Reimagining a Brixton community centre with help from LB Lambeth

Domino players sit and stand round a table, animated and good-humoured
The Brixton Domino Players. Image: Kimi Gill Photography

Find out how Lambeth Council hired a group of Black-led design practices to reimagine a valued community centre in Brixton as part of its regeneration plans, and why dominoes were key to the project.

LB Lambeth has invested £1.4 million to renovate the Brixton Sports and Social Club on Coldharbour Lane. Gifted to the local community following the 1981 Brixton Uprising, the community centre is a landmark site when thinking about spatial justice in London.

The initiative began with structural improvements to the Grade II listed building and is now focused on finding a long-term model to support the centre and the community initiatives that operate from it. Additional funding will be required to support its users to create a self-sustaining and regenerative community hub.

Nyemu Holness, previously Area and Regeneration Manager at LB Lambeth, was responsible for commissioning a team of Black-led practices to design the site. The winning design study bid celebrated at the Venice Biennale in 2023 is a collaboration between Gboloade Design Studio, Urban Symbiotics & Green Tea Architects.

LB Lambeth wants users of the site to feel empowered by the space as a witness to and receptacle of Afro-Caribbean culture, she said. Its local plan states the importance of supporting the boroughs’ diverse and enterprising heart as well as promoting active citizenship.

Creating a Black-owned community space

The Brixton Sports and Social Club was established after a government inquiry following the 1981 Brixton riots acknowledged that “racial discrimination” and “racial disadvantage” and were a significant threat to wellbeing and public order in the area.

Its report stopped short of acknowledging institutional racism, but prompted LB Lambeth to provide a Black-owned community space for local residents. The Brixton Immortal Dominoes Club moved into the community centre not long after and became a focal point for Afro-Caribbean cultural expression and community relations.

It was joined by the Brixton Soup Kitchen in 2015, a charity that provides food, clothing and legal advice to homeless people. Both groups have been able to return to the centre this autumn following its refurbishment.

A white building with bay windows
The Brixton Sports and Social Club, previously known as the Lloyd Leon Community Centre

Empowering diverse and active citizenship

Gbolade Design Studio’s winning bid explores the building’s potential for remodelling and extension. Its design study explains that dominoes is culturally significant as an immersive experience. More than just a game, dominoes requires a series of interactions and mindset that can amount to an expression of active citizenship.

It draws on an ethnographic film, Domino – A Cultural Odyssey’, produced by London-based filmmaker David Jobaputra.

“Dominoes is based around the community. If we let the boys and girls know the roots of Domino then people will recognise and show more respect for each other. Domino is culture – you have to get inside to understand it. This is what it’s about…”

George Walters, domino player, ‘Domino – A Cultural Odyssey’

It aims to pick up this thread and empower it in contemporary London and focuses on the themes of preservation, celebration and evolution. For example, the centre could be equipped to celebrate Black history through film nights. Playing dominoes online with other clubs outside of Europe is suggested as a way to evolve its tradition digitally.

Rather than adopt a site-centric approach, the team used systems-mapping to explore how people, place and community interact.

An installation that maps the stakeholders and history of the Brixton Sports and Social Club. At its centre are community, people and place.
‘Regenerative Power’ by Gboloade Studios at the Venice Biennale. Image: Tamed Designs

Commissioning Black architects in London

Current users of the centre requested the council employ a Black-led team of architects to think about the building’s long-term potential.

Gentrification in Brixton has created tensions between existing communities and those moving to the area, Nyemu said. Users feared the erasure of the site’s heritage and wanted reassurance that renovation would be led by architects who could empathise with its cultural significance.

Nyemu worked with a social enterprise, The Ubele Initiative, to commission architects in collaboration with community representatives. Despite having qualified as a Part 1 architect and worked in the built environment sector for twenty years, she didn’t initially know of Black-led architectural practices to approach. In 2022, 82 per cent of UK architects were white and 71 per cent were male.

In her search she came across network organisations Black Females in Architecture and Paradigm Network, which support diversifying representation within the sector.

Using diversity frameworks

She also recommended the Mayor of London’s ‘Architecture + Urbanism Framework’ and LB Southwark’s Architect Design Services Framework. These frameworks give an important platform to global majority led practices but it’s unclear yet whether they will translate into contracted work.

The Mayor of London’s framework is part of London’s ‘Good Growth by Design’ programme. In its forward plan the programme warns that diverse authorship of public space is necessary to ensure placemaking meets the needs of London’s varied inhabitants. Sharing commissioning guidance is one part of a developing strategy that aspires to support diversity through mentoring, data collection and sector-wide EDI training.

It soon became clear to Nyemu that other barriers to entry remain significant for SMEs, such as requirements of professional indemnity insurance and experience working on big schemes. LB Lambeth’s decision to shortlist principally based on the quality of bids played a significant role in levelling the playing field.

Outstanding shortlisted practices included Architecture Doing Place, Freehaus and Studio GIL, alongside the winning bid.

Driving collective learning about inclusivity

Nyemu shared feeling pressure that, as a Black woman commissioning a team of Black architects, their project output had to perfect. Being part of an underrepresented group meant that she worried about the project being seen as an exemplar of Black talent in the sector and needing to do justice by that.

She encourages those working in the sector to get involved in discussions around diversity and to shelve apprehensions about saying the wrong thing, where hesitating will prevent a culture of collective learning.

“I’d like to mention here that we need a cultural shift. Because I was identifying architects and doing the groundwork all by myself.

“I think people felt because I was a Black woman I was best placed, I had the best knowledge. But this work should be done collectively.”

Projects that empower diverse communities create space for the sector to advance its understanding of inclusion. Making the most of them will require everyone embracing a share of this responsibility and getting involved in conversations that drive collective learning.