Interview with Honoré: Urbanist
”Planning policies should be changed to promote temporary use of vacant buildings and spaces…”.
Honoré is the founder of Frontwork, a studio specialising in urban research, strategy and design. He believes in a flexible workplace ethic that involves working predominantly across London, and regularly abroad, out of multiple workspaces – corporate, private and public.
Tell me about your practice
I’m not sure if I could describe myself as an artist. But there are similarities between me, as an urbanist, and an artist, in that I feel I have the responsibility for the build environment and it’s communities. As a designer and entrepreneur, I believe it’s important to make sure you are involved in the right initiatives – the ones you feel strongly about so that there is no need to compromise. In that way, there are similarities. That’s what I stand for.
What is your workspace situation, and could it be improved?
In an ideal world, I would like to have a studio space at my home, not that I would work there all the time. But a bigger space where I could work on my paintings and urban and landscape design projects would be ideal, and I could share this space with my partner, so she can play piano there. But by living and working in Central London, I am restricted in terms of space.
I am keen to bring variation in my work and I don’t enjoy so much, daily routines and repetition. Maybe there needs to be a bit more continuity but to be in one working place for five days a week, just doesn’t work for me anymore. In the last few years I have noticed that there is a real change, especially in London, whereby people are reorganising their way of working and are often not based in one office throughout the week.
On one hand, there’s a lot of freedom, in being independent, running your own design studio, and working in different locations. If you want to run a small design business successfully, then you have to get the balance right between income and outgoings. For me, this means I aim to keep my overheads to a minimum and only invest in additional studio space when it’s required based on the studio project portfolio.
Finding the right location for me to work is influenced by the changing clients and collaborators. Often, when working, I meet up with clients and colleagues in central London public buildings. There are three of these buildings I use regularly for this purpose: The British Library, Kings Place, and RIBA. So, there you go – even if I don’t like repetition, there are still certain places I like to return to, probably because of the space, quality and atmosphere within these buildings.
In the beginning I was not used to the flexibility. Also, I didn’t have so many clients so I worked on smaller projects and invested more time in setting up the business and attracting new work opportunities. But now, I work on four or five different project teams with colleagues in and outside the UK. For example, I am involved in a project in Indonesia, appointed by the French organisation, Les Ateliers, and I collaborate with three colleagues from France and Germany. We meet up in London or in Paris and we work together at temporary spaces – a café where you can have a coffee.
What is your experience of engaging with artists through your work?
At the moment I’m not working actively with artists. But when I worked with them in the past, for the private sector, I was always interested in integrating art within the built environment. I believe, as an architect or urban designer, you are sometimes restricted and so it would be good to work more closely with artists. They have the ability to think outside the box, especially design-wise. They can contribute to city plans and strategies, and play an important role by triggering the debate, with a focus on how to change and activate places in society.
In the past, I have played an important role as urban designer in the development of regeneration strategies for two UK coastal towns. In particular, Folkestone was extremely successful. The creative quarter and coastline triennial are still going strong. Reasons for developing the area this way were balanced – for commerce and a creative culture. Along with others, Roger de Haan, who is the founder of the cultural quarter and an investor, created art studios and galleries in the town centre. He bought up different, centrally located buildings, refurbished them, and made them into places where artists and designers could live and work. The stipulation was, that if you were not a creative type, you could not live or work there, or have a gallery. He put it all on the market for reasonable rents so that the cost was affordable and sustainable.
Where, in London, have you seen the value of artists’ contributions?
Hackney Wick is really interesting. Open Days should happen every month. I’ve been to the open day there and it’s really great – very vibrant. Artists were also involved in designing the public realm there. Around Southwark, where there is the urban forest and Better Bankside, they do good projects with artists. Around Dalston also, but it seems a bit too trendy now. Unfortunately, I think, in the UK, artists are not valued as much as they are in other European countries.
What has been your contribution to regeneration discussions to do with Brixton?
I’m an active member of the Academy of Urbanism and was appointed last year to coordinate the Learning from London initiative. The programme is for young professionals to develop their skills and understanding of how to practice good urbanism. For example, on one of the study days, we visited Brixton central and surrounding areas and explored the positive and negative aspects of transformation. The places we visited had different characteristics in terms of typology (high-rise to small scale), programme (single or mix-use) and community involvement. We met local experts who are living or working in Brixton and who are actively involved in the process of regeneration.
What exemplary creative workspaces do you know of?
During the Brixton event I met Richard Pearce, Director of TCN and manager of the Piano House. TCN have organised flexible workspace all over the UK, and the world. One of the projects presented at the event, was Ugli, in the White City/Hammersmith area. Ugli is located in the old BBC buildings, and TCN have now refurbished it, turning it into a place to hire temporary, affordable desk-space. Or, if you’re larger group, you can hire a room. They didn’t buy the building. They’re managing the building in line with a business model they have developed over the years. They invested a lot in the interior.
What are your thoughts on how sustainable a central London live/work lifestyle is for most of us?
Space for anyone in London – not just artists – is a challenge, because affordable workspaces at the right location are limited and if you do find space, how do you then also find the right combination of professionals, artists, architects or designers? The current trend is that the population of London city will increase by more than 100,000 people per year. But in the last two decades there are not enough houses being built and prices keep going up. Even if an artist can afford a place to work, they cannot afford a place to live. Perhaps finding a workspace might be less challenging than finding a place to live. If you stay so long in a place, you begin to notice that you no longer have affordable rent, then 60 or 70 % of your salary goes to the landlord, who is often not even offering any service. I really think, that if this continues, people will leave London in greater numbers. Why are artists living in London? They could live in Hull and live and work there for 20% of what they pay here and it would be easier to produce good art, being less distracted by financial concerns.
Have you an opinion of space challenges abroad?
In Paris, they just changed the policy for office space (Paris City Council tax pledge on ‘commercial wasteland’). If a space is empty for longer than a year, building owners have to pay a higher tax of 20% more. Some investors and developers will not care and they will just pay for it. But at least, policy makers think this will stimulate some of the investors to change some of the office spaces back to residential, so that more people can live in Paris.
Friends in the Netherlands have also been able to successfully take on and refurbish a disused building for creative events and initiatives, but there are supportive schemes there, to help make enterprises involving disused buildings work.
What are the solutions for securing affordable space for artists in London and the UK?
Local or central government have to change the policies so that it is possible to gain temporarily use, and, if required, transform vacant spaces and places. But, to be realistic, it would have to be easy for property owners to give notice so that artist tenants move on. Building owners don’t want to take risks, so the easy choice is for a vacant building to sit there. It is for that reason, when companies like TCN take control and responsibility of a building, they try to maximise the value for the client, but also they bring a lot back to the local community for all of the entrepreneurs. They bring a lot back to the city.