Carnival Arts Centre

Luton’s lively carnival tradition can been traced back to the fifteenth century, but it developed into its present form in the 1970s, acquiring international status in 1998. It is now the largest one-day carnival in the UK, second only to the Notting Hill Carnival. Carnival artists work at the edge of possibility, designing large moving structures that are light enough to wear and walk in. This is an exuberant, colourful, inventive building dedicated to the performance and celebration of carnival arts. 

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The Centre celebrates all the carnival arts. At its centre is a mas camp where carnival costumes are prepared, and music and dance routines rehearsed. At carnival time the mas camp houses multi-stage performances for which its TV studio-like arrangement is well suited. Two areas of the performance space can be partitioned off to create a small speakeasy stage and a sewing room.

Classrooms double as dressing rooms and there is a fully equipped workshop. Other facilities include a café/bar/restaurant, a creche and a carnival archive centre.

With the budget constrained, the sunny courtyard was made to function as the Centre’s means of circulation, a strategy that eliminates expensive and boring corridor-space and creates incidental opportunities for building occupants to encounter each other. The absence of upper floors simplifies the management of the centre and makes this a highly accessible environment.

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In a design strategy that makes full use of the site, the centre consists of two single-storey buildings arranged around a large working yard. The building enables multiple functions and includes making, performance and recording facilities, as well as a creche and cafe. The form of the building evolved during a series of intense design iterations, in which a key move was to organise the site around a outdoor space that could open into a pedestrian and vehicle route right through the site, enabling the carnival to process through it.

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Like architects, carnival artists have a deep interest in making and materials. Asked for a building to reflect ‘the spirit of carnival’, Ash Sakula wanted this static building to capture and express carnival’s kinetic energy, but knew that there needed to be logic behind its playfulness. We enclosed the building in a beautiful “textile” wall, drawing on the idea of an elaborately folded cloth in the tradition of West African kente, in which pieces of fabric are stitched together to create giant, almost building-sized cloths formed from small repetitive elements. We observed the analogies between this and the way architectural elevations are often generated to create a clothing for the building

Ash Sakula Doughty Mews Drawing Staircase AxoAsh Sakula Doughty Mews Drawing Staircase Axo

Architect: Ash Sakula

Client: UK Centre for Carnival Arts

Funding: Arts Council and East of England Development Agency 

GIA: 1,420 m2 

Value: £3.1m 

Awards 

2011 RIBA Award for Architecture

Environmental performance

Buildings constructed using a combination of steel frame, timber frame and load-bearing masonry on a simple raft foundation

All spaces within the centre fully accessible to all users with level thresholds and no steps

Simple, flexible building designed to serve foreseen use or future uses 

Extensive use of locally sourced materials

Low embodied energy

Highly insulated with low-energy servicing