Regeneration Through The Arts

March 10, 2017

Design for Auckland

The 2017 Auckland Arts Festival began in earnest on Wednesday. The festival acts as a three week platform for artistic expression.  As we celebrate the Arts in Auckland, Julie Hill asks, what role can the arts play in urban regeneration?

Around the world, artists have a knack for encroaching on parts of town, often with the cheapest accommodation, taking them over and, in the process, enriching and individualising even the cruddiest of neighbourhoods.

Take Auckland’s Karangahape Road for example. In the 1980s its heritage architecture was spared from a mirror-glass makeover because the area was considered too seedy – at which point artists, musicians and fashion designers started claiming its vast and then cheap-as-chips colonial-era spaces for their own.

Charles Landry, who invented the concept of the Creative City back in the late 1980s, argues in his 1996 book The Art of Regeneration that art improves a town’s image of itself, establishes a unique identity for it and even reduces offending. He cites successful examples of urban renewal through the creation of studios and cultural quarters in run-down central districts, a process which has been going on in the US since the late 1960s and in the likes of Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham since the 80s.

Creatives flocked to K Road in the 1980s to capitalise on cheap rent

 

Birmingham is one of several UK cities integrating the arts into urban regeneration (Source: The Independent)

Birmingham is one of several UK cities integrating creative industries into urban renewal (Source: The Independent)

 

But all too often, after an area has served as an artists’ quarters, and flourished as a result, a familiar process begins: developers swoop in and pitch the area to buyers on the basis of its hip stores and bohemian atmosphere. Once entrenched, the new neighbours decide they don’t like living across the road from a nightclub as much as they thought they would, while the artists are no longer able to afford the rent and drift elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether this very story will play out on K Road’s artist community in the coming few years as it undergoes what some view as gentrification.

The people of London’s Peckham showed their local government how dearly they treasure the arts in 2015, when they were on the verge of losing their beloved Bussey Building, a world-famous centre for gigs, theatre, film screenings, exhibitions and club nights. Property developers wanted to create a luxury apartment complex bang in front of the Bussey, with additional two storeys on top, which would block the alley where clubbers queue and block the view from the Bussey’s courtyard and rooftop cinema.

Bussey spokesperson Mickey Smith put it plainly: “It would kill Peckham’s creative scene, because the precedent would be set that money is being valued over creativity. Projects like the Bussey have put so much creativity into the area, so for that to have to move somewhere else entirely would be a massive loss.” Not only might the scheme kill the venue, protestors argued, but hundreds of jobs in businesses based in the industrial units behind where the flats were proposed were also at risk.

London clubbers had already had a tough year with the loss of Madame JoJo’s, Plastic People and The Joiners Arms, and possibly this incident pushed them over the edge, because they rallied together in their thousands to object the planning application. Southwark Council received so many complaints that their website crashed. In due course, the developer announced not only that it had withdrawn its application but that it would work with the community to develop any future plans for the site.

The Joiners Arms, an iconic LGBT bar in London, was forced into closing to make way for new housing

 

Residents of Peckham petitioned to save the Bussey Building from development - now, the building is one London's leading centres for the creative arts

Residents of Peckham banded together to save the Bussey Building from development and set a precedent in London for the value of the arts to communities

 

American “retail futurist” Howard Saunders of the website 22ndand5th reckons that because of the actions of governments, local authorities and landlords, many communities around the world are in danger of losing their soul as Peckham had been. He laments the fact that many are beset by “relentless rents, rates, taxes and parking” and still obsessed with retail, even after the global financial crisis. “Even our richest, busiest town centres are locked in a state of stasis, where only ubiquitous chain-stores are willing to invest,” he complains.

His remedy to this bleakness is to travel the world in search of alternatives: things he calls “microtowns” or “hipstery green shoots” that sprout to the surface among the grey same-sameness of the city’s main drag. Microtowns usually form over a beer, he says. “A couple of guys agree to try brewing their own and when that goes well they want their own brewery. They settle on a silly name, rent a warehouse on a disused industrial estate and within a couple of years have opened a shop, a bar and been joined by an arty florist, a trendy barber, a funky fashion designer and a gourmet hot dog stand.”

Though Saunders has only unkind words for Auckland itself, describing it as “tatty” and a “pitiful mess”, in a list of half a dozen of his favourite international microtowns, he namechecks our very own City Works Depot, praising it for its small but perfectly formed constellation of stores that do indeed include a brewery, an arty florist and gourmet bagels. “This scruffy little industrial estate puts the town centre to shame.”

The City Works Depot was originally used as Auckland's central bus depot, before falling into  disuse (Source: Architecture Now)

The City Works Depot was originally used as workshops for the Auckland City Council, before falling into disuse (Source: Architecture Now)

 

Originally the Auckland City Council Workshops, City Works Depot was designed in the late 1960s by Ewen Wainscott, who also left his elegant modernist stamp on the Civic Centre, the Central City Library and the Parnell Salt Water Pools. Wainscott won several national architectural awards for the buildings – basically, they were 1960s council buildings but not ugly – and his inventive use of the site.

But by the 1990s, despite a smattering of fashion shows and parties, it was basically a collection of rusty old sheds. Over that time it survived not one but two attempts to transform it into big hybrid residential and commercial spaces. From 2006, cafe and custom motorbike shop Deus ex Machina was there by itself, and the sheds were available for rent as cheap rent spaces for exhibitions, music and events like the Sustainable Business Network Awards. Finally Tournament Parking bought the precinct in 2012, collaborating with architect Nat Cheshire, who embraced its raw materials of steel, concrete, glass and timber.

In a research paper, Unitec Institute of Technology’s Dr Lydia Kiroff and Xiaotian Tan praise the way the Depot’s integrity has been preserved, saying it “has undergone a complete transformation from an industrial complex housing garages, workshops and parking to a fashionable mixed-use precinct with upmarket retail, fine dining and a creative hub”. They say the Depot is part of a “pervasive trend” over the past decade in Auckland of reinventing older buildings. “Adaptive re-use of old industrial buildings is often seen as an alternative to demolition and replacement and as the primary development solution for an existing building when it no longer meets expectations. Building adaptation plays an important role in urban regeneration through the preservation of urban heritage while achieving major economic benefits.”

These days, the City Works Depot is a hub for industry-leading creative businesses

These days, the City Works Depot is a hub for industry-leading creative businesses

 

So City Works Depot’s success derives from its unique collection of high-quality stores, and its community of resident designers, architects and artisans, but also from having developers who saw gold in a derelict site. As architect Nat Cheshire says: “Ruins are treasures. And the City Works Depot was probably one of the greatest ruins of them all.”

It is obvious how valuable the arts are to cities. They are the very things that make our urban areas living, breathing places and can act as catalysts for successful regeneration. However, as evidenced by the Bussey Building, it is a fine line between regeneration and greed. In order for Auckland’s creative industries to flourish alongside urban renewal, we must first respect the arts and their importance to our communities.

The ADM’s Public Art Hub is your one stop shop for all things public art, including case studies, guidance and other resources on the subject.

The Auckland Arts Festival runs until Sunday 26th March. Check out the events calendar and get yourself to one of the many exciting events on at venues across Tāmaki Makaurau.

Article by Julie Hill

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