THERE’S a motto inscribed on the walls of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in London. “Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis,” it proclaims. “Not for me, not for you, but for us.” In many arty circles, that would be mere highfalutin' talk but in this grand old building on Lavender Hill it’s more akin to a war cry.
On Friday March 13 2015, theatre company Gecko were performing the play Missing when fire broke out. No-one was injured, but props and costumes went up in flames as actors, audience and staff fled. Firefighters overcame the blaze and dust settled on a pitiful scene — the Grand Hall had been totally destroyed, but the front of the grade-II listed building and its priceless glass dome had been saved.
Now, with a full programme inevitably termed Phoenix, it’s not only the Grand Hall that welcomes the public back. The entire building is open for the first time in 12 years.
It was writer and supporter Stella Duffy who, only an hour after the fire, created the hashtag #BACPhoenix, which went viral on social media. A day later, staff and volunteers opened the front doors, with friends, locals and supporters cheering. A month later, some 2,300 people attended a fundraiser at the Southbank Centre.
As David Jubb, Battersea's artistic director and CEO, says: “After 42 months, 10,000 reclaimed bricks and masses of help from 6,000 friends and supporters, we’re now completely open.”
Leading tours of the building last week with architect Steve Tompkins, Jubb is buzzing with a mix of excitement and relief.
He vividly recalls a very different tour, picking his way round the still smoking ruins. Showing off the Grand Hall bar, with its installation of items reclaimed from the fire, he remembers: “There was a really huge lump of wood – completely turned to charcoal and, nearby, a drink — maybe a gin and tonic — just left on a table.”
Some of the walls which survived the blaze have been left in all their scorched glory. The team didn’t want to plaster over history. A catastrophe happened to this building and it’s not to be forgotten.
The Grand Hall has a new lattice ceiling, based on the original 19th century design but with some 21st century technical wizardry concealed in the roof. There are now 35 performance spaces, including a new open-air Courtyard Theatre — “previously full of dead pigeons” — says Tompkins and The Bees Knees, a creative play space for young families. And there's even the start of micro-allotments for neighbours and community groups, with apple trees in pots already growing on the roof.
The building looks set to be as busy and noisy, as it was originally. Built in 1893, it was Battersea Town Hall. Many of the 70 rooms, including the council chamber, were home to radical politics. Suffragettes held rallies and the Communist Party of Great Britain was based there in the 1930s.
That “non mihi” motto was in use, at least unofficially, for decades and it's on the coat of arms granted in 1955. A decade later, the building came close to demolition, when the borough of Battersea was absorbed into Wandsworth. Local campaigning saved it and kick-started it as a community arts centre in 1970.
True to the motto, the current Phoenix season has 2,000 tickets for £1 for people on low incomes, via the centre’s Local Roots programme with Wandsworth and Lambeth voluntary groups.
Actor Toby Jones, also a BAC patron, says: “Battersea Arts Centre has not just been restored, it has been revolutionised. To alchemise beauty from rubble and grace from catastrophe is entirely consistent with the dynamic artistic and political history of this building.”
Full details of Battersea Arts Centre are available at bac.org.uk
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