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the regenerators

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Developers Simon and Nick Kirkham have turned a leftover pocket of west London under a busy flyover into a dramatic series of workspaces that 'blur work and play'. Now the brothers want to tackle healthcare

It's easy to be cynical about a couple of young, good-looking developers who push as their main thesis that 'work should be play because play is culture, culture is networking, networking is freedom and freedom is the best condition for working'. Easy, too, to look at the working environment they've created, with its mini-football and pool tables, sculptures, trendy graphics, bar and restaurant, and conclude that this is yet another group of lucky west Londoners all pretending to work in a wacky way while the rest of us get on with the hard grind. Easy, but wrong and unfair on both counts.

Simon and Nick Kirkham are two easygoing, bright and personable brothers whose latest project, Westbourne Studios, will be opened officially by London mayor Ken Livingstone later this month. It's an unusual workspace project which has capitalised on land beneath and adjoining the Westway dual carriageway (A40) in the shadow of Trellick Tower. And it is, say the brothers, an exemplary scheme for the rest of the country in the way that it utilises a 'difficult' brownfield site, hugger-mugger with the railway and the busy flyover, while offering a revenue stream to the council at the same time.

'The interesting thing here is that as a client commissioning a building, we've used design as a social tool to bring people together, and this type of building doesn't even have new-build status normally, ' says Nick Kirkham, a 36-year-old sculptor by training. '[Workspaces are] normally by the local authority in refurbished existing buildings and where they haven't spent time and effort to understand the building of a community.'

Nick's younger brother Simon, a chartered surveyor and now a member of the property advisory group for the Office of Deputy Prime Minister, agrees, and adds that other cities could do well to learn from their scheme. 'If other boroughs looked at it as a model it makes perfect sense, ' he says, with a sting in the tail. 'It's better value than the PFI will ever be.'

The 100 workspaces are housed in two low-rise, inexpensively clad purple towers straddling the heart of the studios space, a three-storey, 600m 2courtyard and bar area which cleverly uses the concrete underside of the Westway as its ceiling. There are galleries, a cinema and retail studios, and the brothers calculate that 70 million people pass the building's external advertising logo every year on the Tube alone. And the whole feel of the development is urban cool, with the gritty evidence of the city very readily apparent: there's even an original, graffitiscrawled road stanchion poking through into one of the meeting spaces.

The stylish ambience is emphasised by the young, cool and relaxed nature of the firms who've set up home here. But these, the Kirkhams point out, are also serious companies, mainly from the worlds of media and film - and including architects - who realise they'd quickly go under if all they did was play pool all day.

The brothers, who designed the scheme, worked hard on detail, even down to inspecting three types of duck down for the sofa cushion fillings.

They have a track record of involvement with workspaces, dating from when Nick complained that he was doing too much travelling to his studio in New Cross Gate from his Ladbroke Grove home. 'Simon said, 'Let's look at building', says Nick. 'It was the fag end of the recession, when you believed you could do things.'

The pair were already aware of the site.

They had set up Great Western Studios nearby - now blighted by the CrossRail scheme, so 20 per cent of their tenants there moved over - and the Clink Street Studios before that in Southwark. Nick relates how the latter scheme came about at the time when people were just getting wind of the Tate Modern project. Surely the surrounding areas would benefit from people decamping from Soho? They were right.

But they also appear to be driven by a real and refreshing desire to make spaces for people which work by 'aggregating' - Nick's word - a whole series of the kind of businesses which might help. 'We started with a wish list if we were one of the tenants.

Well, we'd quite like a bar, we'd quite like IT support, we'd quite like a reprographics centre and large format digital photography.

'It's a social ethos where everybody wins - which is not to sound goody-two-shoes about it. But the council has added employment, got income from the land and a share of the turnover; the people here have a facility and a new community; and we have done our job.'

Simon adds: 'People say how much they enjoy the building and it's about the perception as well for the client base. It's the feel-good factor.' They say it makes sense to keep good people by designing 'lifestyle' environments, enabling greater flexibility and, hopefully, fewer days off sick.

This sensitivity to people's needs extends to a desire to aid the planet. Both are keen cyclists and Simon talks at length about the electronic car pool he has made available for anyone in the place. Indeed, he likes them so much, he drives one himself. The idea of a small, almost silent car that copes with an average 50 miles per day range and simply has to be plugged in at night (cost for overnight charge: 42p, rent: £325 per month, no parking charges in some boroughs, congestion charge exempt, no insurance, and so on) is appealing indeed.

They see themselves as 'regenerators', rather than developers or clients, engendering a 'cross-fertilisation' of skills across the studios. But Nick gets annoyed at a mischievous suggestion that there is a smack of social engineering to all this.What isn't 'socially engineered' these days in a city, he asks.

With Westbourne Studios, it was not all plain sailing.Having got everything in place, two big events occurred which had a serious impact. The first was the death of the pair's mother to cancer, which hit them hard. The second was 11 September, which made the economies of their venture appear even harder. So they chose to sell up for £12.25 million to Workspace and now feel that they want to make a difference in the world of healthcare, harnessing the expertise they've picked up from Westbourne. Watch this space.

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