Just off a main road in the south London neighborhood of Catford, a giant black-and-white feline statue is perched above the sidewalk. More than a story tall, it’s been sitting on a sign for the Catford Centre shopping mall since it opened in 1974. With one paw outstretched, the cat appears to be beckoning shoppers to duck off the main road and give the shops a look.
The cat is a cheeky bit of urban advertising that has survived several threats of demolition and gradually turned into a landmark. “It’s become an icon for people,” says Taro Tsuruta, an architect who has designed a new apartment building in the neighborhood. For Tsuruta, the cat symbolizes the sometimes unexpected ways that neighborhood narratives change over time. That idea ended up guiding his design.
When he was commissioned by the local district council to design a series of apartments for a neighborhood-regeneration project, Tsuruta decided to embrace the Catford cat’s unlikely stardom. The five apartments he designed on top of and behind an existing retail building are accented with more than 27,000 cat faces that are laser-etched into the interiors and exteriors of the building. Small, and mostly unobtrusive, the simple outlines adorn cabinets, stairway grates, and door handles, pushing the neighborhood’s cat connection to the extreme. Completed in June, the apartments are now part of Lewisham council’s rental housing stock.
But Tsuruta’s design is more than just a play on the neighborhood name. In collaboration with writer Chris Robert, Tsuruta developed a fictional narrative for the apartment building, connecting it with the neighborhood’s history and, loosely, the “cat” in Catford.
The backstory Tsuruta and Robert created revolves around two fictional actors, Kathrine Ford (a play on Catford) and Raven Bjorn (a reference to the nearby Ravensbourne River). The story is that they lived in the building on this site in the early 1900s, back when Catford was home to Windsor Film Studios, a silent film production house that actually did exist in the neighborhood from 1914 to 1921. The narrative tracks their divergent acting careers, moving from the local film studio to the stages of London and film sets of Hollywood, but always retaining a link to the neighborhood, where the history of its film studio days has faded. “Nobody really knows about that,” Tsurata says. Instead, most people know about the giant fiberglass Catford cat, an “object that doesn’t have a history,” Tsuruta says. “We’re proposing the opposite. We’re putting in small cats, with a narrative and a history.”
To embed the story in the neighborhood, Tsuruta commissioned two official-looking blue plaques to mark the building as the former home of Ford and Bjorn, mimicking the style of historical markers around London.
Tsuruta says this kind of storytelling is important for regeneration projects. He says Catford has suffered from a stigma about crime and drug dealing, and he was wary of simply adding a new building without trying to reshape how it’s seen, by locals and outsiders alike. “Regeneration projects, new projects always layer over something old with the new, and they erase the past,” he says. “In our case, we’re bringing in this past when we built the new building.”
Story adds value to a place, Tsuruta says. “Factual events are okay, but without a story, factual events don’t really create anything.”
He’s hoping the plaques, the backstory, and the abundance of cats on the new apartments will provide a new story for the neighborhood. “It’s something for people to say about Catford again, rather than just the giant cat, and being a dodgy place,” he says. “We wanted to have something that somebody can use to start a conversation. If somebody can say there used to be a film studio here, then I’m very happy.”