Matheson Whiteley has transformed the home of not-for-profit arts organisation Studio Voltaire in Clapham, south London. Nana Biamah-Ofosu admires the ingenuity and restraint of a thoughtful remodelling that anchors the building in its community and creates the conditions for creativity to thrive.

Buildings.

Adorning the gable end of a nondescript end of terrace leading to Nelson’s Row in Clapham, South London, are three large scale public realm works by the San Francisco based artist William Scott. Commissioned by Studio Voltaire as part of the first significant survey of the artist’s 30-year practice, it marks the opening of the not-for-profit arts organisation’s newly refurbished and extended space designed by architect Matheson Whiteley. The 2.8m capital project refurbishes a former Victorian Methodist chapel into the main gallery space, adding 45 spaces for artists, a cafe and a shop.

This scheme – Matheson Whiteley’s first public project in the UK – transforms Studio Voltaire’s presence in the area where it has been based since 1994. Though an important institution – established by 12 artists and supporting a diverse range of individual and collective practices – it barely had a public and outward-facing presence in its neighbourhood. For Matheson Whiteley and Studio Voltaire, this was an exercise in making visible what was previously hidden.

Won through invited competition in 2016, the project explores the use of commercial construction techniques, such as the advanced use of BIM technology within the context of working with an existing building to create an environment that is deliberately ambiguous about what is new and what was found. For Matheson Whiteley, the project began with an assessment of each building element and system, ‘deciding whether to replace, repair or renew based on the impromptu character of the original studios.’

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Visitors are greeted by a new, hard landscaped garden designed by Anthea Hamilton.

A new public entrance is signified by a materially rich and generously planted garden designed by Anthea Hamilton, an inviting space that encourages use by local residents, neighbours and visitors. The garden is a pleasant contrast and neighbour to Matheson Whiteley’s calm and restrained interiors. Hamilton’s selection of materials recalls a local London vernacular of muted grey basalt paving and ochre-and-brown glazed bricks. The institution was previously accessed by a closed gate with a doorbell. Now, the visitor is greeted by long vistas that cut through the building, making it feel open, generous and civic.

The first of a network of public and semi-public spaces is what the architect describes as a ‘mixing chamber.’ It contains a cafe, a permanent retail area for House of Voltaire and spaces for public use, encouraging mixing between gallery visitors and the local community. Whitewash is used to unite walls of varied materials and historic condition. The ground floor’s previously uneven floors have been levelled with an insulated, polished dark grey concrete slab, exemplifying Matheson Whiteley’s strategy of ‘assess, reuse, repair’. For the architect, every opportunity to reuse was also a chance to repair and extend the life of the building. Adding a new concrete floor rather than a simple screed allowed for underfloor heating, improving the thermal efficiency of the building.

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The former Victorian Mission Hall that houses the main gallery space has been sensitively restored.

Like many of the new spaces, the ‘mixing chamber’ has a restrained quality, a muted architectural expression designed to allow the artists’ creativity, activities and energy to prevail as the primary visual language over time.

Two parallel roof trusses, low enough to touch as you stand in the entrance hall, provide another clue to Matheson Whiteley’s forensic refurbishment of the building. In the early design stages of the project, it became clear that the existing roofs would need replacing at a cost of most of the construction budget. A sharp observation that a small adjustment to the existing roof geometry could generate enough height for a new mezzanine level under the replacement roof proved a cost-effective way of doubling the amount of studio space, making the cost of replacing the roof viable. This attention to detail, combined with a clear architectural vision of simplicity and efficiency, permeates the whole project.

As you move beyond the entrance hall another small yet special detail is the view of a large stainless steel artist’s sink. This can be seen from the communal space, sparking a certain curiosity and inviting the visitor to imagine this place as a space of production and making. A simple widening in plan at the junction of two key circulation areas allows the formation of this communal space, which is called the Studio Kitchen, and is a space for exchange and dialogue amongst the artists. In contrast to the entrance hall, this is a tall space lit from above. Its exposed partitions comprise commercial metal framing with battenhung OSB panels, whitewashed to emphasise their texture. Mechanical services run directly within the exposed metal framing, reducing the cost of containment and replacement – the panels themselves can be easily replaced if damaged, or reconfigured to suit other future uses of the space.

