View Point – Tim Burgess of CoveBurgess Architects

Tim Burgess of CoveBurgess Architects says that grass-roots answers are needed to the problem of practices finding it harder be located in London’s rich diversity.

Our modern cities are the current embodiment of humans’ desire to gather into groupings that offer them greater protection and support than they would have on their own. The heady mix of overlapping cultures and activities present in cities make them a fabulous environment for creativity. At the dawn of the internet era we were presented with the idea that we could ’work from anywhere’. But we didn’t – instead our cities absorbed and integrated technology into its fabric, and we remained. We go where our tribe is, as communal creatures we thrive in a collective, rather than in isolation.

Architects and designers in particular work well in this environment. It is the bedrock of our culture of collaboration and appropriation. We are magpies who thrive on the diversity and richness of cities. Historically architects and design practices have sought ‘light industrial’ spaces, where the primary requirements for drawing boards and layout space was ample room and natural light. And of course, it had to be affordable. This was made particularly acute by the greater amount of space required by creatives, relative to desk workers. Unlike artists and makers who tend to work in isolation, they run service-led businesses that also rely on proximity to their clients. In a cultural milieu that increasingly values collaboration, making yourself less accessible is plain daft.

But here’s the rub – culture creates value, but rising land values and rents threaten to drive out the very activities that created the culture. As with the story of the goose who laid the golden eggs, if you want to keep getting the eggs you have to look after the goose! And to take the bird analogy a step further, because creatives need larger spaces than other service industries, they become the ‘canaries in the mine shaft’ – the first to be asphyxiated by rising rents. This scenario is felt most profoundly in those parts of London that were once the ‘rough edges’, and that are now well and truly located in the mainstream.

Areas like Camden and Hackney provided the type of space that was ideal for creatives; clusters of small-floorplate warehouses that created vibrant daytime neighbourhoods. These have largely been lost to the twin-pronged attack of conversion to ‘hip’ residential living or replacement by large-floorplate, bland commercial space.

There are parts of the city where enlightened land owners (notably the great London Estates) who actively manage their letting, take seriously their role of ‘curators’ – organising the pieces to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. They choose to take lower rents to get the right occupants that create the character and atmosphere, that benefits the whole.

Cities don’t have curators. In Jane Jacobs’ book ‘Life and Death of American Cities’ the author rails against the destruction of her beloved New York in the 1960s by the top-down planning approach of the city officials. She eloquently argued for a neighbourhood-led view of cities, and revealed that top-down city planning is a blunt instrument that kills every patient it tries to cure.

Nurturing the roots

We believe that any viable solution has to be from grass-roots up, and in our case, address the question: “How do you create affordable, flexible space in central London?” Our response comes in three parts: firstly, height – sites need to work hard, with a high enough ratio of studio space per square foot of land. Secondly, simplicity – the fabric has to be ‘no-frills’; buildings serviced locally on a floor-by floor basis, avoiding space-hungry risers and the unnecessary complexity of a BMS, and have openable windows. Lastly, be sustainable – warehouses of the past were straightforward, simply built with available material and adapted over time. The majority of the fabric of buildings should be off-site timber construction technology, minimising waste and environmental footprint.

Our own ‘grass roots’ solution for our neighbourhood of London Bridge is the ‘Vertical Village’ – a quarter of million square feet’s worth of individual studios clustered and stacked around two cores. It’s the antidote to the corporate slickness of the Shard; the contemporary equivalent of lost warehouse spaces. Flexible workspaces with ample light, high ceilings, and no frills, in the middle of town.

At the ground level, a new public square with kiosk, gardens and bike parking. Above, an inclusive architecture that expresses the flexible, open and communal nature of future workplaces. These hark back to the clustered bunches of warehouses gathered around cores and punctuated by gardens. It’s sustainable, carbon-neutral construction – including rainwater harvesting and a rooftop food farm, as well as data-driven M&E systems that learn and adapt to occupants’ needs.