This year’s London Festival of Architecture has a very distinct ‘new ways of working’ theme, discussing ideas about ‘third space’ and changing working environments as more people are moving away from the traditional ‘office’ and are looking for other ways to work.
Fitting within this theme, The Museum of Architecture hosted a series of discussions about community engagement following the growth of the ‘pop up’ business and the use of temporary space and vacant buildings enabling entrepreneurs and small businesses to test their ideas without the often-debilitating long-term leases and contracts. Although the impact on local community is very much the remit of the majority of panel invited to this debate; Emily Berwyn from Meanwhile Space specialises in appropriating empty buildings for local community use, Simon Pitkeathley from Camden Town Unlimited in fighting to change the local landscape in Camden by making spaces more accessible and Carl Turner who’s architectural practice has had to adapt considerably to specific local and community needs when they won the tender to build Brixton Pop, the discussion wasn’t so much about community engagement but much more focused on the merit of temporary space for entrepreneurs and the changing role of architects within this new environment.
Ross Bailey, founder of Appear Hear explained how his website enabled new and more established businesses to access prime location units to test out their ideas, creating an unprecedented fast turnover from idea-to-action. This model allows businesses to pay week-by-week in otherwise inaccessible locations without the chain of middlemen traditionally needed to access property. Everyone agreed that that the current system protecting landlords and empty properties needs to change and if Appear Hear are shaking up that process, then that can only be positive. However, it was clear that Appear Hear is a business model with a strong emphasis on the current retail and consumer trend for the new and ephemeral rather than community building. Meanwhile Space, as Emily explained is more focused on how empty buildings in often more marginal areas, can be used to create community hubs as well as nurture new businesses. This balance of sustainable retail and community building was one of the main challenges faced by Carl Turner when building Pop Brixton. Their main challenge being, how to make the space sustainable on a short-term three-year lease provided for the land by Lambeth council. He explained how important it was fit into the Brixton landscape and emphasised the direct impact their mini container-ville has already had on local retail and community, essentially creating an injection of new energy inspiring them to up their game.
Turner admitted that his role as an architect and indeed the role of his practice had to adapt considerable to the demands of the tender by Lambeth council. This led to a discussion about the redefinition architects as not just designers of beautiful shiny buildings, but place-makers and potentially community builders through the spaces they create, a concept that has perhaps been forgotten in recent years.
It can’t be denied that vacant land and empty buildings create desolate and unhealthy neighbourhoods and it is far better to generate activity and a encourage economic growth from these spaces, however the concern is that these initiatives are also contributing to an obsession with the new and the temporary, where it is increasingly difficult to grow roots or allow time for growth. As a society we are already struggling with shorter attention spans, increasingly nomadic lifestyles and ephemeral relationships, so perhaps we also need to also think about what impact these uses of temporary spaces have on the long-term landscape.
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