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Artful creativity in London – it's a holding pattern at best

Rory Olcayto
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The five years of fun and spectacle at Peckham car park demonstrated a vital alternative to the dead hand of official ‘regen’

This week the AJ is focused on public art, so here’s a story for you with ‘case study’ written all over it. Check it out. Since 2007, throughout each summer, Bold Tendencies has held art exhibitions and music events in Peckham’s multi-storey car park. The wonderfully heavyweight structure is an artwork in itself, its vast concrete floorplates like frozen oceans of dark grey lava. Gnarly, hand-made, rough as hell.

Last year, a new artwork by Richard Wentworth occupied the whole of the open-air top deck. In 2010, a sculpture of SpongeBob SquarePants on a motorbike caught the eye. In 2011, a much-praised performance of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring with ‘fresh, confident, to-the-wire playing that you might have expected at the Parisian first night’, as one critic put it, dazzled a 1,000-strong audience. In all, since it began, Bold Tendencies has drawn about 1 million visitors to Del Boy’s manor, including art tsars Nicholas Serota and Jay Jopling, leading Vogue to dub Peckham ‘London’s cultural epicentre’.

Bold Tendencies founders Hannah Barry and Sven Mündner are the ones who deserve the credit. Their project worked because they believed in what they were doing, didn’t do it to make oodles of cash, and at the same time put down roots. They opened a gallery in a run-down shed on an adjacent plot – a permanent sister to the car park’s summer session.

So everyone and anyone has hailed Bold Tendencies (especially the estate agents: a two-bedroom apartment in the neighbourhood now costs about 800 grand). For me, Bold Tendencies clicked in 2010. That summer I was inspired to write about development in London, contrasting Peckham car park’s ground-up programme with the top-down creation of Strata, the ‘turbine’ tower in nearby Elephant & Castle, encouraged into being by Ken Livingstone’s policies, and which I had recently also visited. My point was how much more vital – in terms of townscape creation – ground-up projects can be.

London has a five-year ‘fun’ cycle, at most, before the marketplace takes over and juices DIY projects to a pulp

And now, little more than five years later, as I pen my final ‘leader’ column for the AJ, we’ve come full circle. The car park is set to be ‘officially’ regen’d. Last November we reported that it will become a (please note) *temporary* home for ‘over 50 affordable studio and workshop spaces along with pop-up retail and multi-use event spaces’. The architect involved – Carl Turner, backed by Mayfair developer Collective – is a good one, thankfully, but its overhaul comes at the expense of a rival bid by the Barry and Mündner partnership, whose Kunsthalle model included 800 permanent artists’ workshops. Speaking in November, Southwark councillor Mark Williams gave the game away when he said: ‘Although the car park is still earmarked for development in the long term, we have the opportunity now to help local residents set up new businesses and provide space for local artists.’

Development in the long term, eh? Ah well.

So, two things. One: the Peckham experience shows that London has a five-year ‘fun’ cycle, at most, before the marketplace takes over and juices DIY projects to a pulp. And two: despite all the talk about creative industries replacing finance as London’s core economy, most decision-makers plotting London’s future don’t really agree. Artful creativity? It’s a holding pattern at best. So what we have to do – you, me and anyone who cares about art, architecture and the cities we live in – is persuade them otherwise. Tough, I know. So:

Make friends with your enemies
And show them how it can be,
In those rare vital moments when ideas run free.

Ha ha. Thanks for reading. I’m outta here.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Don't forget the car park became available due to a future (imagined) that never happened. In the spirit of "cheer up, it may never happen", some things have a habit of out-persisting other things!

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