Interview with John: Collaborative Urbanist
“The death of the artist is one where the Local Authority informs and stipulates the space that creative people have to move into. The successful spaces will be the ones that are artist-driven.”
Since the early ‘70s, John Worthington has worked internationally and collaboratively on urban design and planning strategies, many of which have included consultation with artists. John is an expert on workplace design who sees the current role of the artist as that of a pioneer faced with exploring alternative ways to use space. He believes that developers and local authorities need to understand the positive impacts artists have on the urban environment and that developers and local authorities should also facilitate opportunities for future, artist-led, creative environments.
How do you describe your career and what you do?
I studied as an architect. I have been both a practitioner and an academic and the main part of what I did, for most of my career, was to develop a large practice that helped organisations decide what to build and then how to use it. We were on the end-user or consumer side, advising on anything from schemes for cities like Rotterdam, Dublin and London, on their high-rise strategies. We also advised universities on new ways of working and their long-term estates strategies. Understanding planning and use of space, over time, has always been important in what I do.
At around the age of 65, I decided to move aside from full-time commitment to the practice; what I termed ‘changing gear’ – not retirement. I kept on one day per week for mentoring and advising. Now, I still consult and work around the world advising, lecturing and facilitating change. I am a Director of the Academy of Urbanism (AoU) and a Commissioner of the Independent Transport Commission (ITC), for which I recently completed a piece of work on High Speed Rail. I also co-chair the Cambridgeshire Sustainable Quality Growth Panel.
Today my broad title is ‘collaborative urbanist’. I work with people and make things happen. For that purpose, I like to explore outside the box and across disciplines.
How have you previously worked with artists?
At DEGW (I was the ‘W’ at the end) and with Luigi Giffoni (the ‘G’ in DEGW), one of our first innovative projects I did was for a major car component company, Unipart. In the mid-70s, Birmingham was home to a large car manufacturing industry. There was a recession, the miners’ strike was on and there was high unemployment. DEGW were appointed to replan the components shipping warehouse. We brought in young, unemployed people to work with artist, Sue Francis, to create a huge mural on the back wall of the shed, which enlivened the space, giving a focus to the mission of the organisation and appreciation by the shift workers. At the same time, for IBM in Amsterdam, DEGW brought office functions down onto the factory floor and installed huge coloured hanging dividers and bold signage to create production lines and multi-functional spaces. Artists were always a part of what we were doing – part of our team. You could no longer separate between art, space-planning and the management of change.
Is London’s ‘heart’ in danger of dying out as a result of regeneration and gentrification?
Well, it’s never too late, that’s for sure. Cities are organic, robust places that go up and down. What is happening at the moment is a blip on the long-term lifespan of the city. However, you can scar a city for a long time. A prime example being the 1960s ring roads. Perhaps we are going down a similar route again, with over 250 super-tall residential towers being proposed for London. Last year, the AoU organised a study tour for Barratt Homes, on riverside living, to learn from what was happening along the Thames from Greenwich Peninsula to Wandsworth and Fulham. It’s horrifying, what is being built along the river above Battersea. It’s not so much the height, but the density, and there’s the sheer cheekiness, that these buildings have little relationship to the communities behind. They just sit there with their backs cutting off contact to the river for those behind. On the other hand, I look at the great things around London that are going on. Thank goodness, that around Stratford and the Olympic Legacy Park there are incremental, positive things happening. However, I do think it is very frightening, that greed is being shown in developing London. We have lost a sense of civil responsibility, in what we do.
David Cotterell has done imaginative work on urban change, including Slipstream, a project in North Peckham. He talked to a number of people who had been tenants in the original estate before demolition, for new-build three and four-story houses. He built a drone from a kit of parts purchased from the internet and flew it at eye-line height, along where the walkway would have been and then he talked with people about their life, walking them through where they were. This really became a community project. The artist captured the interest of the kids in the area with his model drone building. A lively dialogue was formed and the artist had captured the moment.
The other frightening thing is the insidiousness of how museums and galleries, in the old sense of public galleries for art, are rapidly becoming centres for trade. There are all these Saatchi–type places that raise the value of things shown, under the auspices of being a learned gallery. There have been interesting uses of old buildings but the conversions are often about art as a commodity, with the buildings becoming a market place.
