Battersea Arts Centre

Reporter: Sandra Giorgetti

Dateline: 31st October, 2016

"What's past is prologue" – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

If walls had ears, those that make up the building that houses Battersea Arts Centre will have heard things many, great and various in their 123 years of life.

Their architect was Edward Mountford who enjoyed significant professional success and, although Worcestershire born, lived locally.

He designed Sheffield Town Hall and he would go on, a year before his death in 1908, to see his portfolio of work also include the Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey.

The advent of the railway had precipitated, and continued to do so, a period of significant demographic rearrangement for Battersea as elsewhere.

When, in 1891, Mountford entered the design competition that would see him create one of three buildings for his local area, the previously modest, semi–rural parish of St Mary Battersea boasted a rapidly rising and changing population.

For the now Metropolitan Borough of Battersea, Mountford created a suitably stately double-fronted, red Suffolk brick and Bath stone building on Lavender Hill.

These were the early days of the Trades Union movement and Independent Labour Party; the Pankhursts were amongst those who presided over meetings in the campaign for Women’s Suffrage in Mountford's building, that would also host London’s first black Mayor in 1913.

It appears from the outset that this building was destined to house the radical and innovative—a community's building responding to the societal changes that whorled around it.

In less than seven decades, the building had outlived its original purpose: when the Borough was subsumed by Wandsworth in 1965, the building suffered a decade of almost total dereliction, and it would have been demolished were it not for a public campaign of such efficacy that the building received a Grade II* listing.

This protected the features of the exterior's symmetrical Classical frontages but it did not prevent the building, then being used as a Council–run arts centre and used for occasional weddings and civic events, from coming under threat of closure again in 1979.

This precipitated a further rescue and Battersea Arts Centre became an independent arts centre, with Jude Kelly, now at London's Southbank, as its first artistic director.

The Battersea Arts Centre Digital Archive has a photograph of Kelly surrounded by rubble with a caption that appears to scream, "Jude Kelly and team ripping out parts of the building!"

If purists feel the urge to tut at such brazen destruction of architectural features, they need to think again.

The recently completed development project has revealed that, right from its earliest years, the building has been altered from Mountford's original configuration.

"Change," says Philip Payne, Battersea Arts Centre's box office manager, who shows me round. "Change, change and more change. It is the one word that absolutely describes this place—the experience of this place."

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