplied by LTM ltd. They have a speed of four-meter per minute and are fitted with a proof tested and certified safety hook, a grade 100 “Gunnebo Alloy” hook with recessed trigger. The hoists meet BGV-D8+ standard which is suitable for the suspension of loads over people without secondary suspension. All of our stage engineering and stage engineering control was carried out by Centre Stage Engineering Ltd.

Here is a fun video with the history and the fire and the reconstruction covered: