On the 30th november I hosted a public walk through some of the warehouses in Hackney Wick and Fish Island which have been converted into shared collective live-work studios. The walk focussed on the self-built for affordability aspect of these spaces. The walk went through a large self built studio complex, a shared live-work cabaret performance space and finally a live-work studio used for the production of props.
Below is a text written by Tom James who came along for the walk:
Something is happening in Hackney Wick.
This probably isn’t news to anyone in East London. But, for the outsider, arriving at the overground, it’s a little confusing. Get off the train at this functional, bare, halt of a station on London’s edge, and you’re surrounded by young people, many in the cutting edge fancy-dress that seems to come with being an artist. Yet when you walk down the ramp, into Hackney Wick itself, there’s no obvious reason for these people to be here: no galleries, no trendy studio complexes, few bars, no offices, hardly any flats or houses. Just lots of beautiful factories.
The answer, of course, lies inside these buildings. Many have been repurposed, by groups of the same young people, into cheap space, where they can live and work, producing what they want. These communities are self-funded, private, informal. And, from the outside at least, they’re a mystery.
Thus I found myself waiting, on a November afternoon, with a group of 20 other architects, planners, artists and cultural by-standers, for a tour, in an attempt to find out more. The event was organised by Richard Brown, a local artist who lives in one of these spaces, and who has produced a report documenting how they work, and why they exist. The tour promised to shed light on this phenomenon, providing an insight into what has driven these young people to create, on their own terms, a thriving creative community, with more studio space than Dalston.
We were taken into three factories. Each time, walking through unassuming courtyards, we found ourselves in soaring spaces, with cliffs of roughly built mezzanines, bedrooms and studios stacked up the sides. Each space was divided into work areas (studios, with heavier, messier occupations on the ground floors, and lighter, digital users above) and living areas (bedrooms, perhaps a communal living room, a single, fought over bathroom at the back), connected by a warren of creaking wooden stairs and passageways.
The factories were full of people, work, activity. We were introduced to metalworkers, potters, scrap-builders, on the ground floors, spilling out into the courtyards. Above them were photographers, artists, actors, tailors, stuntmen, professional clowns, and other London-only occupations. A roll-call of the ambitious, young and under-paid, all of whom made the point that these spaces made it possible to do what they do: they wouldn’t be able to afford a separate studio space otherwise.
Architecturally, these buildings are inspiring. The landlord, we were told, would normally provide the bare minimum: a bathroom between the five, six, seven residents, a kitchen, and some partition walls. Beyond this, most of the space was self-built. We saw rooms made of plywood, plasterboard, with a multitude of reclaimed windows looking into the central space. We saw communal sitting rooms perched on mezzanines, that turn into viewing areas for the cabaret. These spaces take on a beautiful, simple, vernacular feel: human architecture at its best. Questions were raised about buildings standards, and RSJs, and whether these shanty mezzanines were safe. Most of the time, though, the builder was an architect, or a carpenter, or knew someone who was: we were assured that the spaces were structurally sound.
The social arrangements were equally interesting: how decisions were made on allotting space, or how much it cost, or getting new people in to replace outgoing residents. These spaces aren’t finished: they’re negotiated and renegotiated every day. Sometimes you’ll have to eat your breakfast next to a Cabaret rehearsal. Sometime there’ll be a performance on a Saturday night. Mostly, this seemed to be seen in a positive light: a vibrant atmosphere, a chance to share skills and equipment with people literally next door.
Compromise is also apparent, though. There’s little natural light in the rooms. Self-built architecture tends to be un-sound-proofed. We heard a lot about the informal rules that govern each space: ‘we try to keep quiet after 10’ in one; ‘I’m aware that if I’m kept awake one day, I’m just as likely to be the one making noise another time’ in others. One group told us how they buy ear-plugs in bulk. This might also explain the age-range of the people we met: all mid-20s to early 30s. Once people start wanting babies, and gardens, and space, and good local primaries, the live/work lifestyle might get too much.
Perhaps most interesting, though, was the precarious nature of these spaces. None of this appears to be ‘allowed’, or regulated, or planned. Live-workers pay business rates, not council tax, meaning these people don’t have the vote. We heard how the landlords are mainly invisible, and often quite difficult to track down. We learnt what happens when these spaces do come into contact with public authorities: how an accidental visit by the fire-brigade ended up in one set of self-built rooms being demolished the next day, after they were deemed unsafe.
But the biggest risk is development. These artists, creatives have pretty much built these spaces from scratch, taken risks, taken the spaces on. They’ve made Hackney Wick ‘happen’ themselves. But without owning the buildings, or the land, they’re defenseless against money, against rent hikes, against speculation. And soon they, worry, they’ll have to move on.
This anxiety underlined all of these spaces, and the tour itself. Indeed, Richard has actually been told not to do this work, to produce this report, in case the exposure attracts this sort of attention. Hackney Wick seems to be perfect right now. It’s empty, quiet, peaceful. There’s still space for artists. But the artists themselves make the area incredibly desirable. Other people want this aesthetic, these old factories, without doing it themselves. And they’re willing to pay.
This brings up some interesting questions. Will artists always be the foot-soldiers of gentrification? Sent in first to clear the way for art-dealers, and then for architects and advertisers, and then finally for city boys and stock-brokers? Is that an immutable law of regeneration, like gravity? Will London keep getting richer forever, as the panicked Euros and Dirhams and Dollars pour in? Will the artists end up with the cleaners and the teachers and the firemen, living in Dagenham, then Luton, then Reading? Will there be live-work communities in Slough?
Or can this process be stopped? Can the artists in these spaces come together to stop it? Form trusts, co-ops, buy the land? Could they even build simple, cheap, new-build sheds, to sub-divide into live-work space for a new generation? Or would formality, health and safety, committees, rules, minutes-of-the-previous meeting prove too restrictive to this culture? Do artists, if they’re honest, enjoy the chase of regeneration? Is there something glamorous about occupying the cracks?
The great strength of Richard’s report, and this tour, is that it brings both this way of living and these questions into the open, where they’d never normally be seen. It helps us see what’s been created, and to talk about whether it’s worth saving. And, at the very least, it might help us be aware of what we stand to lose once Hackney Wick ‘happens’.
– About me
Tom James is a writer and civic dreamer, based in Sheffield, where he runs an imaginary tourist board for the ugly, lovely town (the Sheffield Publicity Department). He’s also a member of the Space Makers collective, and a founder of the GO fanzines.