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Intrigue and accessibility meet at Jacksons Lane creative arts and circus hub

Words:
Michèle Woodger

Citizen Design Bureau's performance venue in a converted church has been reconfigured to create intriguing and much more flexible spaces

The quirky ‘gap space’ forms a junction between the theatre, entrance foyer and café, and the back-of house studio spaces. This had been an awkward no-man’s-land between the church and its hall.
The quirky ‘gap space’ forms a junction between the theatre, entrance foyer and café, and the back-of house studio spaces. This had been an awkward no-man’s-land between the church and its hall. Credit: Fred Howarth

Architect Katy Marks, front of house manager Andy Martin and I are standing in a refurbished studio at Jacksons Lane arts and culture hub, a room in the transept of a grade II-listed Victorian Methodist church. As Marks indicates the rigging that now enables circus performers to practise trapeze in this sound-proofed, double-height space, an actress rehearses her set. Suddenly, she yells an expletive (the actress, not the architect) and flings herself into a chair as Bowie blares from speakers. It’s our cue to leave. What Charles Wesley would have made of it all is uncertain. But for Jacksons Lane, the performers, theatre-goers and Highgate locals, Citizens Design Bureau’s  transformations are a godsend.

For some years the building’s main entrance was obscured by hoardings, the porch stored chairs and access was via a small side door. While budget and planning restrictions has kept most of the refurbishment inside, one of the clearest external interventions is the reopened main entrance, reintroducing a sense of procession. Churches are theatrical too.

  • The main studio occupies the top half of the original nave, bringing visitors unusually close to the church ceiling, and offering intriguing perspectives on architecture.
    The main studio occupies the top half of the original nave, bringing visitors unusually close to the church ceiling, and offering intriguing perspectives on architecture. Credit: Fred Howarth
  • Section of the church, now divided into studio spaces, with the 1970s concrete floor bisecting the nave left in situ.
    Section of the church, now divided into studio spaces, with the 1970s concrete floor bisecting the nave left in situ. Credit: Citizens Design Bureau
  • View of the refurbished theatre from the stage. It now has professional seating and cumbersome technical equipment masking original trusses has been removed.
    View of the refurbished theatre from the stage. It now has professional seating and cumbersome technical equipment masking original trusses has been removed. Credit: Citizens Design Bureau
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Converted in the 1970s, the centre comprises studio spaces, a professional theatre in the adjoining former parish hall and a café – now large, airy and much increased in capacity and appeal. Yet what once made sense to someone at some point had become nonsensical: the building was arranged over an astonishing 20 levels, with the nave split vertically in two, low ceilings elsewhere, interruptions to circulation and other non-sequiturs. Acoustics were bad so that rooms could not be hired out simultaneously, and certain equipment was available only in the theatre itself, making rehearsals difficult to schedule.

  With the budget slashed early on (Marks had six weeks to convince Arts Council England that the designs were viable), the design team had to radically reprioritise the resource allocation (beyond conservation and structural repairs). ‘It forced us all to really think: What is the essence of this place? What really makes a difference, creatively and functionally?’ Marks explains. ‘Sustainability is about buildings that last because they are loved and well used, flexible and robust. So getting the layout and access right was fundamental’.

The earlier layout provided little sense of the original building. Now, it is easy to identify the direction of the aisles, the transept, and so on. The concrete floor bisecting the nave’s section has been retained but the upstairs studio created by this insertion has been upgraded with large internal windows in the arches, establishing visibility while remaining soundproof. This space, far higher than the original builders ever intended the congregation to be, is unusually close to the ceiling and restored Victorian glass windows, offering new perspectives on old architecture. New uses for this room include weddings, filming Strictly Come Dancing, and hosting 200 pensioners on Christmas Day – many of whom wouldn’t have been able to climb the stairs.

Accessibility has been the most transformative improvement... it should be fit for the community

The refurbished theatre includes new removable auditorium seating and an extendable stage. A tension wire grid above has been removed, exposing the trusses, while winches on bars hold the technical equipment. These interventions give a sense of the original room, with greater visibility from the control desk and bringing the audience closer to the action. The room’s former life as a church hall has not been prettified – the flooring and exposed brickwork, in particular, retain a slightly worn character, ‘in a romantic way’, says Martin. Marks agrees. ‘This is a workshop for creativity – people are making stuff here and you are welcome to come and make stuff too.’

The juxtaposition of old and new, industrial and ecclesiastical, is most evident in the gap between the church and church hall. An awkward triangle, it now links the café-foyer, theatre, back-of-house and studios, which were all at different levels. From the mezzanine balcony, where jazz and conversational hubbub float upwards, plant and equipment on the church roof is visible. ‘We tried to make the building layers really clear’ explains Marks. ‘All that was old is in the exposed original brick or painted white. 1970s additions are teal. Everything completely new is in playful volcanic colours. This gap space is totally new, so it can take a bit of character.’ A dragon-back roof contributes to the intriguing geometry and adds movement, redolent of a circus performance. Lights, designed by the studio and made from old conduit, suggest a trapeze.

The upgraded café, with acoustically performing surfaces, has attracted existing and new clientele. Credit: Fred Howarth
Previously spread over 20 levels, the refurbishment makes for a coherent and accessible experience. Credit: Fred Howarth

Citizens Design Bureau has worked a lot with theatres. ‘There is a kind of can-do attitude that you don’t find in other settings,’ says Marks. ‘We are interested in the idea that the way you design taps into the ethos of that organisation.’ That certainly shows here, where playfulness, inclusivity, and something of the quirky, makeshift nature that has characterised Jacksons Lane for decades come together in a welcoming, accessible building.

And accessibility has been the most transformative improvement. Haringey Council is the freeholder, so it should be a building fit for the community. The accessibility strategy goes beyond the obvious. ‘We are always very careful that ambient acoustics are pitched correctly’, explains Marks. ‘If this doesn’t work it makes for a miserable, uncomfortable experience, and it’s exclusive. For elderly people it’s particularly inconsiderate, and children too can get overwhelmed by noise.’ Martin is proud to report that Jacksons Lane has been awarded ‘dementia friendly’ status, on account of its sympathetic lighting, acoustics and signage. Increasing numbers of parents and children visit on weekdays for classes and coffee too. And being accessible is good for business: since the venue reopened, the number of room hires has trebled.

The new foyer and entrance way is a welcoming and accessible space.
The new foyer and entrance way is a welcoming and accessible space. Credit: Fred Howarth

The changes have vastly expanded which performers visit and what they can do. Martin says the architectural improvements have ‘definitely’ helped increase their creativity. The privacy of the rehearsal spaces allows certain performers to be less inhibited in their work, and their functionality encourages diverse users. The inclusive circus company Extraordinary Bodies now practises here, for instance.

‘This project shows that those kinds of measures attract new types of people, artists and audiences,’ confirms Marks. Accessibility is not about ticking boxes, but expanding audiences, inspiring new acts, and offering everyone a ticket to experiences that were previously thought of as ‘standing room only’. Citizens Design Bureau is aptly named – its well-considered architecture at Jacksons Lane is clearly making a tangible, positive difference for all manner of people.

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