Mess: Spatial Strategies for London's Cultural Infrastructure

Working collaboratively with our students from the London School of Architecture (LSA), we have addressed some of the issues raised by the Mayor's Cultural Infrastructure strategy and devised a spatial strategy to “sustain London’s future as a cultural capital.”
London's cumulative cultural offer is stunning, from the high-arts in old and new iconic architectures, to pop culture in vibrant street life. All these venues and, just as importantly, their smaller interstitial spaces, represent a complex meshing together of urban and cultural planning that underscores innovation, business success, and wellbeing, making our city appealing to tourists, students, and educated workforce.

Today, however, London's cultural ecology is under threat from a number of different forces. These range from sanitisation, which is turning our public spaces into hyper-regulated environments that are hostile to creativity; to the incessant rise in property value, which is pricing out workspaces and homes for the creative community; through to the growing phenomenon of privatisation of cultural spaces and collections, resulting in a growing number of private museums – often set up as alternatives to paying taxes – proliferating in our cities, alongside tax exemption schemes like CETI (covertly keeping public collections within private walls) and the so-called 'Freeports of culture'. These are extra-state, armoured storage facilities, built in the proximity of major international airports, where high-end collectors can store and trade their artworks without having to pay taxes.

All this while, under the effect of ubiquitous networked technology and rising mobility, consumption and access to culture are radically changing. As we travel more and more and for longer, the "journey" – the time spent between destinations – becomes a significant part of our urban experience, one that blurs the boundaries between work and leisure, favouring a more informal approach to culture. Yet the "journey" remains a largely overlooked area when it comes to urban cultural planning.

Working with our students from the LSA (Louie Austen, Charlotte Hurley, Molly Judge, Lloyd Martin and Sheenwar Siti), we have devised MESS, a city-wide spatial strategy that operates between mobility, infrastructure and public space and that ingenuously tweaks planning policies and taxation schemes to ensure that future investment in cultural infrastructure is not left in the hands of the private sector and directed solely towards totemic containers for the high-arts. MESS' spatial framework of small- and medium-scaled flexible spaces (ideal for studios, workshops, and rehearsal) "stitches" between transport infrastructure, new private developments, and public space, to favour a more permissive and playful environment that preserves London's cultural vibrancy as well as its economical and social wellbeing.


Take the “journey” into consideration 
We propose to exploit the opportunities generated by transport infrastructure developments and distribute new cultural spaces along the length of Crossrail, near its many stations to serve a wider demographic and adapt to Londoners’ daily journeys. For this purpose we have studied the typical day in the life of a Londoner. We have diagrammed where technology, mobility and daily activities (such as sleeping, eating, playing, eating, working etc.) overlap in the routine of an adult and a child respectively, and where in these cycles cultural production, participation and enjoinment tend to insert themselves. 

Create Permissive Places for Production, Participation and Play
Our proposal favours the proliferation of extra-small, small and medium sized flexible spaces, ideal for studios, workshops and rehearsal spaces, in order to support talent and stop the incessant expansion of residential space as well as Large and Extra Large containers for the high-arts at the expense of London’s common creative ground. 

Reform existing funding models 
We propose to allocate a fixed percentage of both Local Authority and Majoral Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – a planning charge that local authorities can impose on large developments within a given distance from new transport infrastructure – in order to support the economic and cultural wellbeing of the area. This levy would fund the provision of new spaces on sites that sit between the forthcoming Crossrail stations and their adjacent speculative developments, as well as further afield within local neighbourhood. We have tested this proposal on two sites touched by Crossrail: Whitechapel and Heathrow Airport. 

Make MESS 
Our proposed cultural infrastructure network, will utilise the ‘shit space’ of development (the less valuable floor space of new buildings, such as the underground or overshadowed areas, or the noisy space in the proximity of an airport) to make room for messy creative activities in our city. Borrowing the model of Shared Economy – essentially connecting and making the most of underused resources – the modest venues we propose will ‘stitch’ between new buildings, transport infrastructure and public spaces, to maximise their use and create a more permissive spatial framework, where variety, hybridity and serendipitous discoveries can unlock the potential for creativity and play in the city.
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