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Lab Curator Maria Nicanor in Conversation with Urbanist Kate McTiernan

The St. Clements team

The St. Clements team, with Kate McTiernan center-right. Photo: Lynton Pepper

Kate McTiernan

Kate McTiernan. Photo: Lynton Pepper

Visitors at the St. Clements site. Photo: Lynton Pepper.

Visitors at the St. Clements site. Photo: Lynton Pepper

St. Clements by night

St. Clements by night. Photo: Lynton Pepper

St. Clements

The former hospital’s structure as it stands today. Photo: Lynton Pepper

Australian architecture graduate and urbanist­­ Kate MacTiernan lives and works in London. Her passion for space, shaping the urban environment, and connecting people in meaningful ways through her work has led her to become involved with an incredible current project: the refurbishment of the former St. Clements Hospital in London’s Mile End. In the midst of preparations to launch the once-abandoned Victorian structure in London’s increasingly trendy East End later this month, MacTiernan talked to BMW Guggenheim Lab curator Maria Nicanor about her interest in creating places for exchange within London’s dense urban fabric, how the project came to be, and her powerful ideas (and how to fund them) for the renaissance of an unused space.

How did you become interested in architecture and working with public space?

I studied architecture because I was attracted to the possibility of very tangibly shaping the environment and the city into a more nurturing, more equal, and more diverse place, starting in the home and working outwards. I was interested in the politics of space, who is allowed to use what, who has the right to what and what it is that makes somewhere a good “place.” It wasn’t so much an academic conception of abstracted Cartesian space I was interested in, although I admire a lot the ability to create works based on this, but [rather] what makes somewhere good to be in. This is a mixture of space, of activity, of atmosphere, materials, light, warmth, actual people, stories and connection. A good public space can be messy or streamline[d], it can be busy and chaotic, noisy, exciting, and complex, or it can be calm and simple.

The ability to create the right feel—or even let it occur without too much interruption—is simultaneously one of the easiest things to do and one of the hardest. We, as humans, can naturally create great places—we instinctively want places that suit us. And yet somehow, in all the planning processes, all the 3-D renderings and all the mental anguish over flow diagrams or the correct quota of “play” space and “defensible space,” we hardly ever achieve it. The approach, then, at St. Clements, to space, is to be more like a gardener, gently shaping, working with the grain and what is there, building on it, amending things that don’t work, experimenting, working within constraints (rather than a blank sheet of paper) and finding creative ways to use defunct things.

You moved to London from Australia (where you lived in Perth and Melbourne). What differences do you find in the ways that people engage with public space, particularly in such a dense city as London?

In Australia, there is far less competition for space, but there is a greater need for spaces that are habitable, comfortable, and environmentally sensitive because of the extreme [climate] conditions. Sometimes I think the psychology of Australians also is fundamentally different, as they have an irreverent, less hierarchical approach that spills over into design. I also think the overwhelming sense of history in London has meant that people have a very fixed idea of what the parameters are of what can be done—to break out from history is harder. The density and closed-in feeling of London drives a need for horizons and clear space.

There is also a spiritual connection with the land that comes from the aboriginal conceptions of land and the Dreamtime stories of how the land was formed and used. I think that it is this sense of places having their own history and own kind of spirit (in architecture they say genius loci) or character, as well as the uninhibited reappropriation of space that is the kind of irreverent Australian style, [that explains why Australians are often] good at making casual places like cafés and public spaces that are inclusive, original, and alive.

St. Clements is an unusually large piece of land in the middle of London, and it has its own unique and dramatic possibilities that are hard to ignore—the feeling of open, unused space is a relief amongst the surrounding density. On one side of Mile End, you have the kind of grand Georgian squares, and on the other you have the tower blocks. St. Clements is an oasis off the busy road and is the natural heart for the area—it stirs up a lot of memories and a lot of passions and [that] is the reason we couldn’t let it just keep sitting there unused.

How did the St. Clements project start and how do you see it developing? How are locals reacting to it?

I first got involved in the project because I believe strongly in finding ways for people who are priced out of the housing market to be able to participate in city life and enrich it. Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are a good model for this as they keep a stock of the housing permanently affordable, but still follow the traditional home-ownership model to which people aspire. My friend Dave Smith, a community organizer from London Citizens, took me to visit the site. . . . London Citizens had been campaigning for five years for a CLT and searching for an appropriate piece of land on which to pilot the scheme. It was a rare, large piece of land that was publicly owned and [a] one-thousand-strong membership of local community leaders and residence thought it could be ideal for trying out this model, in terms of keeping the land held in trust.

I joined the board of trustees five years ago and began helping to organize and get the Mayor (Boris Johnson) to commit to the first-ever urban CLT in the UK. Our board and local residents decided it wasn’t enough to just look at housing; making a place to live was about community, creativity, and opportunity, and this is where the idea to reuse the derelict site before development came from. The building and site itself is very special as it has never before been open to the public—it was built as a workhouse and then became a psychiatric hospital, so it was always walled off. It made sense to feed people’s curiosity and allow them in—in this romantic decaying Victorian grandeur that we found locked away.

