Battersea Arts Centre reopens admirable anteroom with a bulletin to Trump

Battersea Arts Centre is to reopen its grand hall to the public for the first time since a fire devastated the Grade II*-listed building in south-west London in 2015.

David Jubb, BAC’s artistic director, said it would be an “emotional milestone” to throw the party which, like the night of the fire, takes place on Friday 13th. It is an opportunity to thank those “who have helped us get through the whole thing in amazing fashion – all the people who lent us kit, ran a fete or fundraised in other ways, or were just a shoulder to cry on”.

BAC had long planned to take a commemorative photograph on the occasion with some of the many people who supported them after the disaster. After President Trump’s visit to the UK was announced for the same date, they decided to use the photograph to send a message from Battersea’s Lavender Hill to the White House. They invited friends and locals, including Brownies, tea dancers and one of the many couples who have been married in the grand hall, to get together and hold up banners (such as “Not for me, not for you, but for us”) capturing the spirit of BAC. “We looked at the values that have helped us reopen the grand hall and we felt they stand in such opposition to some of the things that Trump’s leadership stands for. It’s a photo-letter to the president.” A huge print of the photograph will hang inside the venue.

“There are hundreds of pictures of the building on fire on the internet,” said Jubb. “We thought it would be good to put something more positive out there – an image of our friends coming together to mark the journey to reopen the whole of the building.”




The aftermath of the fire in March 2015.

The aftermath of the fire in March 2015. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

While the renovation work at the building – formerly Battersea’s town hall – is not quite complete, the open-house event will provide an opportunity for visitors to get a sneak preview of how the refurbished grand hall will look when it officially reopens in September. One of the most striking features of the renovation is the decision to keep the charred walls as they were left by the fire. “We’ve cleaned up the ash and soot and mess, but people will still see that building that was left there on the morning of 14 March,” said Jubb. “We have built around that shell.”

The surface of the walls reveals some of the 125-year history of the Victorian hall, which suffered the worst damage in the fire. The cleanup operation revealed successive generations of paintwork, brickwork and ironwork including a renovation of the grand hall balcony in the 1930s. “This building has such an incredible history,” said Jubb. “London’s first black mayor was elected here in 1913. Suffragettes spoke here. The UK Communist party of Great Britain was based here in the 1930s … The fire is the latest moment in that history – and not just the fire, but people’s responses to it.”

Jubb believes that having the scorched walls as a permanent reminder of the disaster will enrich audiences’ experiences and their understanding of the centre’s past. “You can sit in an anonymous black-box theatre, and that’s part of the point – you don’t know where you are, it could be anywhere in the world, and ideally the artist takes you there. But, in a way, to have a cultural space which has its own history and baggage, its own identity, for me only enriches one’s sense of the cultural centre and the performances that happen inside it.”




David Jubb, artistic director and CEO of The Battersea Arts Centre.

‘This building has such an incredible history’ … David Jubb, artistic director of BAC. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

BAC has become known for its “Scratch” process, whereby artists test out new ideas and works-in-progress with the public. Jubb says that discussions about the building’s future were something of a Scratch themselves. There were lengthy conversations about what to do with the grand hall’s ornate plaster ceiling, which collapsed along with the roof during the fire. They considered creating a replica ceiling but feared that the site would end up becoming “like a piece of reproduction furniture – a re-creation of some former glory”. Instead, the architects Haworth Tompkins created a decorative lattice structure that hangs high above the hall. This has practical technical benefits, such as enabling more flexibility for lighting rigging and sound, and means the hall can be used for a greater range of live events in the future.

The debating chamber in BAC was opened up as early as the night after the fire, and other sections of the building have long since been reopened to the public, but the grand hall has remained closed. “It has a huge affection and legacy in its community,” said Jubb. “Hundreds of couples have been married here, there have been hundreds of political meetings, birthday parties and local events – fabric fairs, art sales, beer festivals.” The hall became an arts centre in 1979 and has been used for groundbreaking theatre productions, such as the finale of Punchdrunk’s 2007 show The Masque of the Red Death – where masked audience members congregated after exploring the building – and Kneehigh’s Don John in 2009.

Another theatre company nurtured by BAC, Gecko, were midway through a run of their show Missing when the 2015 fire broke out. Their set, props and costumes were all destroyed in the disaster. The company have been invited back in September to put on Missing again in a celebratory, five-month-long Phoenix season of performances in the grand hall. The season also features performance artist Bryony Kimmings who looks at overcoming her own personal trauma in a show called I’m a Phoenix, Bitch.