Included within this area is a living space for an artist-in-residence allowing Studio Voltaire to host and support artists from further a field. It is a small and simply furnished space, reminiscent of a Renaissance scientist’s study nook. There is a certain beauty derived from the practical construction and technical considerations in these spaces; they feel somewhat unfinished, ready to be completed by their use.

A flight of precast concrete stairs connects you to the mezzanine. Drawn by the beautiful light from a window at landing level, which provides a visual connection to the outside, you are reminded of Studio Voltaire’s neighbourhood context before being again immersed in the world of artists’ studios and spaces of production. The Micro Workspace – a large, shared studio centred around a table – is enabled by the addition of the mezzanine level. It is a beautiful and efficient space, naturally lit by a large clerestory window. The play of materials, including the patina of old steelwork, the playfulness of the new painted timber partition walls to the individual workspaces, and the revitalised presence of the new roof with marching trusses low enough to touch, adds to the intimacy of this space.

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Matheson Whiteley’s approach was to work with the language and structure of the existing industrial buildings, taking a pragmatic attitude about when to replace, repair or renew.

In addition to the Micro Workspace, this additional mezzanine level provides individual artist studios, hosting a plethora of activities from digital-based production to large-scale painting and printmaking. Each studio has its own rooflight providing ample natural light to the workspace – an act of architectural generosity made possible in the reconfiguration of the existing roof.

Returning to the ground floor, the character of the main gallery space, in an existing former Victorian Mission Hall, has been maintained through a light touch and sensitive renovation. Its dark timber roof, in contrast to the rest of the building’s lightweight roof, bears down on simple white walls with a dignified sense of permanence. The renovation introduced heating as well as a bespoke lighting system. In the simplicity of this space, the work of San Francisco-born artist William Scott commands a certain presence – his reimaginations of Hunters Point feel connected to Clapham and London, physically through the fragments installed on Nelson’s Row, but also metaphorically as a means to read the city as both artefact and an infrastructure for culture and daily life. Scott’s is the first show in this refurbished space, which will now be able to host a programme of exhibitions, commissions, and performances all year round.

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An additional shared studio space to the west of the building, leads to another garden. It is much more intimate in scale and character compared to Hamilton’s entrance garden, acting almost as a working yard – an extension of the studio space. A bricolage assembly of materials, including the brickwork of the adjacent building, remnants of exposed concrete work and cobblestone paved ground, are united by its simple white painted enclosing walls. For Studio Voltaire, this is a space that supports community outreach programming, enabling local artistic development, experimentation and research.

The success of Matheson Whiteley’s work at Studio Voltaire is in its reading of architecture as infrastructure, a theme that is present at all stages of the project. The practice worked closely with digital construction specialist, Dara Khera, who explained that by working with digital twin technology, a virtual replica of a physical entity, the project could achieve its ‘enhanced outcomes – delivering design intent without compromise, reducing waste, ensuring cost certainty and optimising the performance of the building for the occupants.’

For a city like London, where affordable studio spaces are becoming scarce, a situation further exacerbated by the pandemic, Matheson Whiteley’s work especially in its provision of spaces for production, making and experimentation – an infrastructure for people – is a welcome addition.

In its first act as infrastructure the architecture has successfully incorporated the artworks of Anthea Hamilton, Tom O’Sullivan and Joanne Tatham into its building fabric. As time goes on, you can imagine the architecture becoming even more background, directing one’s full attention to the rich culture and art practice Studio Voltaire supports.

Additional Images

Credits

Project team

Client
Studio Voltaire
Architect
Matheson Whiteley
Structural engineer
Webb Yates, Structure Workshop
MEP consultants
Webb Yates, Richie Daffin, Greengauge
Contractor
TWO WORK
Building Control Inspector
Meridian Consulting
Quantity Surveyor
Exigere, Stockdale
Planning consultant
DP9
Identity and wayfinding
A Practice for Everyday Life
Acoustic consultant
Ion Acoustics
Party walls
Peter Kerrison
Artists
Anthea Hamilton, Tom O’Sullivan, Joanne Tatham
Accessibility
People Friendly