Bay 20 under London's Westway was in limbo for years. Now it's buzzing with local people
Bay 20, as it is known to the Westway Trust in North Kensington, has had a contentious history. It is one of the leftover plots between the huge concrete columns that rose up in the 1960s to support the 5.6km-long elevated section of the A40 to Paddington that was built to draw Britain into the modern high-speed age. The motorway’s construction demolished hundreds of Victorian homes and left a corridor of compartmentalised wasteland beneath, including Bay 20.
But this plot’s particular story got worse. After local activism led to the entire stretch of land below the flyover being handed over to community use in the early 1970s, the bay was used by the Caribbean community for workshops to make steel drums until the Westway Trust looking after the area decided to develop a car park there instead. The workshops were removed, but the car park never happened. It was left in limbo for decades, eventually fenced off, and became the site of a number of failed regeneration attempts using art installation.
This was how Bay 20 remained when the fire at Grenfell Tower broke out last year. Immediately afterwards other open spaces under the Westway were appropriated by the community in the absence of genuine and formal public gathering spaces, but this one was locked up and empty, continuing to make Maxilla Walk, which runs along the underside of the flyover, a dark and threatening space at night.
Meanwhile, very quickly after the fire, the directors of the BBC’s show The Big Build (formerly DIY SOS) decided that it would help build something for the community left behind. Unusually in the programme’s 19-year history, they didn’t know what or where, or how the result would be perceived. All they knew was that they wanted the building to have a two-programme function, a build time of two to three weeks and that as usual everyone would provide their expertise or products for free, involving the local community as much as possible and asking them to suggest potential uses. By high summer the show had approached Featherstone Young to help.
Director Sarah Featherstone says: ‘We saw it as a chance to evolve the skills and methods we have developed on projects like the Providence Row activity centre for a homeless charity, as well as to demonstrate what good design can do for these kinds of projects and what could be done along Maxilla Walk, which is undergoing a development plan.’
Ultimately, The Big Build became a means to bring Bay 20 back into productive use, healing some of the wounds and creating a space for the community and for the many charities that sprang up after the fire.
Architectural ideas had to be strong to carry through the quick development process – initial meetings had 40 representatives from the many parties and manufacturers keen to be involved. Featherstone Young’s design proposal was to split the two programmes into two separate buildings, dividing the bay diagonally using a social street that is sheltered by the motorway above and allows activities to spill out between the two. One building, primarily single storey, is for the Dale Youth Amateur Boxing Club which was displaced from the first floor of the tower by the fire and came forward quickly requesting help. The two storey element is much more loosely defined as a community centre with a hall and an open plan kitchen on the ground floor and multiple different sized spaces that can be hired above. The BBC programme was aired in September, but the building’s new occupants only moved in a few weeks ago.
Now fully in use, this stretch under the belly of the motorway has been brought beautifully to life both day and night with people and colour it has not seen for decades. Young amateur boxers cool down in the ‘street’, meeting rooms are busy, women chatter on the sofa in the reception area. A terrace and cantilever over the neighbouring park make that space feel safer and more lively. The project feels and looks successful – itself and for the urban realm all around.
Architect Featherstone Young
Client BBC and Westway Trust
Structural engineer Conisbee
M&E engineer Hoare Lea