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Friday25 July 2014

Sarah Wigglesworth boxes clever at Cremorne Riverside Centre

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The rusting Corten steel-clad boxes of Cremorne Riverside Centre near London’s Battersea Bridge reflect its location — wedged between leisure gardens and post-industrial wasteland. Tony McIntyre reports

You’ll find this building just a little beyond World’s End in south-west London, where the formality of West Brompton and the charm of Cheyne Walk give way to gas works, disused power stations and waste recycling plants. It is in a bizarre little park called Cremorne Gardens, part bedding plants and random tree types enjoyed by the locals, and part public conveniences and abandoned sheds with evident attraction for the local malavita. And where the two meet, on the decaying northern embankment of the Thames, is Sarah Wigglesworth’s Riverside Centre.

For many years, a canoeing club has operated from this site in one of the most deprived parts of the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea using a couple of containers as offices and changing rooms, while boats were stored outside. A disused rubbish hopper had been adapted for use as a rowing tank. Wigglesworth was asked to design an up-to-date centre for use by 30 children, including those with disability. The project was financed by the Big Lottery Fund, with matching funds from the borough.

Now the centre has two buildings, one for boats and offices, the other for changing rooms. Between the two is a generous platform made from a light metal grille, which spans the old rowing tank now filled with the rocks and boulders found on site. The platform is on a level with the top of the retaining wall and gives access to the floating pontoon from which canoes are launched.

The buildings are timber on a steel base with, as you might expect from Wigglesworth, Cumbrian sheep’s wool insulation, a heat exchange unit made possible by the high local water table, and high-quality construction. The roof is EPDM covered with demolition rubble, all of which was kept on site, which is intended to encourage the insect and spider life vital to sustain rare bird species. Although the two buildings are identical in plan, the roofs are complementary shapes: one gently pitched, the other a valley gutter. Internally, the cladding is simple and robust: plywood for offices, OSB within the boathouse, and Trespa panels in changing rooms.

The surprise comes with the external cladding, a screen of Corten steel that gives the two prismatic pavilions something of the appearance of a border crossing checkpoint. There are no shutters: windows stand behind a perforated strip of steel, with holes that look like they were made by a demonstration of precision machine-gunning. The use of a square grid for the holes gives added austerity, although these perforations follow a triangular grid within the changing rooms.

Wigglesworth compares these rusting forms to decaying boat hulls. They bring a sense of heavy industry into this corner of a park that strives towards gentility.

The building may be modest, but the story of its construction is epic. After initial planning and Environment Agency approvals were received in early in 2004, the agency, having gained new powers, took the opportunity of a planning resubmission to demand that the buildings be demountable and removable in case a flood should necessitate repairs to the embankment wall. The building was redesigned, and a method statement for demounting and storing the buildings prepared.

Building work finally began in October 2006. You have to wonder if the Thames did flood whether the careful removal of these little buildings would really be a high priority for the agency. One might even think it would have been simpler to have designed buildings that float. However...

You can look at this building for a long time without running out of things to think about

The real oddity for me is the large unprotected window to the offices, possibly the result of the client refusing to have a perforated Corten panel running across it. Given the steel shield everywhere else, this window looks like a fairground target. How long can it possibly last? And the big bare window has the corresponding effect of infecting the rest of the armour plating, making it seem just a little bit symbolic, which can’t have been the architect’s intention.

But what is hardest to explain is how this modest assembly — the twin boxes and their central platform, a floating “surface” over rocky “seabed” — go beyond ordinary architecture and enter the world of art. Perhaps it is austerity of form and materials, combined with a liveliness in the disposition of the elements, and a certain playfulness.

What is certain is that you can look at this building for a long time without running out of things to think about. And users’ reactions confirm that they have something they like but don’t fully understand when nervous laughter accompanies the comment: “We tell people we used to operate out of a couple of rusty boxes, but that now we have a new building, we operate out of a couple of rusty boxes.”

Opinion: Embracing London's rivers

Peter Murray
Peter Murray

Cremorne Riverside Centre is one of the projects featured in Waterfront London: Rediscovering the Rivers and Canals of the Capital, an exhibition which opened at New London Architecture this week.

Read NLA exhibition director Peter Murray's explanation of how the Thames and its tributaries are at last being recognised as one of the capital’s greatest resources.

Embracing Londons rivers

Project Team

Architect Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, Client Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Quantity surveyor and planning supervisor Dobson White Boulcott, Structural engineer Jane Wernick Associates, M&E engineer Pearce Associates, Main contractor Gilby Construction

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I was in London when this was only at the stage of being half finished, but I could see the end result at the time. To see it is really something quite amazing, and knowing that if the Thames floods, you can actually remove the buildings to higher ground, that is really something else, considering I come from a small town built by a river which always floods. Maybe we should take a leaf out of Sarah Wigglesworth's book and do the same. The only thing I am disappointed in, is the builder over seeing the job was not mentioned, I think she did a good job, don't you?

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