MacEwen Winner: Oasis Children's Venture

Inner city children have a new centre in which to enjoy and express themselves. And there's a bonus: the upcycled building is a rearranged Segal Method structure

1970s system, first built in the 1980s for Coin Street, now reconfigured and  moved to Oasis in Stockwell, changing  use in the process.
1970s system, first built in the 1980s for Coin Street, now reconfigured and moved to Oasis in Stockwell, changing use in the process. · Credit: Matt Atkins

Oasis Children’s Venture

Benjamin Barfield Marks and Matt Atkins

Stockwell, London

It’s a wooden hut, the first winner of the MacEwen Award. But a noble one, with history and design flair in its timbers. The main building of Oasis Children’s Venture in Stockwell, South London, is an administration centre, indoor-play area, meeting and party venue, and can open up into a covered stage for live performances. It commands the adventure playground here which – along with a nearby nature reserve and a separate Go-Kart circuit – make up a series of remarkable inner-city play places on former bomb and demolition sites. They are for the children of the district, from very young up to teenagers, to have fun, learn, let off steam and – in what can be a tough area – stay out of trouble. What interested the MacEwen judges was not only all that, but also the building’s provenance. It used to be somewhere else, and look rather different. It has been ingeniously upcycled.

The building used to be somewhere else, and look rather different. It has been ingeniously upcycled

It was strange going back to see it. In the 1990s I spent quite a lot of time in this building. Then it was part of the headquarters of Coin Street Community Builders in London’s Waterloo, and the wider South Bank Employers’ Group also met there. But after 25 years it was surplus to requirements, its site needed for access to the latest CSCB development. It was a Walter Segal method building, a 1970s-designed kit of timber parts originally configured by Jon Broome of Architype for Coin Street in a broadly cruciform layout and built by just two people (who had previously built their own Segal-method homes in Lewisham). It was 1988 and the all-in cost, including fit-out, was £50,000: £33 per square foot. Coin Street’s director Iain Tuckett recalls how flexible the building was, responding easily to changes of use and reconfiguration over its first lifespan.

From that to this: 1980s configuration for Coin Street Community Builders rethought for its new purpose.
From that to this: 1980s configuration for Coin Street Community Builders rethought for its new purpose.

Now it is three years into its second life. Mentors Julia Barfield and David Marks of Marks Barfield live right next to Oasis, having fought for and nurtured this patch of south London since they were AA student squatters there in the 1970s. At Barfield’s instigation, the charity’s management met Tuckett to discuss strategy. They needed a building to provide indoor and sheltered play space, so allowing them to operate in bad weather and year-round. But they could not raise enough funding for a project that had been designed for them pro-bono by Marks Barfield. Tuckett said he had a spare building, and that they could have it for nothing if they could arrange to dismantle it and take it away – quickly, because its site was needed. Otherwise it would just be demolished.

Enter, at this point, two architecture students: Ben Marks, son of David and Julia, and Matt Atkins. Both were studying for their Part II at the Cass, knew the Oasis centre, and were looking for a live project. As related by Jessica Thom, Oasis’ project co-ordinator, the charity took a deep breath and decided to go for it – get the building components first, and then raise the funds to re-erect and modify it. Volunteers were mobilised, and in all 100 people were involved in taking the building to bits, recording how the pieces fitted together, and then carting them away in trucks and vans to Stockwell.

  • A squad of volunteers helps to reassemble the reborn building on its minimal foundation pads.
    A squad of volunteers helps to reassemble the reborn building on its minimal foundation pads. · Credit: Jessica Thom
  • t’s a beautiful, delicate timber system as designed by Walter Segal. Here it is under reconstruction at Oasis.
    t’s a beautiful, delicate timber system as designed by Walter Segal. Here it is under reconstruction at Oasis. · Credit: Benjamin Marks
  • Distinctly uncorporate, this is the office for Oasis at one end of the building.
    Distinctly uncorporate, this is the office for Oasis at one end of the building. · Credit: Benjamin Marks
  • Some of the user clients at Oasis, the children of Stockwell.
    Some of the user clients at Oasis, the children of Stockwell. · Credit: James Lyndsey
  • The upcycled building as it appears in its Stockwell context today.
    The upcycled building as it appears in its Stockwell context today. · Credit: Hugh Pearman
  • Opened up to the play park as a performance space.
    Opened up to the play park as a performance space. · Credit: James Lyndsey

Marks and Atkins got to work with Oasis, designing a new building using as many as possible of the components of the old one, including its heating system. ‘The simple constructional logic of its original design became the key to the material’s re-use, allowing it to be cleanly separated and used again in a completely new configuration reflecting the new site and brief,’ said the pair. ‘It also made it possible to use so much unskilled labour in the construction.’ A new roof was needed, and cladding with better insulation. It required only minimal pad foundations. Some materials were also cannibalised from Coin Street’s earlier non-Segal polycarbonate building, also being demolished.

The end result just seems natural, as if it has always been there, appropriate for the somewhat ad-hoc, make-do-and-mend, totally uncorporate ethos of the adventure playground movement which emerged postwar as a ‘meanwhile use’ for such cleared sites. As reconfigured it is now a long rectilinear building, hugging the edge of the site, with two clerestories and a full-length covered verandah. Thom, who was involved throughout, tells how it is not just the building itself that has transformed the way Oasis works, but also the actual process of the getting and the building of it, which became an object of continuing fascination for the children using the project.

It’s a great re-use, and a continuation of a really nice story that started in the 1960s. It’s about initiative

At the end of the judging, we asked all the MacEwen judges to select a top three from the shortlist. Four out of the five had Oasis on their lists, making it the overall winner by a clear margin. ‘This is one of my favourites,’ announced Matthew Taylor. ‘It would work well in a middle class area, say, but in this context it’s exceptional.’ Levete added: ‘It’s a great re-use, and a continuation of a really nice story that started in the 1960s. It’s about initiative.’ For Martin, ‘This one scores on all fronts.’

I too like the narrative that this building represents: architects and owners handing on a baton one to the other over the years. Walter Segal died in 1985 but he designed this ultra-adaptable building as much as Jon Broome in 1988 or Atkins and Marks in its latest incarnation. For that matter, the builders of Tudor times were familiar with related post-and-beam demountable ways of building. But this particular project could not have happened without the vigour of the Oasis Children’s Venture as hands-on client, seeing and acting on the potential being offered to them. Nobody has made any money out of this, but lots has been saved, and now some 3,000 children in the area who use the various Oasis facilities in Stockwell are benefiting. This really is something to celebrate.