Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, 2008

You’ll find this building just little beyond World’s End, where the formality of West Brompton and the charm of Cheyne Walk give way to gas works, disused power stations and waste recycling plants, in the bizarre little park called Cremorne Gardens, part bedding plants and random tree types, enjoyed by the locals, part public conveniences and abandoned sheds, with an evident attraction for the local malavita. And where the two meet, at the decaying embankment to the Thames, is Sarah Wigglesworth’s Riverside Centre.

For many years a canoeing facility operated on this site, in one of the most deprived parts of the Borough, using a couple of containers as offices and changing rooms, while boats were stored outside. A disused rubbish hopper had been adapted for use as a rowing tank. Wigglesworth was asked to design an up-to-date facility for use by 30 children, including those with disability. The project was financed by the Big Lottery Fund with matching funds from the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea.

The Centre now has two buildings, one for boats and offices, the other for changing rooms. Between the two is a generous platform made from a light metal grill, which spans the old rowing tank, now filled with the rocks and boulders found on site.  The platform is on a level with the top of the retaining wall and gives access to the floating pontoon from which canoes are launched.

The buildings are timber on a steel base, and as you might expect from SWA, insulation is Cumbrian sheep’s wool, heating is by mean of a heat exchange unit, made possible by the high local water table, and construction is of high quality. The roof is EPDM covered with demolition rubble (all of which was kept on site), with the aim of encouraging the insect and spider life vital to rare bird species. Although the two buildings are identical in plan, their roofs are complementary shapes, one being pitched, the other a valley gutter. Internally the cladding is simple and robust: plywood for offices, OSB within the boathouse, and Trespa panels in changing rooms.

The surprise comes with the cladding, a screen of Core-ten steel that gives the two prismatic pavilions something of the appearance of a border crossing checkpoint. There are no shutters, windows stand behind a perforated strip of steel, the holes looking as if made by a demonstration of precision machine gunnery. The use of a square grid for the  holes gives an added austerity. (Perforations of screens within the changing rooms are ordered with a triangular grid). Wigglesworth compares these rusting forms to decaying boat hulls. They do bring a sense of heavy industry into this corner of a park that strives towards gentility.

The building may be modest but the story of its construction is epic. After initial planning and Environment Agency approvals were gained early in 2004, the EA gained new powers, and took the opportunity of a planning re-submission to demand that the buildings be demountable and removable in case a flood should make repairs to the embankment wall necessary. The building was redesigned and a Method Statement prepared (how the buildings would be demounted, where stored, etc.) and building work finally begun in October 2006. You would have to wonder whether, if the Thames flooded, the careful removal of these little buildings would really be a high EA priority. One might even think it would have been simpler to have designed buildings that float…

The real oddity for me is the large unprotected window to the offices, possibly the result of the client refusing to have a perforated Core-ten panel running across it. But given the steel shield everywhere else, it makes this window look like a fairground target. How long can it possibly last? And the big bare window has the corresponding effect of infecting the rest of the armour plating, making seem just a little bit symbolic, which can’t have been the architect’s intention.

But what is hardest to explain is how this modest assembly – the twin boxes and their floating platform (floating ‘surface’ over rocky ‘seabed’) go beyond ordinary architecture and enter the world of art. Perhaps it is austerity of form and materials, combined with a liveliness in the disposition of the elements, and a certain playfulness. What is certain is that you can look at this building for a long time without running out of things to think about. And the users’ reaction confirms that they have something they like but don’t fully understand. Nervous laughter accompanies their comment: ‘We tell people we used to operate out of a couple of rusty boxes; but that now we have a new building: we operate out of a couple of rusty boxes.’