Buzzing small business communities like the former Old Truman Brewery on London’s Brick Lane have boomed without developers or architects. What are the ingredients of success asks Martyn Evans
The Old Truman Brewery in London’s Brick Lane is an extraordinary place. Visit there any day Monday to Friday and you’ll find several thousand people working in hundreds of small businesses that occupy the warren of buildings on the 11-acre site that was home to London brewers Truman, Hanbury & Buxton from the mid 17thCentury. Go at the weekend and you’ll find it hard to move as you wind your way through the crowds who come for the vintage clothing markets, food stalls, super-cool fashion retailers and art galleries. It’s one of Europe’s most distinctive and valuable pieces of real estate but it was not created by a property developer and there has barely been an architect near it.
These places grew as creative vision replaced masterplanning, collaborative effort replaced investment and risk-sharing replaced risk-taking
It isn’t alone. Across the world there are many of these former city-centre industrial sites that languished derelict and unloved as occupiers moved their operations out of town to cheaper, easier manufacturing locations through the 1980s and 90s. Their existence highlights the schizophrenic nature of property values. Brick Lane is 600 yards from the Broadgate Centre on Bishopsgate, some of the most expensive real estate in the world. But in the mid 1990s you couldn’t give land away there – you would only cross Commercial Street, which separates Brick Lane from Spitalfields Market, if you wanted a curry or a post-clubbing bagel at 4 o’clock on a Sunday morning. And so these places - the LX Factory in Lisbon, The Philips Factory in Eindhoven and NDSM in Amsterdam’s Noord district - grew the only way they could - slowly and organically with very little investment. Even when developers were involved (The Philips Factory in Eindhoven is a partnership between a large development company and a housing association) the scale of investment required was so huge as to be almost impossible, so another way had to be found.
And that’s when necessity becomes the mother of invention. These places grew as creative vision replaced masterplanning, collaborative effort replaced investment and risk-sharing replaced risk-taking. Meanwhile use was invented here - not as a marketing exercise but as a way of tempting people to come to these locked-up, grey, cold, uninviting places. A lack of money on the part of the new landlord meant anyone arriving at the gate with anything approaching a good idea to bring some life there was welcomed with open arms – as long as it didn’t cost much.
What has happened in Brick Lane is that the owners have stayed absolutely true to their vision
Commercial life started at these places because young, start-up businesses, who could only contemplate existence by taking huge risks, took on filthy, damp spaces, rolled up their sleeves and got busy with a paintbrush. In return the landlord would make an agreement to take no rent until the business started making money and negotiate a turnover-based rent thereafter, sharing the development risk and building a community of tenants with a collective mission to make the place work. Some businesses would fail – wrong business, wrong place maybe – but as time passed and a critical mass of attractive businesses survived, people inevitably came and brought with them custom and covenant.
What has happened in Brick Lane is that the owners have stayed absolutely true to their vision, maintaining a creative approach to the ongoing development of the site that has kept it unique and ever-changing – no chains or large brands. That’s what has made it the success it is and created what must now be very valuable land.
So, what can more mainstream developers and their architects learn from this? That serendipity (in these places, almost all they had) is better than masterplanning; that long term investment (not just financial) is crucial to the development of great places; that creativity and ideas drives everything; that throwing money at a problem won’t always solve it and, most importantly, that good places are about the people who come together to make them with a shared purpose and a share in their eventual success.