Designers Tim Greatrex and Pete Hellicar have injected a layer of cool into the damp vaults under Waterloo station in London
House of Vans, under London's Waterloo Station, is an impressive balancing act. Spread across five buried tunnels – built in the mid-19th century to raise the tracks above marshy ground – the 2,500sq m venue houses two skateparks (a bowl for experienced riders and combined mini-ramp and street section for all-comers), along with a cafe, two bars, an art space, a 106-seat cinema, a music venue with a capacity of 850 and four lab spaces for residencies and teaching.
The lease for the tunnels from Network Rail – the owners of much of the UK's railway infrastructure – is only five years (it was briefly an experimental space for the nearby Old Vic Theatre before), and the project was carefully monitored by heritage bodies. Even so, designers Tim Greatrex and Pete Hellicar have successfully injected a layer of organic, understated and undeniable cool into these damp vaults.
The entrance is, in effect, a statement of intent, with a dramatic diagonal patterning of recyclable natural rubber floor tiles – sustainability is prioritised throughout – that matches those on Vans trainers. The colour and shape of these tiles evolve across the tunnels, acting as a subtle wayfinding scheme. In addition, upon arrival the reception desk, banking and ramp down to the tunnels, all in concrete, hint at the skating facilities in the final two tunnels. Due to restrictions of space, these parks were created by spraying concrete on expanded polystyrene.
Animated walkthrough of House of Vans
The careful handling of lighting is perhaps the greatest success – in the skate areas this is provided by metal-halide uplighters, which accentuate the rich quality of the brick while reflecting an even light down onto the concrete below, ensuring a competition-standard environment. Elsewhere, simple linear strip lighting skims across surfaces, amplifying their varied textures.
Thanks to heritage considerations, display cases and lights (and the much-needed ventilation in this humid environment) are simply attached to walls or, like the skateparks themselves, stand proud. The Vans Labs are also self-supporting structures, in which the collaborative-learning ethos of skateboarding is expanded to other creative disciplines – to date they have housed embroidery, film, silkscreen printing, collage and hairdressing. When I visited, an old hardback from Trevelyan's English Social History awaited an unknown fate, but the editing of skate footage is a more typical activity.
Budget restrictions have resulted in the odd compromise – a few dripping ceilings, the occasional crude-looking element, a curved wooden kitchen-bar that looks too sophisticated for its surroundings. And some old-school skaters will shake their heads at this seamless commercial appropriation of their childhood. But Vans' – and Greatrex and Hellicar's – success is immediately apparent. It is hard to imagine that Network Rail will have clients this sensitive and adept in five years' time.
Images: Tim Greatrex, Nathan Gallagher