Architects who turn derelict sites into places worth living in are modern-day alchemists, says Rory Olcayto
Last weekend, taking advantage of the bright, crisp December weather, I wandered around my south London neighbourhood of Peckham with an architect friend. We were talking about how tough the year had been for the construction industry. â€˜Soul-destroying’, said my friend, as we drifted from bustling Rye Lane into a post-industrial no-man’s-land.
Within minutes however, we caught sight of Walter Menteth Architects’ supported housing scheme on Consort Road, and our gloomy discussion stopped. Given the immediate context – a railway viaduct behind, with arches beneath, bus depot and materials yard opposite and a busy A-road running along its length – its visual purity proved shocking, unexpected and genuinely thrilling.
Let me explain. The project has a bold sculptural form, comprised of three distinct blocks. A six-storey shared ownership scheme links with a terrace and a corner block of rented flats. The elevations are white render, they incorporate glazed winter gardens and magically, at street level, they sparkle. The architect has laid vertical slabs of Tarmac, embedded with glistening aggregate, to break up the elevational strip. Stainless steel panels on the north end, which comes to a point, soar above these slabs. It looks amazing.
The rear elevation is just as good, perhaps better. It deals with an access road (serving the arches) by sectioning off its footprint with a perimeter wall of concrete and gabion cages. It feels – and is – robust. Beyond, an elegant curving glass wall, beautifully modulated with strips of galvanised steel, provides a buffer zone between the flats and railway.
We spent time examining the building, which was completed just over two years ago. It was one of those moments when you feel good about architecture. About how compassion and craft can combine to transform the mundane, make a place out of nothing, and bring light to the darkest of environments.
It reminded me how hard the architectural profession works, throughout the UK, to steadily and incrementally improve our nation’s lot, and continues to do so, even when times are as tough as they have been lately.
All the best for Christmas and the New Year. You deserve it.