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Historical perspectives: Pringle Richards Sharratt in Brixton

Carl Turner, Architecture Today

The building for the Black Cultural Archives carries a weight of expectation, reports Carl Turner.

Photos: Edmund Sumner

Brixton is changing fast. Its problems are shifting from deprivation and riots to those of gentrification following an influx of young professional and creative types who seized upon relatively low property values, speedy Victoria line tube connections and the super-cool Brixton brand. Inevitably
there are tensions between those who feel this part of south London belongs to them, but it has to be said that Brixton is in a beautiful place right now.

Within this context of rapid change a new cultural building is about to open its doors, at the epicentre of a revived Brixton, on Windrush Square. The building houses the important collection of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA), an organisation set up to preserve and celebrate the histories of people of African and Caribbean descent in the UK. Its remit is to educate and lead the public towards a greater understanding and enjoyment of black heritage. Originally based in nearby Coldharbour Lane, the archive was initiated in 1981 by local activists who realised that a generation of important material could be lost.

The site for its new permanent home, gifted to the BCA by Lambeth Council, includes the grade-II listed Raleigh Hall, originally a pair of Georgian houses dating from 1823. Like many buildings in Brixton, Raleigh Hall had fallen into disrepair following the unrest of the 1980s, and was declared 'at risk' by English Heritage in 1992. Architect Pringle Richards Sharratt won the commission to repair and extend the building in competition in 2005.

The architects had the tricky job of creating a vision for the building and steering it through a long fundraising and box-ticking process, and they should be applauded, along with the BCA's directors and the powers that be at Lambeth Town Hall. The project won a Heritage Lottery Fund grant alongside funding from other sources, including the local authority. Raleigh Hall marks the end of a terrace of predominantly nineteenth-century houses on Saltoun Road. Its largest facade faces onto Windrush Square, from which it was separated by a dead-end road. The square itself was a fenced-off rectangle of grass until it was redesigned by landscape architect Gross Max in 2010. 

The new layout removed the road and connected Windrush Square with the adjacent Tate Gardens, creating a unified civic space and an appropriate setting for the Town Hall, Tate Library, Ritzy cinema and St Matthew's Church. The plans for the BCA were anticipated in Gross Max's design and the hard landscaping was configured to direct people to its planned entrance. The completion of the BCA represents the last piece of the jigsaw. Pringle Richards Sharratt proposed a simple, legible diagram. The key idea places a new archival 'box' at the corner of Windrush Square and Saltoun Road, forming a new sheltered courtyard as a buffer and entrance zone from Windrush Square. Both buildings largely turn their backs to Saltoun Road, preferring to create a buzz around the new 'BCA courtyard' with its cafe, direct relationship with the square, and flow of visitors attracted to the varied events programme. This feels like the right move.

The restored and adapted existing building houses the main entrance, cafe and shop, a resource library, education spaces and office space for the BCA. The new building houses a dedicated exhibition space at ground-floor level, and an archive store above. 

This element has been designed and constructed in accordance with the Government Indemnity Scheme, which allows the BCA to be recognised as a depository for artefacts of national or international importance. This requires the building to perform at the highest levels with respect to security and environmental control standards, and enables the BCA to take exhibits on loan from, say, the V&A.

The exhibition space will host changing exhibitions - the inaugural show is
Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain. Raleigh Hall's state of dereliction meant it had to be almost completely reconstructed, and an inevitable consequence is the loss of much historic patina. The central wall between the two original houses has been removed to create a large education room at first-floor level and a cafe space at ground-floor level. To some extent this has eroded the integrity of the original, but the new interior spaces are bright and airy, if a little generic. This is no doubt partially a result of the procurement method, with the architect having no formal involvement in the construction process.

The new archive box is clad very formally in limestone and separated visually from the listed building by a glass link which houses a staircase. Long slot windows face onto the new entrance courtyard and Windrush Square, and these can be obscured using the purpose-made internal sliding screens to provide a black box space, as is required for the inaugural exhibition. The glazing is set back, revealing a very deep external sill which invites use as a seat (and it seems, as a litter bin).

Facing Saltoun Road, a horizontal slot infilled with a stainless steel panel is the remnant of a planned but abandoned ramped route into the building, but it serves to animate the blank stone facade, which is otherwise broken only by the glass box housing the stair landings. This seems slightly muddled and 'back-of-house'. The stone cladding sets the building apart from the (largely) brick context of its neighbours, and its use is clearly an attempt to align the new building with the civic architecture of the wider square. It's also about investing a modest building with urban and cultural significance. 

The resultant architecture is very formal - more dignified than friendly, perhaps. In part this arises from the largely blank facades of the archival box, which needs to exclude daylight. More importantly, it reflects the desire to create a new civic building for an important institution, and all of the baggage it carries. Pringle Richards Sharratt's Black Cultural Archives building does all the right things, even if in some respects it is not especially Brixtonlike.

Over the past few decades, Brixton, with its tradition of grassroots activism, has seemed like a small independent state. The language and tone of the building turns the activist into the institution. Maybe this is all a sign of maturity- a grown-up building for a grown-up organisation.

The clients are rightly proud of their new home, and given time, occupation and familiarity, the building should take on a more approachable character. What cannot be underestimated in the meantime is that the huge contribution of black culture to British society has been formally recognised and given a permanent home in this modest but significant new building. 

Project team
Architect, lead consultant: Pringle Richards Sharratt; design team: Malcolm McGregor (left), John Pringle, Penny Richards, Andrew Reader, Karsten Weiss, Dominic Wilkinson, Anthony Berongoy; structural engineer. Alan Baxter Assocs; services engineer: Max Fordham; project manager. The Clarkson Alliance; costs, CDM: Turner & Townsend; client: Black Cultural Archives; building owner. London Borough of Lambeth; funding: Heritage Lottery Fund, LB Lambeth, Greater London Authority, Biffa.

Selected suppliers and subcontractors
Main contractor: Rooff; services and mechanical contractor: Brith Services; external frameless and feature glazing: Openwood Group; stonework: Szerelmey; architectural metalwork: Met Fab; superstructure steelwork: KCG Services; flat roofing membrane: Sika Sarnafil; metal roofing, flashings: Rheinzink; external lime render. Parex; joinery: Oakwood; lift: Schindler; general lighting: Zumtobel; exhibition track lighting: Concord; external lighting: BEGA, Ligman; damp proofing: CETCO; archive storage systems: Link 51; cafe and kitchen fit-out: HCE Food Services; building insulation: Kingspan; roof vents: Surespan; main staircase ventilation louvres: Gilberts; specialist doors: Taskmaster Doors; glazed metal firescreens and doors: Wellington Glazing; internal doors: Leaderflush Shapland; sliding partitions: Seeker (Sliding Partitions); mansafe systems: Sayfa Systems; security bollards: EDS UK