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Architects, coming to a high street near you

The creativity of artists and architects is a valuable tool in reviving struggling high streets, says Andrew Brown

According to business data company Experian, 72,000 retail outlets will have closed by the end of 2009, bringing the total number of empty units across the UK to 135,000 – that’s one in six premises. For many, this has meant the loss of a job or the death knell for once-thriving high streets.

Some of these initiatives are designed as pop-up projects lasting only a few days

But for others, it provides a golden opportunity. All over the country, artists, designers and architects are taking over former shops and turning them into studios, galleries and rehearsal or performance spaces. Some of these initiatives are designed as pop-up projects lasting only a few days; others are longer-term solutions to artists’ need for creative space in which to practice.

We have been here before. During slumps in the 1970s and 1980s, many creative individuals colonised vacant spaces, their arrival bringing life back to declining town centres. One of the best-known examples is Hoxton in London. Poor, run-down, and at times downright dangerous, the area nonetheless attracted the brightest young art students who could not afford the rent on studios elsewhere in the city. A vibrant community soon developed, with dozens of workplaces, design firms and galleries springing up. Shops, cafes, bars and restaurants followed. As did property developers: Hoxton is now one of the most expensive places to live in the capital.

Architects, too, have flourished by taking over empty or ‘slack’ spaces. David Chipperfield’s firm originally set up shop in an empty rat-infested building in Marylebone. In Bath, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios established itself in a former fruit shop, and Hugh Cullum’s practice operates from an old cheese shop in Bloomsbury, London.

Artists are now transforming empty shops into vibrant places serving their communities

Recognising the positive benefits of the arts, the government announced a new £3 million fund for local artists to take over vacant units, targeted at the 57 local authorities worst affected by the recession. Arts Council England has provided an extra £500,000 to support arts in these boroughs and encourage similar projects elsewhere. As a result, artists are now transforming empty shops into vibrant places serving their communities.

For instance, Slack Space Colchester plans ‘to fill the slack spaces with colour, art and laughter’. In London’s Soho, architectural duo Feix&Merlin used timber shipping pallets to create a pop-up project in which 15 boutiques from New York traded places with 15 from London. Feix&Merlin was one of the firms that took part in this year’s RIBA conference ‘Guerrilla Tactics: Shaping Tomorrow’s Practice’, where two practices pitched ideas for working with artists in empty shops.

Creative use of slack spaces offers the potential not only for an economic revival of the high street, but also for an artistic renaissance in the heart of our town centres.

Andrew Brown is senior strategy officer, visual arts, for Arts Council England

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