The events of recent months have revealed very clearly that we need to radically improve our approach to urban public space to ensure that cities are providing enough good space for all, particularly in a context of densification. A new project by Sanchez Benton Architects with artist Gabriel Kuri, which reimagines an underused set of parking garages and a modernist residents-only rooftop deck as a new public oasis and workspace, is an inspiring example of how to extract more public value from existing spaces and conditions in the city.
Sited in the immediate context of the traffic-dominated Bricklayers Arms roundabout on the Old Kent Road, south London, the project grew from an invited competition for an art commission led by Southwark Council, which imagined wayfinding and lighting improvements between Tower Bridge Road and Old Kent Road. Sanchez Benton’s entry went beyond the brief to unveil an opportunity to create new space and potential for activity within the garages and terrace of Peveril House, a 1960s housing block facing the roundabout. The proposal aimed to bring a civic character to the spaces that would relate to the histories and experiences of the local community, celebrating the cultural richness of the area.
The outcome is a new publicly accessible oasis, a raised garden above a set of public rooms at ground level, all hosted by Forma, an arts organisation that will create public programmes, engage with local communities, host residencies, and support emerging diverse talent through providing events and studio space, the latter created out of the former garages.
Though the structure at Peveril Gardens is spatially distinctive, this type of underused garage and bin store as an ancillary building to a 1960s modernist tower block is far from unusual, though many have been lost to redevelopment over the last two decades as local authorities have been tasked to densify and maximise the potential of their assets. While the replacement of these buildings with new residential accommodation is an understandable approach in a city with challenging housing targets, this project suggests that other approaches – which use minimal resources to enrich the social, cultural and environmental quality of established neighbourhoods – are also a valuable approach.
Here the existing structure was reimagined to offer a more transparent, permeable space at ground level, reworking the garages to create artists’ studios and a large, central public room. A new public stair, also created out of a former garage, provides access to the existing roof terrace, which itself has been replanted and transformed.
This gesture boldly expands the realm of the public in a context where access to green spaces is painfully unequal and land is under pressure for development, and it also connects what was an underused residents-only terrace to the wider city.
Carlos Sanchez – co-founder of the practice with Tom Benton – describes a design process of careful unpeeling and removal, incisions, repositioning, re-use. These steps are sensitively and skilfully composed, so the that plan becomes a playful game of geometry that is extremely pleasing and somehow exotic in a Northern European context.
The front threshold is inflected into the existing space to allow a new mature tree (originally intended to be a palm) to poke into the garden above. This is a joyous moment and the design has echoes of tropical modernism, particularly the work of Pancho Guedes and Lina Bo Bardi.
The building’s life has been extended by measures to protect and waterproof the terrace and facades. This is enjoyably expressed by a striking glowing orange waterproofing membrane, used to line window sills and reveals as well as the garden walls, creating a sharp contrast between the white external facades and the visible interior. This creates a compelling relationship with the wider environment, providing passers-by with glimpses of a sunny orange world through the stark white portals of the existing structure.
On the sun-trap terrace the landscape gently undulates, and the designers have performed a careful balancing act, minimising the weight of soil but working with the height of specimens to achieve a beautiful lush garden within the structural capacity of the existing building. The light bouncing off the orange walls and the carefully-curated plant specification by horticulturalist Nigel Dunnett transport us somewhere further south than South London. The concept here was for the mix of plants to be “immigrants” to the country and to talk of other places, landscapes and stories.
Sanchez Benton’s description of its design approach shows a sensitive and caring attitude towards the fabric of the original 1960s building, but also a truly bold and insightful vision of what the project could be: a new public space and cultural hub that reflects the histories and cultural complexity of local communities. All the ingredients feel right to achieve this and it will be exciting to watch the space being reclaimed by its neighbours post-lockdown.
“We wanted to build something that was difficult to date”, says Carlos Sanchez. “Something that someone coming anew to the space might think had been built with the tower”. Accordingly the practice has made an architecture that learns and borrows from its context with wit, while also changing it profoundly to suit the culture and community of today.
This responsive approach, which works with both continuity and ambiguity, is characteristic of the work of architects of this generation. Sanchez Benton has performed a kind of alchemy to achieve a subtle transformation of such design quality, with an economy of means and on a modest budget. Peveril Gardens is a public architecture that talks, and should be celebrated.