Watch This Space - It's the New Canvas for Our City's Next Art Boom; Crowd-Puller: Once a Disused Power Station, Tate Modern Art Gallery Is Now a Cultural Landmark and Tourist Attraction
Byline: ROWAN MOORE
AS THE last Woolworths closes, and as the last cutprice CD and cheap plastic toy leave its grey metal shelves, this may not be an obvious time to look on the bright side.
And as Marks & Spencer closes 27 stores, and Next considers a sales drop of "only" seven per cent a triumph, it might seem eccentric to proclaim an opportunity for the future development of London.
Yet a bright side there is. The shrinkage of high street shopping probably, thanks to the internet, never to return in the same way brings back something London has recently lacked, and once had in abundance and to its great benefit. This is what could be called slack space: spare, hard-to-let property that allows creative and ingenious people to experiment and set up new businesses. It is the fallow land of a city, allowing it to renew itself.
In the Seventies London had slack space many times the area of all the lost Woolies put together, and it generated cultural capital that has fuelled the city for a generation. Then it was created by the collapse of the docks and the receding of industry, leaving warehouses, factories, workshops and power stations with no obvious use or future.
The first colonisers were typically artists and students, people with no money but a wish to live and work in the city, and a willingness a desire, even to tolerate discomfort. They took pleasure from freezing in vast, impossible-to-heat spaces, from the picturesque stories they could tell of struggles with vermin and damp, or conducting their sex lives in the shared, open floors of warehouses. They got a frisson from the danger and frontier spirit of it all, and they had a freedom from paying high rents which allowed them to experiment.
By the Eighties the appeal of warehouse living had spread, and building society ads started featuring laid-back yuppies in their daring ex-industrial pads. In the recession of the early Nineties another time of opportunity "loft living" was invented as a commercial concept. A new kind of home, and one that made the idea of living in cities desirable, had been invented. In the process whole areas, such as Clerkenwell, Butler's Wharf and Wapping, were completely changed.
Slack space enabled design businesses, production companies and publishers to start up. Out of one small, rickety, rat-infested slum in Marylebone, shored by wooden props and now lost beneath the back part of a Waitrose, emerged the magazine Blueprint, the influential 9H Gallery, two design companies and David Chipperfield Architects, which is now one of the most celebrated British practices, employing 180 people.
At a larger scale, slack space gave us the Roundhouse, a structure designed for housing steam engines which became a centre of cultural energy.
Camden Market was created from land vacated by the decline of canal-side industry. Covent Garden and more recently the foodie haven of Borough Market were formed out of obsolete wholesale markets. The rip-roaring crowd-puller of Tate Modern was hollowed out of an old power station, as was the smaller but more charming Wapping Project.
Abandoned structures in the docks created settings for film-makers from Derek Jarman to Stanley Kubrick to Cubby Broccoli. …