Zac Monro talks to us about refurbishing Carlton Mansions

Written by Future Brixton

March 8, 2016
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It’s locally listed; it’s the canvass for the ‘Nuclear Dawn’ mural; and it’s been a symbol of Brixton’s alternative and creative communities – but what now for Carlton Mansions? Can we preserve what makes a historical building special and at the same time make it lively and relevant? We talk to long-time Brixton-based architect, Zac Monro, and council conservation officer, Doug Black, to understand more about refurbishing this landmark building.

Carlton Mansions is part of the council’s Somerleyton Road development, which includes building over 300 new homes, as well as a new theatre on the corner of Coldharbour Lane. The refurbishment of Carlton Mansions has been designed by Zac Monro Architects to be a companion building to the new theatre and a home for creative workspaces. It is the only part of the development that isn’t a new build.

A locally listed building

First, we asked Lambeth’s conservation expert, Doug Black, what makes Carlton Mansions special:

“Mansion blocks, like Carlton Mansions, are some of the first purpose-built flats in London and they help us understand the urbanisation of Lambeth in the late 19th Century. We’ve locally listed Carlton Mansions as it’s a prominent example of this type of building and has a decorative façade. The Nuclear Dawn mural adds an important extra layer of history.”

The architect’s view

Then we caught up with Zac Monro after his designs had received planning permission but before work starts on site.

What does Carlton Mansions mean to you as a long-term Brixton resident?

“Whether you like the traditional ornate architecture or not it’s one of the few remaining original facades along that stretch of Coldharbour Lane. And you can’t deny the mural is important – when it was painted nuclear war was an imminent threat. I can remember that!

“For as long as I’ve known it, for the last 25 years, it’s kind of been a dead space. The mural’s been iconic, but slightly tucked away and, although I went inside once or twice, it wasn’t a place for big happenings on the cultural scene. But it was significant for what it was – part of an alternative social and political movement. So what happens to Carlton Mansions, and that whole stretch of road, is hugely significant for Brixton.”

As an architect, does this mean added pressure?

“If I was a commercial architect and didn’t care what I was doing it wouldn’t bother me. But it’s a privilege to work on a project like this. It represents a subtle intervention. Usually it would only be possible for a rich developer to turn it into flats but this is a project where nothing will be sold. This is utterly ground breaking and has come from an original grassroots idea about what should happen with this piece of land. Of course I care and there is added pressure but we take everything we do very seriously.”

What are the challenges about refurbishing Carlton Mansions?

“There are lots of challenges. If you were sensible you’d completely rebuild it: a lot of the walls have started to bow and are in danger of collapsing, but its heritage is not insignificant. So its difficult in terms of deciding what you keep and what you don’t keep – you have to think about what is good for the building, for the next occupant, and what is significant culturally. And every bit you want to keep causes a problem. Ultimately it’s a balance between preserving the building and ensuring it has a viable and vibrant future.

 

“The relationship with the new theatre was also a challenge. The intention was never to match the theatre to Carlton Mansions – Foster Wilson is doing something modern. Therefore how they connect is important. There is also a symbiotic relationship between the two – you have enough creative workspace in Carlton Mansions to generate some kind of income to help the theatre to be sustainable.”

What will the refurbished Carlton Mansions look like?
“The new theatre and Carlton Mansions will be very distinct buildings. There will be a set back where the mural is to provide a clear separation. But how they connect is very important. There will be one modern intervention in place of one of the stair blocks – a neat cut in to the building where the modernity of the new theatre comes into its historical neighbour. The new material will be glass which is precise and neutral and will let light into the building.

“Elsewhere, wherever possible, we’re using the original materials – such as bricks and floorboards. Lighting will also be very important. We’re hoping that there will be money in the budget to light up the building at night in imaginative way.”

Ultimately, who will get to enjoy Carlton Mansions?

“I think it will become a strong part of the character of working in Brixton for a lot of small local businesses. It will be a great working environment – to sit in an honest, pared back room with south facing windows in the centre of Brixton, its what we need as creative organisations.

“We love the wrought iron ballustraded rooftop. Planning permission paves the way for possible pop up events so hopefully everyone will be able to experience the new building and the views for themselves.”

Find out more about plans for Somerleyton Road

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