As we imagine how town and city centres can be revived, post-pandemic, one building in PTE’s portfolio stands out, given its prescient community-focused programme: Deptford Lounge. It combines a primary academy, district library, community centre and artists’ studios with affordable homes (It also made possible the adjacent Market Yard – a restored Victorian carriage ramp incorporating 14 commercial spaces). We think it offers a model for the Building Back Better plan that will define the 2020s - but how has it fared during the lockdown?
Our revisit coincides with a Bangkok-style downpour that caused hospitals to shut down and underground stations fill up like kettles. In this respect, the mixed-use marvel has come off lightly. Yes, one of the studios has flooded – but general manager Annette Butler is on the case: when we speak contractors are busy peeling back a two-metre section of the surface of the rooftop ball court. “I’m always learning on the job,” she says, explaining that while she may have forged her career in theatre, “we know how to get things done. There’s a reason we say, ‘the show must go on.’”
Butler has been managing this complex building (for the Albany Theatre) since 2012, after initially taking on a three-month contract to run pop-up theatre shows, rent-out spaces and, in her words, “kickstart the Deptford Lounge”. Nearly nine years later, she’s still there, having taken on more and more responsibility, including, three years ago, the FM contract. “It’s the best thing we’ve done” she explains, because in a building with so many functions and stakeholders, maintenance “can be an issue”.
Together with the school (Tidemill Academy), Albany Theatre asked the council to include FM in the operations’ re-tender, bagged the job once again, and consequently inherited a seven-year-old building that wasn’t compliant . “The truth is, it hadn’t been looked after very well,” she says. “It’s taken me two years to unpick – there was no service record handed over, no paperwork - but we’ve for more than a year now, we’ve had a solid audit trail in place.”
There are still problems – leaks from gutters in the adjoining flats are affecting classrooms (“the housing association can’t gain access to the private sale flats in the complex to resolve this issue,” says Butler) – but the bottom line is the Deptford Lounge is now being cared for by an organisation genuinely invested in its future. “We don’t inflate our FM costs” she states bluntly.
The key, she says, is personal relationships. “Know your contractors and colleagues. Speak to them, learn from them. Make them feel the building is theirs too.” It’s this approach that saw Butler arrive on a Monday morning to a bottle of wine and box of chocolates from the Tidemill teachers, because she let them party on the ball court on the last day of term. “Usually, we’d charge the school to stay open late, but on this occasion we didn’t. On the other hand, their fire officer has been sorting a jammed door for us… we’ve built up a culture of trust here.”
That culture of trust extends to relationships with the library service (“we check in with each other all the time, support each other, help each other with activities”); the public (“we run ‘pay what you think’ performances so anyone can afford them”); and artists too, who are given free use of facilities in lieu of payment if they run community workshops.
The success of Deptford Lounge rests with ability this to connect with local people. From partying schoolteachers who more than deserve a Friday night booze up, to the always hired-out rooms (“churches on Sundays and an Arabic school on Saturdays”), it has proved to be essential to local civic life. It recently provided a new home for a volunteer-run local cinema in its main hall (recent showings: Queen and Slim, Blues Brothers and Little Women) and continues to host activities for kids throughout the summer (coming up: an ‘I love my bike’ workshop for children aged five to ten, with cycling lessons on the ball court). The library too, is busy once again post-Lockdown. All in all, pre-Covid, around 1000 people a day used the building and Annette thinks it will hit those heights in time once again.
The architecture – its human-scale, its friendly aesthetics, it’s mix of uses – makes all of this happen in a seemingly natural, unforced way. Outside, the market square provides another space to engage with public life, with acrobatics and dance performances, even if it persists in being a hotspot for street drinkers. “This has been a problem for years. Deptford has always had a drunken culture. Marlowe was stabbed here!” she says, describing the town as Greenwich’s poor relation. But then there will always be limits to what architectural intent can achieve.