December 2010

Space Makers: The story so far

In early 2009, a group of us started meeting regularly to talk about the spaces in which we live, work and play.

We were interested in the ways we saw them changing, in how we create sociable spaces that aren’t dominated by corporate agendas, how we make better use of empty or underused space and find opportunities in the gaps within our towns and cities.

It was an interesting time to be having these conversations. Woolworths had just gone bust, its empty stores highlighting a crisis of Britain’s high streets which had started long before the recession. Artists and makers were switching on to the idea of “slack space” — and people like the Empty Shops Network’s Dan Thompson went from crying in the wilderness to being besieged by calls. The newspapers were full of stories about pop-​up shops, while a new generation of squatters were stirring debates about which is worse: empty buildings being left to rot, or people breaking in and making use of them?

After a couple of months, we set up a website to keep in touch and share information in between meetups. We called it the Space Makers Network. By May 2009, it had grown from the original London group to several hundred people around the UK connecting to talk about empty spaces, co-​working projects, pop-​up shops and other imaginative ways of reusing space.

At this point, we started to get emails from local authorities and businesses looking for an organisation they could work with which understood this new way of doing things. They could see that something was going on, but they couldn’t quite understand it. So we found ourselves talking to them about this spirit of DIY regeneration, improvising and hacking together spaces that work out of the situations we find ourselves in, rather than conjuring up utopian architectural visions.

And that was how Space Makers Agency came about. The idea was to have a counterpart to the Network, able to work with local authorities, property owners and anyone who was interested in funding new ways of making spaces work.

The agency launched in September 2009 and six weeks later we announced our first hands-​on project at a 1930s indoor market in south London known as Brixton Village or Granville Arcade. Lambeth council had introduced us to the market’s owners, who agreed to fund us to fill twenty empty shops through a competition for temporary creative projects and new local businesses.

It’s a big leap from hosting conversations and developing ideas to putting them into practice. We were learning as we went along, making mistakes and succeeding by accident, but by spring 2010 it was clear that something was working at Brixton Village. Over the year that we worked there, over a thousand people got involved in one way or another in creating pop-​up shops, launching new businesses, organising events, performing or running workshops — and the spirit of the project captured the imagination of thousands of visitors, not to mention newspapers, magazines and TV channels around the world.

By the time we moved on from Brixton Village, one year on, all twenty shops were let to long-​term tenants — new local independent businesses, many of which had come through our original competition. A new community arts hub, The Brick Box, secured funding from Lambeth First to continue and expand the rolling festival of events and workshops which we had kicked off.

Brixton Village dominated our first year as an agency, but it wasn’t the only project we were working on. In early 2010, we collaborated with RIBA London on Forgotten Spaces, a design competition to reimagine overlooked or undervalued pieces of public space around the city. We created a website where people could get involved in Mapping Forgotten Spaces and ran a series of face-​to-​face workshops on Remembering Spaces, encouraging architects and designers to think about the stories, memories and relationships people already have to spaces which might appear to be “forgotten”.

Having said goodbye to our friends at Brixton Village, late 2010 has been a time for gathering our thoughts and working out what we want to do next. Here’s where we’ve got to so far:

  • We see ourselves as an innovation agency — always trying new things, developing new ways of working, rather than becoming specialists at implementing one particular model.
  • Our focus is the spaces in which we live, work and play — and the ways in which these are changing.
  • Our work is to host conversations, explore ideas, test those ideas through hands-​on projects and share what we learn.
  • We want everything we do to be enjoyable for its own sake, not just as a means to an end.

We are still a small organisation with no core funding, but a wealth of skills, experience and networks. From that base, we are reaching out and beginning conversations about new projects around London and beyond.

And the next phase starts this week — just down the road from Brixton in West Norwood, this Wednesday night, where we’ll be launching our newest project. Come along and join us — or look out for more information on this site very soon.

If you want to talk to us about how Space Makers could work with your organisation, please get in touch.