Renovation can mean many things. Plenty of interesting empty buildings across Britain have found new life and purpose in recent years: churches, hospitals, cinemas, banks and factories. Perhaps the most striking conversion project of all has been the transformation of an empty municipal car park in south London into a vibrant centre for the arts.
Here, on floors seven to 10 of the former multi-storey parking garage in Peckham, the social enterprise Bold Tendencies has created a home for creative pursuits of all kinds. The huge concrete expanses now hum with activity: a sculpture park and other display spaces for up-and-coming visual artists; workshops where kids create art; a project for budding film-makers; an orchestra working with young musicians and children’s choirs.
A big open space like this gives the children a feeling of freedom. It’s very different from the classroom
Today, up on floor seven, children from local primary schools have been experimenting with pink-coloured materials around the staircase. “It’s amazing to see how the children become completely immersed in things so quickly,” says Sasha Morgan, leader of not-for-profit organisation Bold Tendencies’ educational programme.
“There’s something about a big open space like this that’s so flexible, that gives them a feeling of freedom. It’s very different from the classroom.”
Hannah Barry, founder of Bold Tendencies, started the project back in 2007. When she was just 23 years old, Barry forged a deal with Southwark Council to make use of the car park. Living in Peckham and constantly passing the huge, empty site, Barry and fellow artist Sven Mündner envisaged a future for the place that municipal transport planners could scarcely have imagined.
“We thought we’d like to see a new space for sculpture – a place to create more opportunities for young artists,” Barry recalls. “It grew from there and quickly became something much, much bigger.
“We thought it was really important to reach out to as many different types of people as possible,” she adds. “We wanted people in the local area to feel engaged with what we were doing, so that plenty of great ideas got the chance to flourish here.”
The car park’s rooftop was given over to the independent bar Frank’s Café, helping make the Peckham site one of the capital’s most fashionable destinations (and owner of some of south London’s best views). But one of the most important partnerships forged by Bold Tendencies came in 2011, when The Multi-Story Orchestra held a groundbreaking concert here.
The classical orchestra, which includes some of the country’s most talented young musicians, turned one floor of the car park into a concrete concert hall, performing Stravinsky’s monumental Rite of Spring to a dazzled audience. Bowled over by the reaction, the group began playing in schools, before opening up to pupils to join as choirs and instrumentalists for special, one-off performances.
Later this week the orchestra joins forces with singers from Hollydale, John Donne, Kender and Lyndhurst primary schools for a performance of the brand new work In Colour. In August, the BBC Proms 2017 will feature a full concert by The Multi-Story Orchestra.
“We’re playing music that we think is great and we think everybody, given the chance, would love,” says the artistic director and composer Kate Whitley. “We want as many different people from as many different backgrounds as possible.”
Working with schools is a key part of Bold Tendencies’ vision. Now gathered under the new charity Bold Everywhere, the educational initiatives include a scheme that sees professional artists going into London schools to inspire pupils, they provide creative workshops throughout the school holidays and organise My Museum project, which sees children create a gallery of work based on their own stories.
Bold Tendencies is a wonderful organisation with a clear social mission
Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group, has helped finance an expansion in Bold Tendencies’ work. In fact, Big Issue Invest is providing finance for several life-changing, opportunity-giving arts enterprises across the country.
“Bold Tendencies is a wonderful organisation with a clear social mission,” says Kevin Lloyd-Evans, Investment Manager at Big Issue Invest. “Their entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to the arts is commendable, and we were really impressed by the work they do to engage all sorts of people in the community beyond the traditional art world.”
Despite its success, the future of Bold Tendencies at the Peckham car park is not exactly secure. With the temporary leasing arrangement coming to an end in 2020, the council recently rejected an ambitious bid by Bold Tendencies and the social business Second Home to create 800 artists’ studios across the rest of the car park. Southwark Council instead picked Pop Community Ltd’s application for temporary use: a plan that will see 50 artists’ studios alongside “multi-use event spaces, pop-up retail and a cafe/bar”.
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Bold Tendencies will at least be able to stay put until 2020 as part of the new plan. Wherever they end up operating in the long term, Barry is adamant Bold Tendencies will “keep pressing forward and doing new things”.
She is determined to give more young people the chance to act on their innate self-belief.
“When you’re young you have this advantage in not being too scared to take risks,” Barry explains. “It would be great to encourage more young people to feel they can take risks and then make things happen. That’s really our aim – to create a system of opportunity, so new things are possible for others.
Main picture: Copyright Oskar Proctor 2013
Other pictures: Ambra Vernuccio