BAC to the future

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Whisper it who dares, but the fire that destroyed the Battersea Arts Centre’s Great Hall a year ago might have been a godsend. Think of it. By the time of the fire on Friday, March 13, the BAC was seven years into a £13m redevelopment process with the best in the business, Haworth Tompkins, having to think and rethink and rethink again how to make this 1890s town hall, with its grand halls, imposing atrium entrance and scattering of offices, fit for an arts centre of the 21st century that would be multi-purpose. It's not a very prestigious Victorian municipal building with a lot of architectural conceits and not a little gerryness in the building – the BAC’s chairman, Michael Day, also happens to be chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces (Tower of London, Hampton Court, Banqueting House etc) and more than once he must have thought as he gazed on rain-catching buckets and sparking electrical fittings “from the sublime to the bleeding ridiculous”.

The fire seems to have solved a lot of problems. The restrictions imposed by being a listed building (it was m,are Grade II* in 1970 largely to head off a demolition attempt by the local council) mean that there was a lot HT couldn’t do and things that it had to do but wouldn’t have chosen to. The fire removed a lot of those complications, so that the Great Hall that reopens in 2018 will have up-to-date acoustics, lighting, sightlines and ventilation and becomes a versatile asset – before the fire, switching its use from a concert venue to, say, a wedding reception space would take eight days and cost £10,000, which will become one day and £1,000.

The other benefit of the fire was that it focussed national attention on the BAC, so that on the weekend following the fire the impromptu Phoenix Fund the artistic director David Jubb launched realised more than £50,000 from nearly 1,750 individuals. The government then bunged in half a million, Battersea Power Station £100,000, there were fund-raising galas and a crowd-funding campaign, so that in nine months £1m had been realised. It was as if those who had been vaguely if approvingly aware of the BAC and what it does suddenly made a cause of it, and Jubb has been riding that wave adroitly.

There is something uncomfortably evangelical about the whole thing. On the stage this week as he announced what the BAC would be doing in the next year or so, Jubb had behind him on a screen the motto “>TO INSPIRE PEOPLE>TO TAKE CREATIVE RISKS>TO SHAPE THE FUTURE>”, a mission statement he had come up with on the day before the fire to enthuse his staff. It’s admirable but also awkwardly pious. 

So a little more than year after the disaster Jubb was able to announce a whole range of innovations and plans as well as developments of the Haworth Tompkins masterplan. This spring the BAC gets its brand new 300-seat open air courtyard theatre, a new partnership for touring with eight venues around the country, a commissioning fund (something Jubb has dreamed of since he came here 12 years ago), an enhancement of its creative business enterprise centre, the return of live music to a venue that hosted one of Time Out’s Greatest 100 Gigs Of All Time, the 1977 Jam concert. Last year the BAC absorbed the Wandsworth Museum, with displays and objects dotted about the place, and now the museum is to go out to Wandsworth’s schools, libraries and civic centres in cycle vans. And visiting performers can now stay in the BAC while their gigs are on, rent free, in former store rooms and offices converted to bedrooms by artists and charmingly furnished with whimsical junk.

Meanwhile, A Nation’s Theatre Festival, which Jubb and the BAC sparked with The Guardian, is on in 17 London venues, including this one, for April and May in which theatres form outside London have either brought their productions. 

This battered and scorched old building would never have had much soul when it was a town hall; it has now, and it’s local purpose has become a national initiative. 


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