Review: Civic quarter regeneration

Regeneration of Lambeth's civic quarter creates a less intimidating public realm, and new sympathetic uses have been found for some historic buildings, writes Genevieve Hayes.

The refurbishment and extension of Ivor House have given it a fresh purpose (PIC Cartwright Pickard)
The refurbishment and extension of Ivor House have given it a fresh purpose (PIC Cartwright Pickard)

Living throughout my teens in the 1980s in a Victorian terrace in south London, behind what is now the Lambeth Civic Quarter, I walked to school along Acre Lane and past Lambeth Town Hall and spent many weekend evenings at The Fridge, the music venue now called the Electric Brixton. I never felt comfortable walking alone with the wide spaces and the lack of activity.  A small row of shops created some activity, but otherwise this unwelcoming ‘no man’s land’ left the pedestrian feeling vulnerable. I found it intimidating both day and night. Brixton Hill’s street layout was probably shaped to accommodate the now defunct tramway. The Town Hall built in 1908 reflects the preoccupation at the time with designing intimidating civic buildings.

Returning recently to the area, it has been dramatically transformed. The collection of buildings that make up the civic triangle has been redeveloped by a partnership between Lambeth Council and Muse Developments, with a masterplan by architect Cartwright Pickard. The project has combined refurbishing and finding new uses for some important historic buildings, while other more recent buildings have been replaced. Most notably, Lambeth Civic Centre’s new four storey glass atrium and frontage visually connects to St Matthew’s Church. The council buildings now seem transparent and connected to the outside world; however, their civic character and large scale remain.

On one corner of the triangle, Ivor House is contrasting in character. It was designed by architect Frank Bethell and originally built in 1930 as a Co-op department store in the Beaux Arts style. Until recently, it housed a Youth Offending Service on the ground floor with council offices above.  The building, located in the Brixton conservation area, fronts Acre Lane and sits between Buckner Road and the Town Hall to the east and Proden Road to the west, where it has a strong relationship to neighbouring terraced houses. The building was listed in 2010. 

Keeping historic buildings alive poses a big challenge in our built environment today and Ivor House, having lost itself somewhere along the way, has been redeveloped as a vertical mixed use residential building. It has retained its distinctive character, but now adds vitality to its surroundings. The success of the refurbishment is down to the robustness of the original building design, which could accommodate change and secure its long term future.

Space and sustainability

The space has been converted into 26 flats, with 40 per cent affordable housing, and 1,100 square metres of commercial floorspace have been created in the basement and on the ground floor. To accommodate this space, an extra floor has been added on the mansard roof. Executed with high quality materials, retaining distinctive heritage features and detailing, the new roof integrates well, without significantly changing character or harming the building’s proportions.

To provide private amenity space for the new residents, balconies have been built on each floor and shared amenity space has been provided at the back at ground floor level.  This has retained the integrity of the original building. Comprehensive public realm improvements, including high quality landscape treatment, shared surfaces and active frontages to Buckner Road, have changed a known crime area to a safe walking route.

Glimpsed views of Ivor House from Brixton Hill, via an alleyway between the Electric and the Town Hall, provide further visual and physical permeability though the block, enhancing the pedestrian’s experience.

Conversions of heritage buildings bring energy efficiency and renewable energy challenges. The developer has designed Ivor House to achieve Code for Sustainable Homes level 4/BREEAM Refurbishment Excellent. To encourage sustainable travel options, the development includes virtually no car parking, and has covered and secure cycle storage for residents and office users.

There are many successes with the redevelopment of the Lambeth Civic Quarter. Ivor House,  a well-designed building with its quality materials and comfortable proportions, has seen a viable and successful transformation. Unlike Ivor House, the new Lambeth Civic Centre may not have such a long term future: its relationship to the street is laudable, but its architectural style and contemporary material choices are unconvincing in terms of character and robustness.

Genevieve Hayes is co-founder and design director at planning consultancy Troy Planning + Design.

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