Artists are raising the value of places. I don’t think that’s sufficiently understood as a bargaining point. Arts communities are worth having as a creator of vitality in an area and attracting investment. Space should probably be provided for nothing. Somehow, artists should be indirectly paid for being there!
What advice do you have for artists, in their search for space?
The death of the artist is one where the Local Authority informs and stipulates the space that creative people have to move into. The successful spaces will be the ones that are artist-driven. They don’t need to be subsidised. I think there’s enough space to be inventive with – I would think that is a starting point. It’s not a welfare position where somehow we’re going to be subsidising art. We could be remunerating artists through “sweat equity” and artist-in-residence schemes.
The other thing I’d say about getting hold of space is to not take the attitude of “oh, I can only have it for 2 weeks… I can’t take that because I want it for two years…”. Take it. Two weeks can roll into two months, or longer. Make connections and never say no if it isn’t the perfect space. Grab the opportunity and build on it.
Groups such as the Meanwhile Space have initiated innovative projects around Wembley. They’re stimulating retailing, with young creatives using vacant space for short-term studio/workshop/showroom space. There, art is a key component.
Can it be made easier for landlords to open up vacant space?
We’ve gone a long way down the line to make that work. Pop-up spaces are working. Artists, in a way, have always been the kind of pioneers that go in and make things happen. Some become very rich through the process. Some never quite make it. As an art pioneer, you start somewhere off in the knowledge that you’re not going to be there forever. That’s the grittiness of the process of urban growth and change.
If one really is a pioneer, you could go east and find places with character and opportunity. Tottenham Hale is well connected and could be a place of great opportunity. In terms of central London, it’s deep-grained in London, how people talk about north and south of the river, with the South historically or presently considered a distant land. Yet the river and recent rail lines snake in such a way that north could be south and south could be north.
What are the spin-off opportunities HS2 will offer?
It’s not just about the railway line. It’s about linkages to everything else. TGC in France is actually a combination of the new line with the existing classic line, which in turn links to trams and so on. What HS2 is doing, is becoming a catalyst for all the things around. Take the Kings Cross St Pancras area, 20 years ago: in 1990 when HS2, HS1 and the Eurostar were being talked about, we moved our office into this area on Crinan Street. It was a really run–down area. But this was then part of the halo effect. You had to wait 20 or so years for the area to ‘happen’ and around it all these things blossomed. It changed with the emergence of art galleries and the arts. There are so many people doing new developments, thinking they’re making it all happen but they’re not – they pay lip service and don’t really take much notice. It’s people like Peter Millican who have really done it, with Kings Place, which is very special.
There are all these sites that are going to be regenerated over the next 20 years through a huge amount of money, which has to go into infrastructure. Not just rail, but a lot of other things are going to spin off of this. There will be a real urban renaissance in city centres because the demography of cities is changing, with many more Europeans coming in, and they are used to living in city centres. They are not afraid of living many storeys up and they certainly won’t go out to live in little houses on the edge of London. It will become very exciting and the artist will have a major role to play, as has been the case in Hackney Wick. Art colleges are going to be important, for example, around the Greenwich Peninsula. Attached to DLR and Jubilee lines, there’s the Three Mills scheme with TV, arts, media and art studios.
Do people need to get away from this idea of London as the centre?
In that sense, the centre is totally disappearing. What will happen is that Manchester, Leeds and the other great cities of the north will be within two hours door-to-door from London. The price and the quality of life may be right to live in the North, working from home and travelling intermittently. It will happen more often, that having come to London for experience, one will make contacts, start a family there and then move out.
So how can the Arts contribute?
Artists are increasingly becoming the community shapers and urban change makers and art is a catalyst for changing perceptions. In my role with the Cambridgeshire Sustainable Growth Design Panel, I’ve recognised the role that artists are playing in community development. Cambridge and Cambridgeshire have a buoyant economy with new settlements being planned. In reviewing the proposals you realise that the role of community development is now being undertaken indirectly by artists through the “1% for art” provided by the housing developers. The artist, through community interaction on many of the environmental art projects, is also a facilitator of community. Artists are becoming the agents for change.