Wren Architecture’s cinema and community space highlights the latent potential of disused shopping precincts
“There are empty stores all over the country that people are trying to figure out what to do with. I don’t think anyone’s got a magic bullet,” says Philip Wren, director of Wren Architecture. He knows what he’s talking about: his practice has worked with some of the most unprepossessing shops left behind by changing shopping and leisure patterns: a discount store in a 1970s Catford precinct, a stockroom in Reading, even a notorious nightclub in Ealing.
“There are all sorts of advantages to retaining the structure and finding a new purpose for it,” Wren says. “Obviously, there’s the carbon footprint, but also just in terms of the health of the local economy. If you tear something down, it could take anything up to 10 years to replace. In the meantime, there’s a big black hole in the middle of the town.”
The most recent example of this approach is the Biscuit Factory in Reading, a second cinema project for Really Local Group, a venue operator that specialises in regenerating high streets with cultural and community projects. The Biscuit Factory, like the previous project at Catford Mews, is not really a cinema in the traditional sense at all, admits Wren. “It’s more like a rethink of a community centre – somewhere between a coffee shop, a cinema, a food hall and a venue.” It has certainly come a long way from its former life as a dingy first-floor stockroom for Argos.
Facing onto Oxford Road, a prominent shopping street, the building is a reinforced-concrete structure that forms both the corner of the mall and a podium for a nine-storey office tower above. The redundant stockroom was essentially a black box – “perfect for a cinema, but not so good for anything else”. The main question for the architects was how to draw people in past the groundfloor supermarket. “Because it has all these different functions, the issue was, how do you get them upstairs?”
Considering the dramatic change needed, the interventions have been surprisingly minimal. “We don’t go in with a plan to rip out as much as possible,” says Wren. “We want to be quite surgical about what we do.” A large picture window has been cut into the front, and a big slice taken out of the corner, above the main entrance, to create a balcony. “That external space forms a much more positive connection with the street below – there’s no physical barrier. It’s a signifier that there is something happening up here.” Wren was fortunate that the landlord had all of the original building drawings, so the team knew where they could cut into the reinforced-concrete slab.
A hole was made for a platform lift, and smaller incursions were threaded through the thick slab to the plant area above level one. The open cafe/communal area is dominated by a series of huge columns that hold up the office tower. “We kept them clear. The way they march down the space creates a nice sense of order. ”There are further columns in the three screening rooms, but again the designers have worked around them, orienting the screens so they can act as separators between the seats and aisles. Similarly, a massive slab structure from the shopping centre car park has been avoided by raking the seating in the main auditorium.
The acoustic design has been aided by the fact that the screens are all fairly small – two have 60 seats and the third has 92. They are divided by lightweight plasterboard double walls, isolated using resilient pads and detailing, but otherwise there is no sound absorption. “You get a little bit of reverberation in the room, which actually is quite nice. It makes the sound slightly livelier.” There are plenty of reminders of the building’s less glamorous past, not least the stripped-back columns of time-worn concrete that adorn the balcony. “It’s like leaving a little clue,” Wren says, “a scar or tattoo of what’s been before.
Photos: Will Pryce, Richard Parkes