Questions and answers

Would arts subsidies play a role in the construction of Gagarin Square?

In the course of public consultation on the Gagarin Square project, the majority of visitors on-line or to the public exhibition for the project at the “ART ACADEMY CAFÉ since July 2012 have praised the design and admired the boldness of returning a piece of the WEST END to this area, north of Elephant and Castle. Many have also raised questions about arts subsidies, the place for commercial space in new arts constructions, and the creation of new models of independent theatre development, crucial especially in these times where Westminster is broke. This essay is an attempt to answer. To convert an existing building into a restaurant and gallery such as has been done at the Menier is not unusual throughout the UK. Arts Council money is unnecessary unless you have a no admissions fee policy such as at the National Portrait Gallery, for example. (We doubt if its restaurant profits are sufficient to provide the upkeep of the Gallery).

A theatre was added to the Menier Gallery and Restaurant, built in time for its use for two years as one of the Globe’s rehearsal studios. The question as to theatre subsidy revolves around property economics. The majority of developers dismiss thoughts of theatre when planning the ground floors of big commercial projects because a pre-let to a big name retailer can help to underpin the finance required for building the commercial space above. Many developers will remember a dark tale of a developer-patron of the arts who went bust by signing up an arts cuckoo into his retail nest. Their cuckoo needed continuous fund-feeding and nearly bankrupted the entire enterprise.

The Russian developers of Gagarin Square have to be as canny as their northern counterparts in the frozen North of Scotland. They understand that a theatre entrepreneur like David Babani at the Menier is a rare bird.Unlike cuckoos the “Babani bird” can be given an empty nest and within a short time create a thriving independent theatre. If David Babani were to run the Gagarin Theatre then his replacement in a few years time will be required for the Menier Theatre. If there was no Menier Theatre, that is no successful entrepreneurial model adjacent to the new Gagarin Theatre, then a search for a new Gagarin Theatre impresario might be a tough task. The pool of talented theatre people in London overflows with those who expect continuous subsidy, if not from the state then from a wealthy patron. If we were to begin to recruit for a new post now, we doubt that there are more than half a dozen suitable candidates in the whole of the United Kingdom.

You only have to go to certain other off-West End theatres and pick up their programmes to see theatres teams structured like small civil service departments – heads, deputy heads, assistants, deputy assistants all jostle for a billing. The Russian backers of Gagarin know that the new Gagarin Theatre will be a larger version of the successful, independent Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre. The financial formula is simple: the 100,000 square-feet Gagarin Square will have a 4/5 residential and commercial space content, and a 1/5 arts (theatre, gallery etc) space content. The vitality of the building’s arts activity, with its successful theatre, gallery, and restaurant will enable the commercial lettings and residential sales to achieve good rental or sales prices to cover the cost of building an empty 20% arts space which will itself be let to Babani or one of his fledglings. See 'Design Philosophy' in ''Design' to read a fuller analysis on this subject.

How are you negotiating the Thrale Street Conservation Area planning restrictions?

The City is a successful and wonderful place to both work in and visit due to its ability to effectively combine historic buildings, minute parks, hidden gardens and ancient graveyards with stunning examples of modern architecture and skyscrapers. The Thrale Street Conservation area that lies a stone’s throw from this flourishing arena of architectural juxtapositions must not be isolated from this success. Within and on the borders of this conservation area, there are many recent building developments that can claim absolutely no architectural merit, very ordinary hotels, for example. Such developments cannot be said to enhance the character of the area or preserve its history, requisites of any proposed plans submitted within a conservation area. On the north side, the area borders low-rise former subsidised housing, now mostly privatised. Suffice to say, the area does not ostentatiously distinguish itself as an architecturally remarkable series of streets and buildings.

The draft document regarding the conservation area proposed by Southwark Council includes many pages of references to the close-scale maintenance of buildings: how to double- glaze a wooden sash window of a listed building, guidelines on unattractive TV reception dishes, on the need for slate roofs, and discussions on solar panels. But it is crucial to bear in mind that when it comes to large-scale design vision, Southwark Council has an unimpressive track record. Their strong opposition to the construction of what was the Bankside Power Station - now the glorious Tate Modern – provides a particularly good example of their constantly conservative and outdated attitude to innovation; their long held objection to the Globe Theatre, so protracted that Sam Wannamaker died before its opening in 1996.

