'The only thing that will be left is the paint on the floor': the startups taking on temporary spaces

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In the side-room of the former headquarters of the London Fire Brigade, children are playing intently. A girl smears brown water over her hands to shape a piece of clay; two others furiously flip switches covering a silver dome. A toddler totters towards a tub of lego and pitches forward head-first into the box, his mother rushing forward to lift him out by his feet. 

It seems unimaginable that in just a few months this entire building will be razed to the ground to make way for a multi-use development and a new headquarters for the London Fire Brigade. Though a little magical thinking is the order of the day at the Institute of Imagination, the charity and social enterprise that has meanwhile use of the space.

“The only thing that will be left is the paint on the floor,” says Tom Doust, director at the Institute. We are in his makeshift office: some desks pushed up against the wall, blocked off from the rest of the room with panels on wheels that double as shelves for activity kits and children’s books. 

Everything has been designed to move depending on the needs of the group. On the day of our visit, children have been invited to play as part of a study of self-directed learning with an education organisation. The following day, the room will be transformed for a live event with partners including IBM and Lego. When the tenure ends, almost everything will be wheeled away to use in the next space.

The Institute of Imagination is one of three organisations that have been granted meanwhile use of the former headquarters since 2016, alongside design studio Kidesign and the Migration Museum, the UK’s first museum dedicated to the movement of people. Developer U+I invited the businesses to use the rooms on a temporary basis, rent-free, after a survey revealed that local residents wanted services for children and education. 

They are scheduled to move out at the end of the summer, when U+I begin the process of rebuilding the site to include housing, retail, a new headquarters and even, according to the latest plans, a hotel.

Meanwhile use is nothing new. The short-term use of temporarily empty buildings and spaces can be traced back to travelling circuses and to the empty city districts of Berlin in the 1990s, where there was a lot of land and energy, but not much money. In London, the idea grew in popularity after the financial crash of 2008 when developers had land on their hands and needed to keep it occupied for security reasons until construction started back up. 

“When you look back to London in the eighties and nineties, it was a bit boring,” says Peter Bishop, professor of urban design at the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, and the author of The Temporary City. “If you think of street festivals and pop-up cinemas, or the activity around Brick Lane and the South Bank in London, they are all temporary uses animating spaces and creating a huge amount of activity and enjoyment.”

Penny Humphrey from U+I says meanwhile use – or worthwhile use, in company parlance – has been part of the developer’s DNA since it formed from the merger of Development Securities Plc and Cathedral Group in 2015. 

“A lot of our schemes are public-private partnerships, so we work with a public body and get a temporary lease on the land for two or three years which allows us to open it up,” Humphrey says. “It’s a complicated process but we embrace the difficulty because it helps us form relationships with communities and incubate ideas that end up in the master plan.”

At the Preston Barracks in Brighton, for example, U+I created FIELD, a co-working space for startups. In this instance it advertised for startups to apply for tenancy on a billboard and granted space to eight businesses including Intrepid Camera, a maker of large-format cameras, and P Kirkwood, a maker of leather bags and satchels. 

Humprey says U+I purposely built the space to see how the eight entrepreneurs interacted and how the final designs needed to be adapted for the startup hub in the final plans: “We did a huge amount of research and the meanwhile use learnings will go into the final scheme.” 

Construction is about to start on a £300m public-private partnership project to create 1500 jobs, hundreds of new homes and a 50,000 square feet incubator for new businesses in Preston Barracks. But the eight entrepreneurs liked working together so much that they have formed a limited company, Leftfield, and moved to a warehouse on the Longley Industrial Estate in Brighton, to continue working together.

Meanwhile-use is not without its challenges. “Sometimes these buildings have been derelict for 10 or 30 years. Bringing anything back into use is a huge commitment. It varies on the size of the building, where it is and its condition,” Humphrey says. 

U+I invests anything from £100,000 to £300,000 in making meanwhile use buildings suitable for temporary habitation but tenants often invest much more. Kidesign, the design studio in the opposite wing of the former London Fire Brigade headquarters, built an office out of recycled plywood around the sole radiator in the warehouse to keep warm during the winter. 

“The beautiful thing about this space is that whenever we need something, we just build it,” says Dejan Mitrovic, creative director. Inside the office, which looks like a giant red wendy house, staff have hung a projector from the roof in a makeshift bracket and built tables and shelves from more salvaged wood.

Recycling fits with Mitrovic’s second business, Department 22, which is about making use of abandoned buildings and existing materials. Having space in Lambeth influenced his decision to take on a hydroponics project. We talk beside his early experiments in building self-contained “farms” that use fish poo to fertilize edible plants.

He says the biggest challenge about meanwhile use is that the length of tenure is unpredictable. Delays to the fire brigade development have twice extended the meanwhile use of the former station. But Mitrovic says having space to experiment outweighs the risks. His studios are part of a planning application for a redevelopment near London Bridge, while the Institute of Imagination is working towards a permanent base in East London.

Doust says the temporary lease in Southwark has allowed the Institute of Imagination to grow while testing ideas. “We’ve learned how cultural institutions need to be responsive to their audiences and their environment,” he says. “It’s a stepping stone.”

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