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Meanwhile London is a cautionary tale for architects

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The competition’s terms and conditions were clear. This was a case of entrants beware

The briefing document described it as ‘a fabulous opportunity for developers, investors, designers, artists, thinkers, entrepreneurs and community groups’. But the closure of London Pleasure Gardens and Industri(US) this week is a cautionary tale for architects: If you are going to enter a competition, read the fine print.

The two projects, along with the Caravanserai development and the Royal Docks Baths (pictured), were all spawned in the Meanwhile London competition, launched by the London Borough of Newham and the London Development Agency (LDA) in November 2010.

Of four Meanwhile London winners, one is in administration, another has temporarily closed, a third has cut opening hours and the fourth is on hold.

Folly

The contest had a noble purpose: to regenerate and reinvigorate derelict sites with temporary uses of one year or more, which would benefit from footfall during the London 2012 Olympic Games. The idea is still a good one. If properly organised and funded, pop-ups can be effective PR - what is the Olympics but one massive pop-up for East London?

But those who read the details of this competition would have noted this critical sentence: ‘There is no specific budget for developing entrants’ ideas, so you will need to be prepared to do this yourselves.’

Winners received no seed funds or fee. They were given a vacant site and were expected to seek investment to implement their designs and business plan, paying all costs for planning, designing, building, even chain-link fences and site remediation. If they were successful, and the venture made a profit, the terms said they could be asked to pay market rent to Newham and the LDA.

The four winners were announced with fanfare by London Mayor Boris Johnson at MIPIM 2011. The judging panel reads like a who’s who: from the LDA’s then deputy chief executive Peter Bishop to the NLA’s chair Peter Murray, Design for London’s head Mark Brearley, Argent’s joint chief executive Roger Madelin, Urban Splash’s director Tom Bloxham and the Architecture Foundation’s director Sarah Ichioka.

Unfortunately, the business cases for the winners depended on Olympic footfall that never materialised. So for most, this was a costly PR exercise. London firm Fluid sunk £200k into their up-cycling facility Industri(US) - for just 50k more, they could have paid Johnson’s annual salary for a Daily Telegraph column.

Expensive PR for the firms that is, but good value for Newham. As Cany Ash of winning firm Ash Sakula says, ‘We are changing perceptions of Canning Town. PR firms are paid a lot to do what we are doing.’ Indeed. Newham’s website profiling the Meanwhile London competition is a plug for investment: ‘Newham are seeking developers for schemes worth up to £22 billion which will create more than 6,000 jobs.’

Compare the Meanwhile London contest to RIBA North East’s Forgotten Spaces ideas competition, and the latter’s £8,000 in prizes looks lavish (see page 18). But the terms and conditions of Meanwhile London were clear. This was a case of entrants beware.

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