Case Study

How to take advantage of a neglected inner city site

Rainbow Alley Community Arts Centre

The Vision

The ‘Rainbow’, has come to exemplify for me the value of holding on to a vision until it comes to fruition.

Adrian and Pauline have been one of my longest standing clients of many years who against all the odds, through thick and thin have held onto a vision of serving those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are social entrepreneurs who always seek to serve the needs the disenfranchised, in particularly vulnerable children in the community.

There have been many iterations of the ‘vision’ and when I met them, my first assignment was to help with making their North London venue habitable for a faith community they led at the time. I knew this was a theatre, but on arrival I walked, through the heavy glazed wooden doors into one of the most spectacular spaces I had ever seen. Despite the place being down at heal and suffering from neglect over many years I realised that this was the legendary Rainbow Theatre, last used as Theatre in 1950, but which had seen all the greats of the rock and roll era having performed there. The last such event was a press conference in March 1990 of non other than David Bowie with his Sound and Vision tour. Not many people know this, but in a corner of the fly tower is a brick wall with the signatures of all the legends of the era from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones.

The best remaining example of an Atmospheric (Astoria) cinema in the UK, on entering the first thing you see is the illuminated fountain set within the eight-sided raised star pool with its Byzantine cupola. You then walk past Baroque mirrors and wall friezes, which could have come from India, Art Deco lanterns and a red tiled roofed court yard, which could have been stolen from The Alhambra, and this all before you enter the spectacular night sky of the main auditorium with its ‘twinkling’ stars.    

Ever since that momentous time, the ‘Rainbow’ tag has followed Adrian and Pauline and today they lead the charity Phoenix Community Care based in Tottenham ready to launch a building project which will regenerate one of the hidden alleys of Tottenham and the lives of all those who enter. Already people are referring to the forgotten alley as Rainbow Alley. I think you know why!

The Challenge

The freehold of this building, located just off the High Road, Tottenham, was acquired in 2014. The vision included an arts cafe open to all where young people, in need of integration back into the local community, could hang out and feel safe at the same time. There would be smaller counselling rooms on the first floor, a large community kitchen for the wide ranging ethnic community to try out their culinary skills and the need for a suite of offices for the organisation so they could supervise the activities of the centre. The only thing was, there was nowhere for the offices to fit into the building without adding another floor.

The building is ‘locally listed’. Whilst not having the protection of a full English Heritage listing, it is considered of historical interest and therefore should be protected. The Council were therefore very wary about adding an extra floor and said that this would not be allowed when the initial enquiry was made. So when Adrian ask us to make a planning application for permission to add another floor to the building, we knew we would have to pull out all the stops if we were to achieve a consent.

This is exactly what we did and so began to look into the historic origins of the building in search of evidence to back up our gut-feeling that an additional storey would be perfectly feasible. What we discovered was that the building had been rebuilt, extended and hacked about in an extraordinary multitude of directions since it was first built in the early part of the 19th century. The historical maps we unearthed showed an ever changing relationship with the buildings immediately around it and with the adjacent alley. This was entirely in keeping with it’s status as an ‘out-house’ building for artisan workshop type activity which needed to be adaptable to suit the changing needs of the business owners who would occupy the building over time. It became clear that the ‘significance’ of the building was not to do with the architectural authenticity, but rather with its historical significance. The buildings behind had always had a subservient relationship the grander three storey buildings facing onto the High Road. Our initial scheme to add another full storey seemed to challenge this relationship. We quickly realised that if we could make the new top addition appear as a roof extension rather than a whole new storey, we could demonstrate continued ‘subservience’ and we might well win the argument and gain the permission. We got working on the drawings and the important DAS (Design and Access Statement) which has to accompany most applications, in which we argued our case backed with lots of great historic evidence. The planning officers were persuaded and by the time we got to submit the application they were willing to support it, and duly consent was granted.

The Design

We used our expertise and experience of working in conservation areas to sketch out some options. We were conscious that this project would contribute greatly to the regeneration of the Alley which was included in the ‘Recode the Alley’ program that the Council had previously commissioned to re-imagine the historic Tottenham Alleys which had been neglected for many years. This make the project an exiting catalyst for improving the permeability of the area and making otherwise deserted spaces which have become no more than vehicular service yards.

To improve the natural surveillance of the Alley, we planned for an active frontage for as much of the ground floor as possible and upper floor windows overlooking the Alley in all directions. From the High Road a glimpse can be had of the building along the alley connection and this offered a great opportunity to create a visual focus to draw people to the building. A large window at first floor level and the open ground floor entrance glazed doors reflect a double height space within the building. This will be an art space for exhibitions with a stage for live music performance which will also double as a community hub and cafe. The public part of the building will extend upstairs with an open gallery with an open fire place accessed by a flamboyant open staircase. Materials will be wooden panelling and painted plaster finishes. The facade of the building due to the complexity of the boundary line, follows the exact stepped profile of the original building footprint to maximise the space internally. As it will be a multi-use building there will be a significant amount of storage space built in to house equipment and moveable furniture to add to its flexibility and a resource for the community including the large commercial kitchen installation for multi-culturally inspired cooking activity.

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