Empty sites and redundant buildings can be colonised for all kinds of creative purposes, says Amanda Levete. It just needs a little imagination on the part of government to get them going
One of the interesting by-products of the credit crunch is an abnormal number of empty sites. This is in large part owing to projects being pulled or put on hold, waiting for that magic moment when the cycle will start again. Changes to the way in which rateable values are assessed means it makes sense for building owners to demolish redundant buildings. There are two ways to look at this. One is to see it as an opportunity.
An empty site offers huge potential to reach a greater number of people, something a building project might not otherwise do. Okay, let owners pull down buildings, but give them incentives to use the site creatively, perhaps in the form of accelerated planning.
What could these sites be used for? Green space is a bit obvious but always welcome. Tennis courts, football pitches, places for extreme sports, a farmers’ market, an outdoor cinema showing a special season. Or take it up a level. There are lots of organisations out there wanting to showcase products in edgy unknown venues, create alternative trade fairs, make installations happen … And then there are any number of sophisticated temporary modular building systems that can be hired and erected overnight to house any number of functions. I even looked into this for my own office, to create a counter-intuitive site cabin space in the middle of a car park.
But for this kind of initiative to work we need a network that puts owners and developers in touch with people who are looking for spaces. Everyone would gain. The building owner gets planning benefits, and possibly some income, the community gets an amenity and the council gets credibility for breathing life into unused spaces.
If incentives were there to promote a different way of thinking about empty buildings, then maybe we’d have more hybrid, unpredictable events that spawn their own culture
The other way to look at it is to provide incentives for not demolishing the redundant building, because you can apply the same logic backwards and offer a deal to owners who can demonstrate that a creative use is being made out of temporary redundancy.
There are examples of interesting things happening in redundant buildings now. For example, the Double Club is a half-Congolese, half-European temporary restaurant, night club and bar sponsored by Prada, designed by the artist Carsten Höller, run by Mourad Mazouz of Sketch and Momo fame and sited in a nondescript building behind Angel tube. The half-and-half theme extends to the menu, the design of the restaurant, the bar and even the dance floor, which comes with two DJ’s, one African the other European. Profits go to the Congo. You see, if incentives were there to promote a different way of thinking about empty buildings, then maybe we’d have more of these hybrid, unpredictable events that spawn their own culture and kickstart regeneration – and regeneration is surely what we need now.
We designed our way into this crisis (well, some people did) and so we have to design our way out of it, too. Interestingly, Barack Obama, the man who made America loveable again, (well, him and The Wire, the incredible HBO series about Baltimore) has just announced a plan to rebuild America’s bridges, schools and hospitals. As in the Great Depression, the plan is to build the country back into prosperity. So clever, so incisive and so visible. And because it is being planned on such a gargantuan scale, in contrast to Britain’s trickledown approach, the political impact is entirely positive.
I know a lot of people are hurting, and construction feels it more than most, but there are things we can do. We can take a sideways look at what we can’t do right now and turn it into a positive. We can revisit projects and see how with clever thinking and design we can turn a project about to be pulled into a more interesting one. And rather than obsessing about preserving buildings, perhaps we should focus on the value of temporary structures – a return to the pop-up architecture of the sixties … but this time we have the technology to support it.
Amanda Levete is director of Future Systems