Transforming the Unused to the Unusual

by Natasha Mughal

As the housing crisis and office shortage increases, it has become popular to use unused buildings for a new purpose. This not only uses a space that would remain empty otherwise, but allows for a saving of expenditure and time, as well as a recycling of raw materials.

In Paris, for instance, it is being proposed that the old metro stations be used for a new purpose. This proposal was put forward by a former environmental minister and candidate for mayor of Paris, who was the first unveil the plan to use the “ghost stations” for a new purpose; it has since been unveiled that the plan will go ahead, regardless of who wins the election.

The spaces have a number of purposes that they can be used for, ranging from a space to display art, to a restaurant or even a park. The idea is revolutionary because it can be used as an underground club that wouldn’t draw in noise complaints and it would also enable an indoor underground garden to be build, enabling Parisians to enjoy nature indoors, especially when the weather is too wet and windy to enjoy it outdoors. The ghost stations have been closed since the Second World War and have had no passengers for 75 years, but have still been used extensively. For instance, Saint-Martin Station has been used as a shelter for the homeless and to debut the Nissan Qashqui; Porte de Lilas and Arsenal have been used as backdrops for many films. As well as these two examples, many more of the stations have been used as training centres for staff or to test new equipment.

In England, it is becoming popular to re-purpose car parks, especially NCP car parks. In London, the fashion brand House of Holland booked out Brewer Street NCP in Soho to hold a catwalk show for London Fashion Week. This car park was again used this year to host the designer showrooms for London Fashion Week, and Art Drive showcased its collection of classic BMWs at Shoreditch’s Great Eastern Street NCP. In Cardiff, Evans Cycles took over Dumfries Place NCP to host a BMX racing event called Urban Duel. In Birmingham, The Mailbox’s carpark was used for Harvey Nichols’ A/W 2014 fashion show because re-development was being undertaken at the luxury shopping centre. Harvey Nichols praises itself on finding unusual locations and seemed to have taken a leaf from London for this particular idea.

Whilst all these examples mentioned have used the car parks for a one-off event, Make Architects chose to lease a NCP basement car park on a long-term basis, in Middlesex House, Fitrovia, for their office space. Make saw the potential of the space as a studio, especially with its high ceilings, open-plan design, exposed services, pipework and timeworn columns. They chose to retain many of its original features and display its progress within the office bathrooms, as a way of inspiring and informing visitors. As certain aspects of the design needed to be retained, it meant the designers had to be innovative as to how they added certain necessary features. For instance, the power could not be added rising from the floor, as this would’ve decreased the high ceilings, so it was decided to have the power come from the ceiling. Power is fed to the desks from the pillars, power sockets hang on extendable cables, allowing employees to work together and with flexibility. This particular redevelopment shows that even though the process may be tough at times, the end result is worth it.

Londoners are also using sites that are lying empty, and waiting for planning permission, for pop-up community spaces. They are being used for anything from food trucks, art spaces, silent discos, community gardens, outdoor theatre venues, music halls, workshops, nurseries and even free allotments. As they will also only be for a limited time, more Londoners are flocking towards them before they disappear and the space gets used for what it was intended for. Developers also earn from these empty spaces, as they hire them out, making full use of their space and the time.

A space that has been useful is a triangular patch of industrial land in Fleet Street Hill. Whilst this space was waiting to be transformed into homes and offices, it was made into a Nomadic Community Garden. This consisted of 100 free allotments, events and performance spaces, a caravan café and a park. The man behind the idea is an eco-activist, who saw an opportunity to do something for the community and has funded it with most of his own money.

Normally, conversions consist of pubs being turned into restaurants, factories or warehouses being turned into offices, barns turned into homes and churches turned into shops. Thus, it is refreshing to see these more unusual conversions being undertaken throughout Europe and how initiative is being used to reuse certain buildings. As with anything, if you do the unusual, certain obstacles or challenges will stand in your way. One of the challenges faced by Make Architects was wiring the electrics but with, what can only be described as vision and innovativeness, they came up with a solution. They also faced other challenges such as a lack of space if they used conventional desks, so they opted to use circular desks to ensure space was used efficiently; another was the conundrum of what to do with the old NCP ticket office, which, in the end, was made into one of the meeting rooms.

As it is shown from the examples in London, Paris, Cardiff and Birmingham, many are taking advantage of empty spaces, some for environmental reasons and others for visual reasons, and are not allowing the lack of new spaces hold them back.

What do you think of this idea, do you find it innovative or pointless? Tweet us your thoughts @thefmnetwork.

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