6a revives the ghosts of the original Victorian firefighters and their families in its light touch gallery conversion
If the expression of a sense of the past runs like a seam through the work of architect 6a, nowhere might it carry greater mnemonic weight than at its South London Gallery (SLG) in Peckham. Long before the practice’s 2016 collaboration with artist Gabriel Orozco to create the SLG’s radially inspired garden and its earlier Clore Gallery and education space extension, it seems that 6a was there in utero. Stephanie Macdonald recalls a visit in the late eighties, made as a young Portsmouth Fine Art student with her year group; a buzzing show at the end of a trek down a long, narrow corridor to the makeshift gallery, and a lively drinks event in the concrete yard that the Orozco Garden would eventually transplant. Whether this memory influenced the firm’s later interventions Macdonald doesn’t say, but she was reassured, after the 2010 extension doubled the size of the SLG, by people telling her that the nature of the place – its’ genius loci – hadn’t really changed at all.
But this should come as no surprise, since the original gallery – whose motto, ‘The source of art is in the life of the people’, is set into socialist artist Walter Crane’s now hidden marquetry floor – has always been less about the space itself than what it facilitates. At any time of day locals fill the SLG’s café or the back rooms are hosting community/school outreach events, and the very creation of the garden celebrates the connection of the gallery to the council estate behind it. Always sticking to its principles, its benevolence was rewarded in 2014 when an anonymous donor gave the SLG the dilapidated 19th century fire station building almost directly across the road from it. With its past record for transforming its spaces, 6a was asked to convert this surprise acquisition into SLG’s newest iteration.
The gallery has always been less about the space itself than what it facilitates
Designed by an unfêted Edward Cresy Junior in 1867, the grade II building, in a vaguely glum cod gothic, is most notable for being the first example of the style employed to express the nature of the newly established London Metropolitan Board’s fire service, until then the remit of private companies only. With two horse-drawn fire engines stationed in the front of the structure and stable blocks at the rear, the building’s municipal purpose at ground level made way for a more domestic language above, where the firemen’s families would have lived. With a construction budget of £1.5 million, 6a wanted to reveal and celebrate both aspects while inserting new gallery spaces that would, in effect, double SLG’s capacity all over again.
Interestingly, 6a’s inspiration for the fire station’s key internal move came from the external metal escape stair at the back which connected the former living areas to ground level. With multiple internal timber stairs locking the space down, the firm felt a lot was to be gained from ripping them out and positioning a single new staircase internally, springing off what would have been the brick chevron access way from the front courtyard to the stables. ‘We just decided to bring the language of the fire escape inside,’ Macdonald says nonchalantly of the simple but far from utilitarian white steel and concrete feature stair that winds its way assuredly up the revealed and stabilised brick and timber structure to the upper gallery floors and attic level artist studios.
‘We just decided to bring the language of the fire escape inside,’ Macdonald says nonchalantly
And it’s a solid beast – there’s no contingency here or trace of footfall transmitted along the stringer. The soffit’s steel structure echoes that of the gallery floor joists, with grey-green pre-cast concrete treads nestling alternately between diamond punched metal risers. A balustrade of long, thin square metal sections subtly marks its arrival at ground with a double-sized terminating flat; and where they meet newly revealed high-level window openings they billow out into it with a bustle-like flourish. And all the way a fine, moulded handrail curls luxuriantly up at landing turns. All this is only perceived in its entirety because the firm’s second move was to remove the first floor to open out the space – a move intimated by the fireplace now hanging at first floor level, blackened and redundant. ‘We found people are loath to go to upper levels of galleries if they can’t see what’s happening,’ observes Macdonald. And so it is here; looking up or vertiginously down, the space feels connected and undeniably civic.
By contrast, the gallery spaces themselves, walls shifted to allow clear views through from front to back, have a charming domestic scale. In counterpoint to SLG’s larger exhibition spaces, the idea here is to allow more intimate showings for major artists, or for younger, less renowned artists to exhibit comfortably in the space. That domesticity is expressed in the second-floor kitchen, a nod to past habitation, where artists can get cooking or chefs get artistic; a surrealist touch Dali, of the Cookbook, might well approve of. Timber floorboards, some reconditioned, some reclaimed, some cut with slats as air feeds, tell the same, strange, homely tale. I remark how odd it is when I observe those same timbers running into the new access lift as we walk past to the enormous picture window on the ground floor’s south side. ‘Everything’s odd in a lift,’ is Macdonald's rejoinder, and in a surreal way, she’s actually right. Out back meanwhile, she points out a huge acacia pravissima, freshly planted; its golden flowers will pepper the glass like a Pollock study in yellow where the stables would have been.
It’ll be a shocking flash of brightness that stands out against Cresy Junior’s generally dull gothic – a mood that 6a chose to work with rather than oppose. On the street elevation, the firm opted merely to delicately clean and repair the Gault brickwork, terracotta and Portland dressed stone – to the extent that you might ask if anything had been done there at all. But new guttering and a handsome replica black wrought iron fire station lantern hint at the guiding hand of the restorer.
The result is an annexe to SLG that, from outside at least, looks part Addams Family art fest, part burned-out shell; while both inside and out, the message it’s now communicating is a satisfying meld of fantasy and fact. Engaging as it does with forecourt and street, the Fire Station is a version of SLG that eschews its slightly clandestine quality for a more overt, expositional feel – engaging directly with the public realm. This has all been done via a selective reformulation of its past to offer a new reading; one jewel of a move fixed into a barely changed setting. But then, sometimes artistry is best evinced in the skill of knowing when not to do something; an assertion that Junior, consigned by history to abide in the shadow of his bolder, more prolific father, might at the very least, concede for himself here.