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Leaving room for artists in gentrifying London

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One local firm sees potential in leftover spaces

Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers. This month, London’s Alma-Nac has a plan for preserving artists’ spaces in a changing city.

There are three ways, according to London-based firm Alma-Nac, to safeguard the existence of artists and makers in gentrifying areas of large, growing cities.

The least sexy of tactics—which should be undertaken before anything else—is to be aware of existing resources. “You don’t want to introduce a scarcity by making something else redundant,” says Alma-Nac partner Chris Bryant. But this leads him to a more interventionist point: only seven percent of artist spaces, he explains, are purpose-built, meaning that the vast, vast majority of places where artists create work are ad-hoc, adapted to cheaper areas, mobile. What if, in the increasingly wealthy, increasingly gentrified neighborhoods of London, purpose-made artist and maker space was built into the growth, sprouting in tandem with development?

Waterloo, the London neighborhood where Alma-Nac has had offices since its inception six years ago, is a primary example of a once-artsy neighborhood that’s growing increasingly homogeneous. Even since opening up shop, Bryant has noticed a change: “Cranes are everywhere around us. Big glass office buildings, high-rise residential, all in a similar generic aesthetic. Programmatically, it’s pretty mundane.”

Which, he points out, runs contrary to a developer’s long-term goals. In order for a residential or office project to succeed in the long term, the neighborhood in which it exists must possess some lure for potential buyers. In London, Bryant says, “Each area has its own identity, which often has come out of local culture and art, so we need to make sure we maintain that and don’t just end up with homogeneous cities.”

Alma-Nac proposes—here, and in an exhibit and series of presentations in May at London’s Royal Academy—three intervention strategies to halt homogeneity and augment workspace for local artists. Bryant calls the first “urban dentistry: Identifying those small crevices and leftover spaces that no one thinks are usable.” Large developments or infrastructure projects often leave small pockets of leftover land that don’t appear viable; between 150 and 500 square feet, many are oddly-spaced or subject to strange restrictions. Here, Alma-Nac nestles a polycarbonate box, something between a pop-up and permanent space, alongside the Waterloo station under a rail bridge. A quick jag of a wooden staircase suddenly renders an awkward second-story space usable.

The second strategy revolves around engaging local authorities to find usable space within and around government-owned properties. “They still have lots of land and buildings,” Bryant explains, “but they also have long-term aspirations and have to take into account residents, not just what makes the most money. We identified lots of spaces that they had. There’s a lot of land here, a lot of power and a lot of collateral.” For Make Good Waterloo, Alma-Nac places a sprawling artist space above a council-owned library built from pre-fab cabins. As the only single-story building on a street of two- and three-story structures, it provides an obvious insertion point.

Though Alma-Nac’s final strategy may seem the most outlandish, it’s more intuitive than it might seem at first glance. At the design crits held at the Royal Academy this past spring, Bryant says, developers themselves were among the most willing to accept the need for artist-run space within gentrifying communities. As such, Alma-Nac suggests folding these spaces into new development plans. “Is there a way to introduce new policy that says that in any large building new built, one percent needs to be given to creative industries?” Bryant asks. He suggests an artist-in-residence program, classrooms, or studio space; precedent for the proposal exists in San Francisco’s Mexican Museum, designed by TEN Arquitectos on the first four floors of a 43-story residential development.

Idealistic, perhaps, but Alma-Nac’s strategies to leverage existing space don’t seem all that far-fetched. “You can test the viability of ideas and site and the appetite of people without taking huge swathes of land,” says Bryant.

The unifying requirement for each of these proposals is that the artist- and maker-dedicated space be visually distinct from whatever surrounds it, be that a train station, an administrative building, or a corporate development. “The facades of buildings should reflect their programme and activity to avoid us ending up with a homogeneous streetscape,” explains Bryant.

Combating uniformity is part of Alma-Nac’s plan, but there’s a second layer to the firm’s intent: to encourage movement and activity among London residents. Over 80 percent, Bryant says, of English people have sedentary jobs, as compared to 50 percent in the 1960s. “Our cities (or the buildings within) are lacking in joy and playfulness and feel oppressive, opaque despite all the glass, and controlling.” By offering, stitched into the urban fabric, space where non-exercise-based movement is the order of the day, Bryant and team hope to inspire a community with an increased awareness of well-being in both artistic and physical terms.