Monday, September 19, 2011

Open House: St Annes, Soho

The Artshed

The Wall of Light

Usually architecture is about big, bold statements but I love it when it's quite humble and well-intentioned, such as the case of the Artshed in the grounds of St Annes church, Soho. Part of a three-stage programme which also consisted of a fence and garden shed, it's amazing that such a seemingly small and modest idea has actually been so positive and achieved a lot of good.

I remember years ago passing that part of Dean Street and there always being homeless people, alcoholics and drug dealers. The church grounds were always littered with needles and cans. It was dark, dingy and a bit dodgy.

In 2006, along with the charity Soho Green, St Annes Church and the City of Westminster, The Architecture Ensemble were commissioned to transform the garden, a plague burial ground. The fence, known as the Wall of Light, is the most obvious change. By day the steel fence is a semi-transparent 'wave', allowing open views of the church and grounds. At night it is lit up with different light patterns, revealing a wall of light. This has instantly stopped most anti-social behaviour in the area.

The Artshed, which I'd never noticed before but was open to the public as part of last weekend's Open House, is actually a children's public toilet. Installed in 2007, the timber boat-shape building has objects and prints built into the walls, functioning as a mini-museum and art gallery to reveal some of the history of the area. Taking a child into an adult public toilet is a hazardous operation at best, so a toilet designed for children is a delightful idea; especially if said toilet is beautiful, relaxing and interesting.

The final stages of the project were the Gardener's Shed (2010) and Big Table (with chairs). Though we tend to think of Soho as consisting only of shops, bars and restaurants, it does have a surprising amount of residents, as well as a lot of social housing and quite a few schools and nurseries. St Annes regularly organises events for local children.

We stumbled across the Artshed quite by accident whilst trying to find shelter from the rain after seeing the Museum of Everything #4 at Selfridges (some people have had reservations about putting art by disabled people on display; personally I found the gallery shop a lot more exploitative than the exhibition). By chance, my daughter did actually need the toilet but was too shy to use the Artshed at first, what with the door being open and two men standing outside. Well, one of them was the architect, Steven Johnson, who we had a nice chat with (whilst daughter finally used the toilet).

The Architecture Ensemble

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