Nine Elms, in common with many districts transitioning from commercial to residential, has a culture issue. There isn't much of it around. So they've had to bring some in.
This week and next, culture is doing its thing in an old Royal Mail Centre off Nine Elms Lane amid a forest of highrise newbuild. Royal Mail don't need the building any more because they built a new delivery office two-thirds of a mile away, abandoning the more valuable site to turn a tidy profit. The empty shell has been available to hire for one-off events such as London Fashion Week catwalk shows, and has just flung open its doors to the general public for two weeks only.
I always get a kick out of wandering through a formerly-locked gate. This one's particularly exhilarating because it's bang opposite the security-obsessed American Embassy, and yet not only is it open but it's entirely unattended. Out front is the former drop-off zone, once packed with red trucks and vans, now empty apart from a few faded white stripes and yellow lines. Cross the expanse and wander through a small door into a massive space. [map]
Architecturally the building is nothing special. A large flat box with shutters across the front, a featureless ground floor with occasional fans for ventilation and (out of sight) a slew of first floor offices. I found a nice glass fronted staircase at the rear, but it wasn't accessible, so basically it's only worth being here for the culture.
This installation by Stan's Cafe uses grains of rice to bring formally abstract statistics to life. Each grain of rice equals one person, carefully weighed out, piled and labelled.
Here you can see Remain versus Leave, with 'Did Not Vote' the marginally smaller pile behind.
These are the populations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Elsewhere I found displays of people who've been to the Moon, the population of London over time, the extent of the historical slave trade, daily birth and death rates, the capacity of various football stadia and the number of inmates at Wandsworth prison. Several of the displays relate to Wandsworth, because that's the host borough. It's all highly illuminating. It makes you stop and think. It's often very witty.
On this occasion there isn't a pile in the room showing All The People In the World - they've only displayed that once, in 2005 when this roving installation was in Stuttgart. All the rice is washed and recycled at the end of the project, in case you were concerned.
This is a collection of life-size classic video games, but without using any video, instead rather more like a row of fairground stalls.
The Space Invaders game is like a coconut shy. Asteroids involves firing a foam rocket. Tetris requires fitting chucked shapes into a gapless pattern. Frogger has a mat with lorries on roads and logs in rivers, plus felt amphibians to balance on your head as you cross.
Several of the games require collaborative play. Whack has a larger hammer and human heads instead of moles. Kong includes actual ladders, but you crawl under them rather than climb. If you're Pac-Man you get to don a yellow ball and be chased around a small maze by four people wearing ghost wigs.
As you can imagine, this kind of stuff goes down really well at festivals. It also works best if you come in a small group, or compete against others, which on a Thursday afternoon just wasn't happening. Should this place get packed out at the weekend it's bound to be a lot more fun but you may have to wait a long time for a turn.
The Mail Centre Takeover is open this week and next, Wednesday to Sunday only. On weekdays it's open 2:30pm – 8:30pm, and at weekends 10am-6pm (but come between noon and four if you want to see both sides of the room in operation).
Miss this and there might be time for one more art installation here in the spring, but after that the whole building gets demolished and 1800 highrise homes emerge in its place. Best enjoy Nine Elms' burst of culture before it becomes another residential neighbourhood where historic things used to be.
You can find out about this kind of event in advance by following Ian Visits