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27 May 2008

By Gavriel Hollander

THE ARCHITECTURE of the mid 1960s might not have created the most beautiful sights the world has ever seen, but despite its industrial appearance, there is a building on the Old Kent Road that manages to encapsulate the rich history of the area.

The North Peckham Civic Centre and Library was opened to the public in November 1966 and it soon became an important part of the community. And besides the history it has helped create in the last 40 years, its design pays homage to the part the Old Kent Road has played in some of the events that helped shaped the country.

The Centre, and particularly the Library, filled a void in the community and replaced the nearby Livesey Library, which had been damaged in the Second World War and was woefully inadequate for the needs of the neighbourhood. The new building not only provided libraries for adults and children, but also an assembly hall and exhibition space.

The outside of the building is decorated with a famous mural, designed by Polish sculptor Adam Kossowski, which is a continuous frieze made up of 2,000 separate ceramic tiles, depicting scenes from Roman times right up to the 1960s in which it was made.

one of the centre's muralsThe mural begins by showing Roman soldiers and citizens marching along what was then the Roman Watling Street. The ancient highway linking London with Kent and the European mainland later became what we know today as Old Kent Road. This section of the mural also depicts two carved heads of the Roman god Janus, similar to those discovered near the site in 1865.

The living history lesson continues with scenes showing Chaucer amongst some of the characters from his famous Canterbury Tales. The place known as St. Thomas a Watering (now the corner of Albany Road and Old Kent Road) was the first resting spot for pilgrims to Canterbury in medieval times.

Further scenes represent Henry V's glorious return from victory at Agincourt in 1415, the famous Jack Cade rebellion in the 1450s, which saw 20,000 Kentish peasants march on London, and the return of King Charles II from exile in the 17th century. Modern times are represented by a Victorian policeman; Pearly Kings and Queens; Belisha beacons and planes flying overhead.

Inside, the Library is dominated by a large mobile steel structure hanging from the roof. The sculpture, designed and built by Bryan Kneale, is a modern imagining of the now increasingly rare Camberwell Beauty butterfly. The butterfly is so named as the first English sighting of the species was in Camberwell in 1748. The impressive steel edifice is the Centre's nod to the area's natural history.

The building soon began to create its own history too. The Grand Opening on 16th November 1966 saw a tribute to the golden age of music hall nights from the 1890s. The evening was hosted by the comedian Sandy Powell who had collaborated with, and even appeared on several records alongside the great Gracie Fields.

Dancers at the centreThroughout the 1960s and '70s, the Centre played host to a string of classical concerts, film screenings, art exhibitions and children's events. In very few years it had become the focal point for Peckham's arts community. In the 1980s the building even entered the political sphere, hosting Radio 4's 'Any Questions' twice; in 1985 and 1989, with guests including Germaine Greer and Labour MP Paul Boateng.

By the 1990's, Southwark Council had changed the building's name to 'The Civic'. In this new guise it hosted an ever-widening range of events, including youth theatre, music hall revivals, tea dances and comedy acts. Such famous names as Harry Hill, Felix Dexter and Ian Cognito all graced the famous assembly hall, which could seat up to 400 people.

While the opening of the impressively futuristic Peckham Library in 2000 brought the original function of the Centre to an end, the building still plays an important part in the life of the community for a great many people. And it is still creating history as well. The Everlasting Arms Ministries – the church attended by the family of Damilola Taylor - moved into the premises when the new library opened. And it was here that Damilola's memorial service was held after his tragic killing that same year.

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