Underneath the arches: a hidden opportunity for building a home in London

How a railway arch became part of a fabulous 1,600sq ft steel-clad home in Southwark.
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Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects
© All pictures by Candice Lake
Archway Studios is a live-work building built in and around a railway arch. The structure is clad in Corten steel, which weathers beautifully

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects
Architect and director of Undercurrent Architects, Didier Ryan, designed Archway Studios

Across London there are 10,000 railway arches dissecting neighbourhoods. These viaducts were once industrial hubs, but thanks to de-industrialisation, huge chunks of land surrounding these structures now lie derelict and wasted as brownfield sites.

Didier Ryan, a British architect born in Australia and director of Undercurrent Architects (undercurrent-architects.com), came up with a way to turn one of these archways into his home and a workplace. The result, Archway Studios, is a two-bedroom, 1,600sq ft live-work building created in and around a 19th-century railway arch in Southwark, a borough with more railway viaducts than most.

Building in a pocket-size site next to a busy train line came with its challenges, says Didier. Soundproofing was a priority with trains rattling overhead, and getting enough light into the building so it could be his architectural studio was another struggle.

The answer to noise and vibration from the passing trains was a rubber foundation and multiple layers of "acoustic blanketing", combined with noise-dampening devices sandwiched between walls.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects
Archway Studios is built in a previous brownfield site. The steel cladding reflects the site's industrial setting

Lighting problems were overcome with sideways-facing windows and a large skylight that throws light into one part of the structure, where it can then bounce off the concave surfaces of the arch to reach the furthest depths of the building. For Didier, these challenges are stimulating. "Brownfield sites are often considered too difficult, too contaminated to work with," he says. "But we should all be re-using existing sites wherever possible. Particularly former industrial sites as they are usually in quite central, well-located areas.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects
The house is decorated with white walls and natural materials (left); the large skylight in the roof floods the building with natural light (right)

"I like the fact that brownfield sites have a history, too. They are places that have a lot of texture and information from the past you can use to help inform new designs. In this case, we borrowed heavily from the site's industrial history."

Drawing inspiration from the plot's past and from materials found in local scrapyards, the decision was taken to build the house and studios using Corten steel, sometimes called "weathering" steel because it develops a rusty — though beautiful — appearance, which in this case echoes the site's industrial surroundings.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects
White walls and minimalist styling give a sense of space to the live-work building

Inside, the main living space is open-plan with areas being used as both live and work space, or divided with furniture partitions. The white, minimalist interiors help reflect more light into the arch, and a spiral staircase, which rises to two floors, is made from folded steel and wood and forms a dramatic feature. Getting planning approval for the building proved relatively straightforward: local residents liked the design, and the change of use of the railway arch appealed to Southwark council because it wants to encourage the redevelopment of viaduct spaces. Railway arches around London Bridge are being given new uses and the nearby Maltby Street market — housed along a viaduct — has become hugely popular.

Says Didier: "People walking past us give us very interesting and engaging comments about the architecture and the improvements that we've done."

He adds that local people have been involved since the start — helping protect the site in the early stages, supporting the planning application and working on the construction.

Archway Studios by Undercurrent Architects
The spiral staircase is a work of art in folded steel and wood (left); south facing windows draw in large amounts of light (right)

Didier hopes creating such a landmark building will inspire others to find imaginative uses for London's unused railway arches. "It's possible to do something very exceptional with very difficult conditions. We had a tough site but problems can create very positive results. It is very uplifting."

Photographs by Candice Lake

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