We hear the word revitalisation a lot these days. It seems you can’t just renovate something without culturally revitalising the precinct. But unfortunately, a lot of these projects get it wrong. Culture never moves in. It needs a combination of factors to allow it grow and adapt.
Just take a look at the most recent development of Barangaroo in Sydney. It’s a gorgeous repurposing of land that opens it up to the public and offers views of the harbour not seen before. It uses sandstone extensively to connect to the natural landscape, and the enormous Cutaway space with which to display art exhibitions, music, and food events is as impressive as it was ambitious. However, you’d be hard-pressed to agree that after a walk around the park on a Saturday afternoon, that this redevelopment could be classed as a cultural centre.
It’s an example of a classic error of causation. Places like Barangaroo rely on the Richard Florida thesis; that creating a desirable place for something to inhibit will cause that thing to move straight in. The argument is that enough suitable venues, or enough cultural areas will cause culture to occupy it. But when you examine the places where notable creative hubs have sprung up, you find something quite different to be true. It’s not creating places for creativity to inhibit that inspires: rather it’s a totally different set of circumstances that encourages artistic expression to grow in a location.
To uncover these circumstances, we’ll look at a few buildings in the Trans Europe Halles, the organisation for cultural spaces within Europe. With 80 members across the continent, it’s one of the most comprehensive collections of cultural spaces in the world, which makes it perfect for examining what exactly makes these places important hubs of activity.
“(Take) Stanica Žilina-Záriečie, built from 3,000 beer crates.”
Members include ufaFabrik, in Berlin, an old Nazi propaganda factory that instead of being knocked down in the post Berlin Wall frenzy, was repurposed into a venue for theatre, concerts, literature and minor arts. Or Village Underground, an emblem of creative re-envisioning of the urban environment. It was created by placing shipping containers on sections of pillars left over from a bridge demolition. Or Stanica Žilina-Záriečie, built from 3,000 beer crates. Or A38, the floating ship in Budapest that now hosts live music and restaurants.
So what common threads run between these places? First, there is an unquestionable attraction to old, industrial premises. Indeed, one of the criteria for membership of the Trans Europe Halles is that buildings should preferably “originate from a commercial or industrial heritage.” These buildings represent a past of industrial heritage, of working community united by production. Perhaps there’s an integrity and honesty in working in a place with a history of labour. Perhaps it’s the brutal beauty of the industrial space. Maybe it’s the liberating sense that one is simply continuing the work that’s already occurred in the building. Whatever the explanation, the link between historical buildings and cultural spaces is undeniable.
It also needs to be cheap. This is obvious – young artists are not, and have not ever been the wealthiest of renters. It has to be affordable to own and live in. This low price works both ways – young artists can afford it as it’s inexpensive and undesirable, and the owners of the space are happy for the artists in residence to alter and change it to their liking to increase the property’s value.
“Raw tended to mean industrial spaces with cracked walls, leaky roofs, clumps of rubbish and uneven flooring…”
Thirdly, it has to have flexibility to be changed and altered depending upon need. The space needs to be able to adapt to the purpose it can be envisioned for. You only need to look at Melkweg in Amsterdam to see how this looks. Over 20 years, it gradually changed with the social climate. First, in the 70’s, it hosted a one off, two-month event. After that, they closed for a week, then dedicated four weeks to a performance about death. From 1972 to 2000, the space slowly grew by annexing old space and building new halls. Only in 2000 was an entire renovation completed. Now, Melkweg has played host to Prince, Dekmantel by Night and a host of other events including theatre, cinema and exhibitions. How? It evolved in step with both the owner’s vision and the social climate of the city.
All these elements came together in the most famous creative district in the modern era – SoHo. As recounted in “SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artist’s Colony”, by Richard Kostelanetz, a petition by the Artist’s Tenants Association led to the permission for artists to reside in old buildings not earmarked for residential living. The rent was extremely cheap and the artists could inherit a “raw” space that they could make habitable. While raw tended to mean industrial spaces with cracked walls, leaky roofs, clumps of rubbish and uneven flooring, the allure of hardwood floors and large workspaces led artists to move there in droves. The landlords were happy to greet artists, as they thought they would be “good with their hands” and so be able to clean and improve the property. They were right. Within fifteen years the district had become one of the world’s art centres, prompted by a winning combination of the right circumstances.
It’s clear that building an isolated, large cultural residence presumes a flawed understanding of what causes culture. Cultural centres aren’t built – they’re formed organically as a result of several intersecting factors that allow artistic freedom to grow. Cheap rent, freedom to change and alter a space and a building with history or intrinsic meaning are the vital factors in nurturing a real cultural centre. Barangaroo, and other revitalised public centres are beautiful and useful, but let’s not pretend they’re something they’re not.