The Art of the Arch – Old Space, New Purpose

4th September 2018

Director Tony Smith discusses how railway arch transformations have a positive impact on the built environment

The beauty of the built environment is that its use can change over time. When a space is no longer needed for its created purpose, that doesn’t mean it has to be demolished. In fact, some of the most striking and memorable spaces are those whose functions have been transformed over time.

Take railway arches, for example. An architectural feature that at first appears so specific to its original use, you can’t imagine it taking on a new role beyond being a relic of a previous function. But no space is incapable of being transformed when you think outside the box.

London is full of stunning railway arch conversions, and our work on such projects has been among our most spectacular. Our recent Leake Street Arches project involved a £4.3 million conversion and refurbishment of eight railway arches beneath Waterloo Station, transforming them into retail spaces for food and beverage tenants. The 23,000 square foot space had fallen to use as a car park and storage space, but we were part of giving the arches a new lease of life, celebrating their character and drawing crowds of tourists and visitors – topping must-see lists in publications like Time Out.

Giving an old space new purpose is a delicate balance of preserving the beauty of original features whilst modernising and enjoying the fact the space’s function has changed. At the Leake Street Arches the bonded warehouse doors were kept and old bricks were re-used for wall repairs, respectful of the history of the place. But collaboration with the local community was also key, with graffiti artists being commissioned to create more art for the area and bringing old and new together. The success of this project was confirmed by the industry, with the Leake Street Arches being Highly Commended in the Public Spaces category last month, at the New London Architecture Awards.

But railway arches can be transformed into spaces with a number of different purposes: it’s not just retail outlets, they can make fantastic office spaces too. We’ve been privileged to work with Network Rail on a number of occasions, including undertaking a strip out and re-fit of four arches at the London Bridge Arcade, right next to Borough Market. We navigated the challenges of working on a busy site – both ends of the arches being on busy public pathways and traders at the world-famous market beginning work from 4am – to help create a beautiful new office space, complete with stunning glass facade.

Construction isn’t just about building new – it’s about seeing the landscape as full of potential. Whether that’s digging new foundations or re-envisioning the old, with creativity, hard work and collaboration, that potential can be realised.