The response has been overwhelming. We are blown away by how many people have come forward wanting to help, to contribute, to spend their days on-site building, gardening, performing, and bringing the place back to life. We have psychiatrists, ex-nurses, ex-patients, community-service groups, local students, local school kids, the elderly, artists, accountants, carpenters, film stars, politicians, bankers, businesses, and anyone else who wanders by, all mucking in and creating something very beautiful and original. Local mothers cook us dinner in the evenings and people at the pub always say “hello” now and are looking forward to the opening.

Many times incredible publicly owned historic spaces like the one you’ve found at St. Clements remain derelict because of difficulties in securing funding for restoration and reuse efforts. In economically challenging times, when public money is short, how does one fund projects like this? Is the way of the future to engage in public-private financing? Sometimes it’s more cost-efficient for developers to demolish existing buildings than to bring them back to life—how do you challenge that?

We got all our funding for the cultural uses of the site and summer festival from private resources. So many local businesses have donated equipment, expertise, and money. Enlightened individuals come to the site, see the potential and the goodwill of all the people volunteering, and help us to get by.

Rather than seeing it as a struggle to get finance or a struggle for developers and public bodies to invest in these derelict sites, I see this as a great opportunity to work from the bottom up, using small [amounts] of money, directed by local groups, to achieve the kind of places they want their public land to become.

The very act of artists and local groups working in the space actually makes money and begins the growth from the inside, rather than waiting for someone to plonk down a huge scheme out of nowhere. I think the business case for being more inclusive in development is a strong one. And not just in “consultation” sessions, which don’t practically alter the nature of the development in any true sense. People actually on-site gardening, kids doing local history projects about the buildings or making films (like they are at St. Clements), families learning how to ride a bike, students setting up market stalls on the weekend for some extra money while they study, site-specific artists creating works—these things give people real ownership and influence over how the place will be used and by whom. This, in turn, influences the ability of the place to be a self-supporting system of managed space that has social benefits and makes money to allow more things to happen and to maintain the buildings.

The value comes about gradually, but it stays, and the returns and growth are exponential. Opportunities provided by bodies, like [those] the Greater London Authority and Linden Homes have provided at St. Clements, allow people to expand their wings—local enterprise, local skills, and access to land have unlimited scope to allow a wider set of people to reap the rewards of development. Even the security company we are using for the festival is running a training scheme alongside the professional service they are providing us for the Shuffle festival! There is so much scope if you spend a bit more time in the pre-development stage to really make sure the way it is done benefits the people that live around the area.

What difficulties have you found in trying to launch a project that promotes the idea of temporary space with mixed-use? Do Londoners like temporary?

Londoners love temporary. Londoners like anything that is eccentric and unusual and makes their city more vibrant. Temporary spaces allow something unexpected to crop up in the hidden, understated way that suits the city. Ultimately, though, people do want it to grow and become permanent—it doesn’t make sense for everything to become so fleeting. Things become more powerful and effective as they grow and take root. London is so layered with unusual places and people, but as the high streets become more and more similar it is important that the hidden and alive things that occur in the forgotten parts are allowed to take hold, get a permanent base, and shape the city that shaped them.

What’s your stand on gentrification and how quickly some London neighborhoods—especially in East London—have been changing? Is there a good kind of gentrification?

I think an easy way to think about this is very practically. Gentrification, if we take it to mean money, or people with money, doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Money makes things happen, it can be a tool that allows people to trade, to invest, and to live well. The problem is when the things that made the place special, the collection of human networks, of services and of public spaces, get usurped by private money and become alienating, monocultural, and exclusive. “Private wealth, public poverty” can be the result of rampant gentrification and the loss of publicly owned places. It is not a moral judgment about whether gentrification is good or bad—I just think that anything that wipes out diversity and people creates places that are less lovely to live in and to be in.

Money helps create places that function and are inspiring, but so does not having money. Constraints and difficult economic circumstances oftentimes create the most fertile places, if the underlying society is healthy. People who do not work in offices making squillions set up shops that sell things you can actually live off (potatoes, fruits, vegetables, and milk); they sit on the side of the street and smoke and talk, rather than rush by in suits. I think that the best thing is to have a stock of housing that remains linked to what people in normal jobs actually earn. This way, you don’t get the sudden destruction of a place that has become cool. This is what we are trying to do with the East London Community Land Trust and the 23 houses we will eventually build on St. Clements.

We don’t want Mile End to disappear in a cloud of inflated overseas money, and we want this model to become the norm for development, so this is one small step towards that. The reason St. Clements Social Club and Shuffle festival are possible is because of the amazingly diverse makeup of the area and the collective interest in creating a place together and for the benefit of everyone. People need each other and need a space to use, so they work together. Ultimately, if everyone has individual deep pockets, this tends to happen less often—people can go on holiday and visit a public square in Italy, rather than stay at home and create one on their doorstep.

How can people get involved with the St. Clements project?

They can email us on the website. We respond to everyone. It will probably need a bit of work right up until when we become a fully-fledged cinema and festival on the August 8, so you can always come by and lend a hand and have a beer at the end of the day. And after this, our work will continue through all other aspects of the Community Land Trust, details of which can be found at eastlondonclt.co.uk.