For the council to improve upon their past mistakes, they should learn from the City’s worldwide acclaim and success, and examine new buildings on their method, functionality and their approval by the local residents, clients and businesses, rather than simply issue a policy of a 5-storey building limit on this part of Southwark Street. After all, a few hundred meters in one way lies the overwhelming 80-storey Shard, while in the other direction exists 6 towers of Neo-Bankside, varying in height from 12 to 20 storeys. All the while, the shadow of the mighty Bankside Power Station’s battle with the Council looms large over the area, and provides a monument to those who wage war against the Council’s entrenched scepticism.

Exceptional modern architectural design may be uncomfortable in the same way that an unfamiliar painter is challenging. Time distinguishes most paintings and architecture from the ordinary; art that lacks or loses its substance eventually becomes the object of derision, as is evidenced by the recent turn of critical opinion against Damien Hirst, headed by Brian Sewell in early 2012. However there is a difference. Good buildings must also be fit for purpose as well as remarkable for design and properly constructed. Time is ruthless with buildings which fail this criteria; Southwark is littered with such failures from 1950s to 1980s. It is unnecessary to restrain an architect even in a conservation area where there is an empty site. Richard Rogers, Terry Farwell, Norman Foster and many non British architects have insinuated lively and witty yet functional icons into areas that then grow in confidence as existing buildings become sought after and refurbished. These icons may reflect egos. Perhaps of the client and the architect but they are expensive to build and it is usually the neighbouring owners and occupiers who make a killing from scores of local makeovers.

If in 10 years time the ‘Menier 2’ theatre ceased to pull in the crowds, then there is always the possibility that, if the new owner was a certain Mr Sainsbury, the façade could be redesigned before the space was reconfigured into a 15 thousand sq foot supermarket. But surely the opportunity should be offered to innovative, creative, community-enhancing projects to attempt to make an architecturally impressive attempt on the site before such purely commercial ventures be allowed to swamp the area. The tragic fate of scores of 1930s cinemas in the Elephant and Castle area bears witness to the Council’s inability to implement such a process of redeveloping buildings crucial both to the architectural and social landscape of an area.

The City is brilliant in removing a tired building and replacing it with new commercial buildings which may themselves have a limited lifespan. An alternative view to take is that in the new fronts applied in the Georgian era to buildings such as those in the Borough High Street are now listed, something which would greatly astonish the ruthless Georgians renovators.

In short, different building types have different lives. The terraced cottages in Thrale Street are undeniably handsome and could have provided the inspiration for the design of the adjacent residential Porter Street/Maiden Lane estate. Similarly, the Victorian design of Cromwell Buildings on Redcross Way could have been replicated and given a modern twist in the renovation of 38-40 Southwark Street. Instead, the site has been left derelict, its former Victorian frontages now derelict. The opportunities for 21st century architectural wonders with distinctly period influences are manifold in this area, and would elevate it to a residential conservation area worthy of the Duke of Westminster’s Belgravia. As it is, the GLC and Southwark Council has neglected the handsome Thrale Street houses, allowing paint to peel and the facades to become shabby.
If a Thrale Street Conservation area exists at all, even in its rundown state, it is largely due to the efforts of the private enterprisers in the 1990s who saved and restored the area’s Victorian legacy. The Menier Buildings, for example, were in an abysmally poor state of repair, approaching dereliction, until they were taken over and renovated at personal rather than state expense. They now form a centrepiece of Southwark Street, an iconic landmark that seems to encapsulate the spirit of the area and set the tone for future developments. While conservation restrictions are clearly designed to dissuade incongruous designs from being erected without any regard for the area’s history, in actuality it prevents thoughtful, nuanced designs that incorporate elements of the past in bold and impressive plans.

How have the plans been received by your neighbours?

 

The answer is that our plans have been fully supported by our neighbours! Joy Grimshaw, director of the women’s only club, The Bridge at 81 Southwark Street, endorses the design, and looks forward to Gagarin female actors and staff enjoying the treatments, meeting rooms, café and gym on offer to women (www.thebridge-uk.org).

Jilly Forster and Rob Lamond, CEO and Director, respectively, of Forster Communications at 49 Southwark Street have welcomed the prospect of the West End coming back to Southwark, They already are welcome diners and show goers at the Menier Restaurant and Theatre.

The renowned developer and CEO of Manhattan Loft Corporation, Harry Handelsman, has voiced his appreciation of the design’s architectural merits and has expressed interest in the development of the plans.

Network Rail have recently linked their modernization of arches to the Gagarin Square project (see photo of plan) . With Southwark Council’s strategic and financial involvement, Flat Iron Square will become a truly welcoming and dynamic entrance into the neighbourhood north of the rail viaduct.