Intelligence: 25 May 2017Meanwhile: from Anarchy to Art?

In recent years, meanwhile spaces have moved on from the anarchic, opportunistic, ‘take over’ approaches seen in the 90’s and 00’s, to become planned and even developer-led programmes. But what lies behind their growing success? How can they contribute to developing a place’s identity and can they be successfully applied across development types and locations?

As a Practice we are consistently challenged with delivering a strong sense of place in development, driving the integration of arts and culture and ensuring this goes beyond the architecture and surrounding landscape. We therefore invited some of the sector’s leading practitioners to talk us through some of their experiences and debate the intent and purpose of meanwhile.

Elephant & Castle is one of the best connected sites in London, with an impressive history and many hidden gems, but it was not a destination. Charlie Fulford of Stow Projects and Norman Murray have worked for the last three years on delivering ‘Artworks Elephant’, a temporary arts, business and leisure space, within shipping containers on the Lend Lease and Southwark Council site.

“We deliver a toolbox of art,” says Norman. “We make the spaces and people come along to be part of it, and the more spaces we provide the more interest we build. The Elephant was not previously a destination, in the grand scheme of London, but now it is for a completely new reason. A reason which builds on what was already there but also creates constant change, intrigue and uniqueness.”

“Meanwhile uses offer us all a great opportunity for incubation of artistic talent,” Charlie adds. “Ideas can incubate and evolve, artists and creative people in the area can be nurtured and supported. As a temporary space, things can constantly change, some things stick, some things don’t, but that frees people up a bit and gives the investor or curator a real opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t.”

At The Collective, their focus for meanwhile uses is slightly different. “Local businesses thriving is ideal for our development model,” says Nick Harrison their Land Buyer. “Our target market are often young, with an entrepreneurial spirit, so providing space for start-ups within our schemes supports the establishment of a business community, while also enabling us to offer uniqueness. We provide temporary low cost space, so these entrepreneurs can be supported and thrive, but also so hopefully they can grow and move on, but ideally wish to remain within the community we are developing. This approach works as companies grow, build a following and they stick with it. All the occupants are aware that the site will get redeveloped, so the developer needs to box very clever to retain this precious commodity.”

So how do you know you are providing the right product in your meanwhile space?

Andy Robinson works for Future City, a placemaking agency who work with developer teams and creatives to create cultural strategy, broker cultural partnerships and deliver major art projects. As such they understand the importance of a strong brief. “From the outset you must have a strong vision and process when commissioning artistic involvement. Any activity proposed must respond to local cultural needs, enhance cultural heritage and must stay true to the ambitions of the place being created. What I find amazing about this process is that people will often quickly form an opinion or an expectation as to what is possible or ‘affordable’, so it is great if any response we initiate can challenge and surprise.”

Clearly to understand what is ‘needed’, engaging with the existing community is a crucial stage to ensure the proposals build on existing qualities and opportunities, and provide a narrative for the artist to feed off. Also, as with any engagement, consultation builds ownership, which is vital for long term success.

“To be honest this process is much like that undertaken in engagement exercises for all aspects of the development process,” says Andy. “At a pre-planning stage though, artists can really help with getting under the skin of a community and understanding where the gaps are.

Engagement has to be a genuineoffer of conversation with the community, but we have found that through working from the bottom up, there are some very interesting professionals, often in the community, who want to engage and have a completely different perspective.”

Ashley Kensington is the Land Director at St William Homes, the Berkeley/National Grid partnership delivering developments across London and the South East. As such, she is delivering meanwhile spaces, as well as arts and culture across a number of schemes in the pipeline. “From an engagement perspective I think the process is very similar to what we already undertake on all our schemes, but we have found that you can be a victim of your own success. On one of our schemes we have developed such strong support for the meanwhile spaces and such a strong sense of community, that there is now a lobby group to retain them, despite the development plans which have always been in place. This is a difficulty to overcome, but in many ways, as Nick alluded, it is a really great start for any development to have such an active and engaged community willing a scheme to succeed, and wanting to be involved.”

So in the panel’s opinion, is the cultural strategic approach they have employed, applicable outside of London?

The reality of the panel is that all are working mostly on London projects. This is where the specialists are located and where the largest number of standout, celebrated meanwhile uses lie. But as Norman points out, we need to have a broad view of what meanwhile is. “It can be such a broad range of activities and places, it’s not all about funky music and ‘street’ clothing outlets. On a far smaller scale than Elephant, I ran a project on the South Coast, where the resident community had a high degree of elderly people, 70years+. When discussing meanwhile spaces with them, they weren’t interested in trendy retail outlets, but we did quickly identify a need for somewhere for them to host dances. These people were part of the solution, we gave them a role as a producer as well as a user.”

“Artists can work well to help to creatively unlock this,” added Andy, “working on a micro level and placed within any community to understand their specific challenges and opportunities and come up with unusual solutions.”

“My main tip would be to keep it simple,” adds Charlie, “be that in any location.” “Meanwhile needs to be scaled up and down again very rapidly. Lots of uses need minimal infrastructure, that’s the beauty of them, so this mustn’t be seen as a barrier. But if it’s not kept simple it can quickly become expensive to run and operate. The developer/operator needs to be fleet of foot, and ready to change things at the drop of a hat.”

Understanding the value of cultural capital and being able to clearly understand the return on investment is obviously a key challenge all on the panel identify with. “Funding is still the major barrier from our perspective” says Nick. “When seeking to support local start-ups and entrepreneurs you need to have the wriggle room to offer lower rents and opportunities, but when there is no support or drive for this at Local Authority level we are not operating on a level playing field when purchasing sites.” Charlie agrees with this sentiment, adding “If councils say it is a prerequisite. Start-ups are a risky world and it is all too easy for developers to go with the comfortable option of larger, chain operators.”

Understanding the management challenge is also a tough one from the outset” says Norman. “To manage a meanwhile space you do need a very different mind-set to traditional developers or even space management specialists. It’s intense, and you need dynamic, determined enthusiasts to make it work.”

Many thanks to all our panellists for their candid views and participation in this debate. If you are seeking to differentiate your development, or considering incorporating meanwhile uses within a project, do look out for more coverage on this topic from Barton Willmore in coming months as we seek to drive understanding and interest around this exciting field of development emerging across the UK.

This article was originally published in Update Magazine. 

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Meanwhile Spaces, Public Realm