Although Artists may not care about the places they live in any more than other people their priorities are different. When we moved to the East End in the late 70’s, hundreds of other artists were doing the same thing. We went because it was cheap, and because you could rent studio space in deserted warehouses from SPACE and Acme, charities formed in the ’60’s, who managed short life and longer term tenancies for artists. It was recognised that artists needed more space per capita than other industries and had low income. At the same time that we were moving in, the resident East Enders who could afford it were moving further out. If there were two hundred houses on the ten minute walk between our house and Mile End, a hundred and fifty of them were boarded up with corrugated iron. Our house was one of several owned by a private landlord who was happy to part with it for £4,250; no mortgage company would lend on a derelict house at that time or give a mortgage to people who had no regular income, and no-one wanted to rent housing in the East End. We were to be the first owner-occupiers since it was built in 1852 and we had a gutter from the roof to our kitchen sink, a bath in the kitchen and an outside loo- but it was ours and we lived and worked there while we slowly renovated it. You could easily spot the incomers in their army surplus clothing on their second hand bicycles- we called them P.L.U.’s – People Like Us.
Our unaffordable dream was to live and work in a warehouse. I had grown up in Cornwall where a second or third generation of artists had arrived in the 1950’s. Most of them had studios in warehouses that had been built as fishing lofts, only one pair of artists that I knew risked living in it, it was against the rules, the town didn’t like it, and they didn’t have a family. As a child I remember how romantic it was and how glamorous it seemed, with big salt splashed windows level with the sea that seemed only yards away. The second image in my dream of loft living is Rita Tushingham’s light industrial space in ‘A Taste of Honey’ in 1961, where she momentarily escapes the conformity of her working class home to have the baby of a black sailor. She makes a temporary home there with the help of her new gay friend, Geoff, an art student; they are social escapees.
In 1978 we were living temporarily in New York where artists and like minded people had started to live illegally in light industrial loft buildings on Manhattan. These people wanted to live and work centrally in the city, there was a shortage of residential properties and a glut of empty lofts. The way of life that was to be formalised as Live/Work had arrived.
It is well documented how Live/Work regenerates inner cities and builds strong communities. People are there all the time and get to know one another. It is especially suitable for the Creative Industries who generally need more space to work in and less to live in. Guidance from the planning department of The London Borough of Tower Hamlets a 60×40% split. Despite community advantages, 50 years later Live/Work is on the way out. The Work element has proved impossible to preserve from residential migration and capitalist pressures The inherent flexibility of such properties is open to commercial exploitation as property values for residential use are higher than those for commercial properties.Live/Work sui generis has become an excuse by developers to justify the use of commercial properties as residential and loft living is a life-style for the rich.
LBTH and other London boroughs no longer support Live/Work and are wary of granting residential change of use to commercial properties. Unwitting purchasers of such properties, hoping to cash in on this shift in property values have had their fingers burned as the Council now stand fast by their policy – the borough that has lost far too much commercial job space, is set to protect what they still have and support small businesses. In Shoreditch there is now so little commercial floor space suitable for the creative industries that there is evidence of a return to commercial use of Live/Work properties- and that’s the good side of flexibility, it can go both ways. But this doesn’t help most artists: it is the commercial end such as fashion, photography and only the most successful of artists who can afford it, unless they were lucky enough to be there already.
So where did this start? Was it born of necessity in a recession? Artists again find themselves in temporary accommodation or living illegally in their studios or making work that doesn’t require one so they can still live in the heart of the city- digital work, work in the public domain, temporary work, site specific, conceptual. Or they are going to Berlin- lots of space there I hear.
Published in RIBA Journal November 2010 © Susanna Heron 12 10 2010