The House: Architecture


As an 'artist in residence' it seems pretty important to be thinking about the building that you are resident in. Cecil Sharp House has a resonance that stretched around the world to me in Auckland, when Morris Dance was first revealing itself to me, and I visited it first in the 1990s.

The headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song society sounded like a repository of unrivalled and strange folk knowledge. The Vaughn Williams Memorial Library and Archives certainly fulfull this promise even if the main library room itself, which initially took control of Sharp's personal library has long since overflowed upstairs and downstairs into other archive spaces. The building itself is much more than a house for the library and a dancing hall however.

This year I have an opportunity to spend more time in 'the House' and think about how people use its spaces. Its pretty apparent from spending a few months working here that the building means a lot of different things to a lot of different communities. A good proportion of the rooms and halls are in constant use, hired out to users as practice halls, exam venues, a theatre school, salsa dance venue, a vintage clothes fair and a variety of choir practice spaces.

This gives the building a feeling that it is owned by much more than just the folk community, with up to a thousand people coming through the doors each week. This leads me to think about the existence of 'folk' in cities and how the EFDSS work as a folk art centre. I guess the history of the building is at the core of an urban folk locus in London, and has been since its inception. Even though the actual location of 'folk' occuring could be anywhere from a city pub to playground to a country fete, the focus for the drawing together of the national character of folk - especially the vital role that the archives and library play in this, is at the essence of what Cecil Sharp House is about.

A book by Brenda Godrich, 'the Building of Cecil Sharp House' details the history of the building.

The images in the book show the building before it was bombed during the Second World War, and the subsequent rebuilding work. (Though it must have been a tragic event at the time, having only just been finished, I understand the logic of the Luftwaffe in their targetting of Cecil Sharp House. To the Nazi era German army the folk repository must have seemed like a pretty important target.) Its a great shame that the building today doesn't reflect the simple grandeur of the original. Its obvious from the strange backwards and sideways facing entraceway, and extra walls inserted in the foyer area, that the last half century has seen a number of unconcerted and half hearted alterations.

Thankfully in the last month one such alteration - an annoying an unnecessary steel security gate is going to be removed. It will restore visual access to the impressive central staircase and at least open up the lobby area. It will remove any obstacles to hanging artwork in this space too.

As Cecil Sharp House means so much to so many people, I am becoming interested in how they actually use the building. I'm currently working with some artists who are going to create new work that will directly relate to people's use of the space, and its site.