Creatives have always found each other. Rooted in the avant-garde artist colonies that flourished in 19th-century Europe, the instinct to create in close proximity has produced collectives and communes from the Bloomsbury group to the Bauhaus. In 1960s and 70s New York, bohemian artists and designers lived and worked together in disused factories that most deemed uninhabitable.
Today, a new breed of purpose-built hubs across the country are hoping to coax modern makers with bold, contemporary architecture and infrastructure to match. Here are cavernous shared workshops and compact solo studios; cafés and members’ clubs; bespoke events programmes to facilitate networking and collaboration. It’s all a far cry from visions of artists holed up in hastily repurposed warehouses.
Reflecting the movement’s most ambitious reaches, the new Design District on London’s Greenwich Peninsula is an eclectic amalgam of 16 low-rise buildings designed by eight leading architects. Tenants of the village-like complex – think artists, architects and designers of every persuasion – have access to a light-flooded ceramics workshop, a photographic studio and 3D printers, as well as expert advice on everything from intellectual property to tax.
This apparent architectural hotch-potch has been carefully orchestrated to suit disparate needs, says Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, which designed two of the buildings: ‘It’s a recognition that creative businesses are not all the same. The workspaces are inexpensive to rent, achieved partly by cutting back on the expensive lobbies found in upscale offices.’
Members’ club Bureau is the District’s formal attempt at fostering collaboration, but you suspect its courtyards and external staircases are conducive to chance encounters – not to mention the rooftop basketball court.
According to Chris Fox, creative director of lighting company Luum, which has a design studio-cum-showroom at the District, one of its best features is the canteen designed by Madrid-based firm Selgas Cano: ‘It’s positioned centrally between the buildings and I always bump into someone I know.’
With such a high concentration of creatives, it’s something of an inevitability. ‘It’s fantastic having so many of these industries in one place,’ he adds. ‘My business relies on good links with suppliers, clients and other designers, and having a creative network on our doorstep sparks opportunities. I feel lucky to be in a well-thought-out space with underfloor heating, showers, fast internet and food options. Our last studio, located in a converted car park, was cold and damp, had no heating and sometimes flooded.’
Though more modest in scale, a new centre in the Somerset town of Watchet is no less bold. East Quay is a cluster of startlingly contemporary buildings atop a concrete plinth that masterfully harmonises with a harbourside setting. Designed by Invisible Studio, the turquoise and sunshine-yellow shipping containers that house it are a nod to the colourful boats in the harbour, while one elevated form echoes a lighthouse.
As the result of a campaign by social enterprise Onion Collective, it’s no wonder it’s been designed with a keen sense of local connection. A restaurant leads onto a public courtyard, while its creative heart includes a printmaking studio, geology workshop and paper mill. Eleven studio spaces for artists and designers are currently occupied by furniture-makers, jewellers and photographers – among others – who capitalise on their commercial potential thanks to large, public-facing windows.
Hannah Griffith, a furniture-maker who uses reclaimed timber, says she ‘benefits most from being around other creative people. I’m only recently self-employed, so support is essential.’ She shares a space with a lighting designer, and they now plan to make lamps together.
Compared with traditional studio complexes – relatively closed off to all but the makers that rent space – these hubs are community-minded and inclusive, often granting the public access to amenities. Here there are two art galleries, five accommodation pods – holiday rentals anyone can book – and areas for staging theatre and music performances.
‘Our primary consideration was making East Quay feel connected to the town,’ says Celeste Fairbank of Invisible Studio. ‘We created public and semi-public spaces around which the workshops and studios are organised. The main courtyard is essential to the design, and all the first- and second-floor public spaces overlook it. Hundreds of people can gather for events here.’
Given architects’ burgeoning commitment to sustainability, radically repurposing old buildings is another popular approach with clear benefits. Scottish charity Wasps has been rescuing then converting redundant but historically significant properties into workspace for creatives for over 40 years. The Briggait, Glasgow’s former fish market, now houses some 69 studios, and the organisation is looking to redevelop the remaining parts of the building.
Fashion designer Christopher Raeburn, meanwhile, has set up shop in a 1930s textile factory in Stratford for new outpost The Lab E20, which promotes the use of sustainable materials and co-hosts workshops and exhibitions with like-minded brands.
Architects Hawkins Brown are restoring former mills in West Yorkshire to create a mixed-use complex called Rutland Mills, which will contain makers’ studios and spaces for musicians and artists. In Sheffield, the Grade II-listed Leah’s Yard, a 19th-century red-brick building originally occupied by makers of metal tools, is being comprehensively refurbished to provide studios for small businesses.
And it should come as no surprise that today’s purpose-built hubs find influence in industrial architecture, given its generous footprints, raw textures and abundance of daylight. East London maker hub Hackney Bridge is the latest project from Make Shift, an organisation that transforms empty buildings into communal, affordable workspaces for locals and small startups (it’s the brains behind Peckham Levels and Pop Brixton).
Designed by Turner Works, the centre is inspired by the industrial heritage of its canal-side site – a sweet factory once stood here – and comprises of three public-facing buildings that house an events space and food hall, all sharing a zigzagging, factory-like roofline.
Even the uncompromisingly modern Design District at Greenwich has kinship with the bohemian spirit of the earliest artists’ workshops. ‘We pictured spaces that served creative businesses well in the past – typically repurposed industrial buildings that creatives found for themselves,’ says Bowles. ‘These new iterations are light-filled, large open spaces, often with a raw character. But as well as lots of natural light and soaring ceilings, we value thermal comfort – the age of the suffering artist should be over!’