Monthly Archives: January 2011

Florent: Queen of the Meat Market

I was kindly invited as a guest of a CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment [1-see below]) staff member to attend a lunchtime screening yesterday of independent film “Florent: Queen of the Meat Market”.  It documents the story of a neighbourhood restaurant in downtown New York City, it’s charismatic activist owner Florent Morellet, and its customers, staff, and supporters that formed its the community of open, creative, and inquisitive people.

Founded in 1985 in the meat-packing district of New York, when it was still very much a working market and industrial neighbourhood, Florent was keen to open his restaurant doors to anyone and everyone – it was to be a welcoming place of featuring good food, lively atmosphere, and a sense of place.  People would feel accepted (where in other places they might be turned away) – you could bring your kids, your granny, and your tranny here.  Florent grew it slowly and it became a hub for wholesome French bistro food as much as it was a hub for community activism.  Florent encourage people to use their imagination, make statements, vote, and campaign for important causes (he organised trips to Washington, DC in support of abortion and gay rights).

Fast forward 23 years to 2008 and the meat-packing district is trendy, now highly populated by residents as well as hotel guests, the glitterati, and tourist.  Florent’s landlord wants to increase the rent which would in turn cause Florent to double prices at the restaurant.  This film documents the positive attitude of community inclusion, tough decisions, emotion, and it is a poignant reminder to do what is important to you and your values and to have fun along the way.

The film I had the pleasure of watching is a personal copy of one of the CABE staff who studied urban planning with Florent Morellet and is a personal friend of his.  I hope the film will feature in more independent film festivals and events so that more people can hear this fascinating story.  Florent still has a holding page for the restaurant website, which also includes a gallery of interesting graphic design from the restaurant’s promotional material.

Here’s a trailer for the film, to give you a taste…

[1] Unfortunately, CABE is one of the quasi non-governmental agencies being cut by the government following the spending review towards the end of 2010. Programs and opportunities for sharing knowledge and learning like this screening will become less and less available.

How to Protect Empty Property

Squatters in empty property are not the problem. The problem is not putting empty properties to better use. Properties lie empty and are not being used effectively.

The opening paragraph of a guide produced by Property Week and Aviva, which advises on how property owners can protect themselves against squatters, suggests that “squatters can use unlet shops to sell knock-off gifts in the run-up to Christmas” and “even home in London’s Mayfair are not exempt, although the squatters there call themselves ‘artists’.

I question whether squatters are using empty shops to sell knock gifts, question why empty homes in Mayfair should be assumed to be “exempt” from squatting, and believe some squatters are validly artists.

There is no evidence given in the guide which supports the idea that squatters use unlet shops to sell fake products. I also wonder why anyone would go through the trouble and inconvenience of using an empty shop to do so. I wonder what reason there is that empty homes in Mayfair should be exempt from squatting. I do not understand why size or perceived “market value” should make any difference that an empty property is underused. And what evidence is there that the squatters of empty homes in Mayfair are not artists?

Two prominent collectives that have squatted high profile Central London buildings include the Temporary School of Thought and the Oubliette Arthouse.

The Temporary School of Thought occupied 39A Clarges Mews in January 2009. It provided “a weeklong Free School event in a pretty unusual location, put together by a group of artists and activists.” “The programme [ranged] from welding to bookbinding to the history of Situationism.”(1)  Dougald Hine, founder of Space Makers Agency and collaborator with the School of Everything did a talk about Ivan Illich and “De-schooling Society” and Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt, a cheap, simple, open source shelter that has been applied by emergency relief NGOs, gave a lecture on infrastructure (2). PSFK, an innovation and ideas agency, reported the Temporary School to be “dedicated to the admirable ideals of mutual learning and skill sharing rather than making money.”(3)

Londonist had this to say about the Temporary School:
“What do you do with five floors of long-abandoned Mayfair luxury, complete with hand painted Chinese wallpaper and a warren of servants’ quarters? Tidy the place up, for starters. Then launch your own school. In its first week of ephemeral existence, the Temporary School of Thought has run on a packed timetable of open events, covering subjects from cooking and dance to Polish history and traditional French book binding.”
Londonist went on to add, “over the course of the evening, students became teachers, and enough visitors signed on to lead workshops in their fields of expertise to carry the school forward for weeks to come.”(4)  Some great photos from Amanda Farah are here.

There is also the Oubliette Arthouse, which describes itself as “an itinerant autonomous arts group based in London, showcasing bold new work by squatting long-term empty properties.” The group develops “high quality events that showcase emerging artists and provide a platform for new work, have hosted visual, three-dimensional, performance and music based works as well as charity fund raising events.” Founded in April 2009, in a disused English language school in Waterloo, the group has occupied prominent buildings in Mayfair, W1, and SE1 in London. They are presently resident in a 1888-built former Welsh Presbyterian Church in Soho, which is better known for being a super-club called Limelight and most recently a Walkabout Pub. The building itself has been through significant change as demand for activities taking place inside it declined with changing times. Oubliette’s residency draws attention to the underuse of such large, historic buildings and rather than create problems or damage the property, they manage it and animate with new activities and experiences available to the public to enjoy.

There are many more empty buildings being put to use by creative groups, artists, thinkers, and squatters. The two I mention in this article drew attention due to the high-profile nature and Central London locations of the buildings they squatted.

In the guide, Simon Martell, business manager for Aviva’s property owner’s insurance team says “we’re faced with situations where the property owners don’t have the finance or the ability to put money into developing, renovating, or speculative lets. They won’t commit money if they think they are more likely to get better investment returns elsewhere.” Herein lies a problem. Property owners cannot develop the empty properties for the use they would like to see for the buildings. However, squatters, creative groups, social enterprises, and community organisations are not short of ideas for empty properties. So why the disconnect? Why not let a property be used by people who have a demand, need, or desire to do so? Just because the use is not the use intended by the owner, doesn’t mean it is not a valid use. In many cases, the outcomes and return are something other than a financial return to the owner – a social return to the occupiers, the wider community they reach and the general public. Why should this be a problem for property owners?

I would like to see an enlightened property industry think again about paying significant sums for security systems and instead be aware that creative, cultural, social enterprise, and community uses are an alternative for discovering a new life for a disused property and for protecting and managing properties to prevent their deterioration. Although this is unlikely to yield a financial return to an owner immediately, it may translate into new, longer-term, more sustainable solutions.

I welcome reactions and responses to the guide published by Property Week and Aviva, providing advice to property owners on how to protect empty property.

What 2011 Starts With

Happy New Year!  I had the chance to reflect over a couple of weeks around Christmas and New Years and am hoping that 2011 is a lot more focused and organised than the project-filled, experimental, seat-of-the-pants approach that characterised 2010.  A few projects which started in the last quarter of 2010 mark the rather busy and eventful start to 2011.  In between hunting down a more consistent source of income (which will probably be in the guise of full-time employment), here’s what’s in store:

Canning Town Meanwhile – in my capacity as a Space Makers associate and financial strategist, I’m working with an amazing team of architects, space hackers, designers, and creative folks to submit a proposal around the interim development of a site across from Canning Town station (Royal Docks Meanwhile Use – Property Week).  Before Christmas this was happening at the site:

Council housing was being cleared, to prepare the site for future development.  I went back to the site just last week (in the rain – so no photos!) and it’s levelled now.  Housing around the site still remain and could be there for another 4-5 years.

Access to Communities – I’ve been discussing and strategising around user-led development of residential property.  It’s gone under the name of co-housing or co-operative housing and incorporates other ideas of user-led design and charrettes.  I sat down with my collaborator yesterday and we designed the business model together.  It’s looking more like community building than property building.  More on this as it develops further.

Empty Properties for Employment – I set up Building Works before Christmas, with the intention of redeveloping disused and derelict homes, working with social firms which provided training and outreach for people experiencing long-term unemployment.  I had parked this for a while, whilst I tried to figure out the best way to find suitable empty properties to redevelop and a way of contacting private owners (working with the squatting community to identify properties and council’s private sector forums were two possibilities).  In my research I found out that if properties are really run down and uninhabitable, they fall off the council’s register as an empty home.  They fall off the council tax register and are picked up by some other part of the council.  Also, it seems as though some councils engage with private sector landlords in their borough and some don’t.  The search continues!