Bramah House at Grosvenor Waterside
Bramah House at Grosvenor Waterside incorporates artwork by Clare Woods on its façade © Make Architects

There is nothing new under the sun, as Shakespeare reminds us, quoting Ecclesiastes and thereby proving the point. Everyone has been at it, loudly or discreetly, for years: that marriage between wealth and status, otherwise known as sponsorship of the arts. From the direct (such as the inspired association of Cointreau with Glyndebourne’s 1982 production of The Love for Three Oranges), to sponsorships “in kind”, such as the media coverage offered by a newspaper to a literary festival.

In London’s property world the connection is part of a process known as “cultural place-making”, engineered by developers over the past decade or so; wooing artistic partners to form more permanent unions, redolent of an earlier era of arts patronage. With last year’s World Cities Culture Report, commissioned by the Mayor of London, identifying culture as the defining essence of a city, it would seem to be in step with contemporary concerns.

St James Group, a property developer, last month announced a partnership with the Royal College of Art at the new Riverlight development in south London, designed by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.

The move, at the first of St James’s three planned developments within the brownfield site of the Nine Elms opportunity area, is the company’s most innovative arts initiative to date.

Riverlight will contain 802 residential units, retail and leisure facilities occupying five acres of land, of which 75 per cent has been designated as open space for integrating commissioned artwork. The RCA, which already has a campus in Battersea, will be given a three-year lease on a studio, free of charge, under the direction of sculptress and RCA tutor Kate Davis. “The public will have access to shows, talks and screenings,” she says. “But this is more than just another gallery. It is a groundbreaking venture in that it will be an active project space for RCA students of all disciplines, which will permit crossover projects of a much larger scale than are currently possible, some of which could also involve public participation.”

It was the success of previous, albeit less ambitious, partnerships between St James and the Royal Academy Schools (at New River Village, in north London) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (at Grosvenor Waterside in central London) that sealed the deal with the RCA.

The new Riverlight studio is due to open next summer. Over a phased period, landscaped areas will integrate mirror-polished steel sculptures by Kate Davis and Scottish artist David Moore, as well as works by the Bloor brothers and Peter Newman.

‘Shack Stack’
‘Shack Stack’ by Richard Wilson at Grosvenor Waterside © Futurecity

For many of the artists, the association has obvious benefits. But what motivates the developers to create partnerships with the arts? Can this involvement be attributed to Section 106 of the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, which requires a contribution to infrastructure that benefits the area, or to the newer community infrastructure levy (CIL), which is set to replace most of Section 106? Not according to the developers.

“We have not been investing in cultural place-making because of Section 106 requirements or CIL,” says Sean Ellis, chairman of St James, whose S106 (ie infrastructure) contribution to the Nine Elms project tops £35m for the extension of the Northern Tube line to nearby Battersea power station.

“In many cases, there is no S106 requirement for cultural contributions, and CIL is largely irrelevant to the interest and increase in cultural place-making,” says Ellis. “St James invests in the arts and cultural strategies as they are generally supported by all our stakeholders – our customers, local authorities and the local community. Having a cultural strategy offers a new dimension to community engagement and helps to create a stronger sense of local ownership of a new development. So, rather than think of the process in terms of making cultural contributions, we try to consider the fundamentals of place-making and address this from the outset, not as an extra contribution dropped in halfway through.”

St James is not alone in this view. Mark Davy, founder of Futurecity, who has worked with St James for more than a decade, specialises in forging relationships between developers and artists. At present, he has about 30 clients and 100 live projects, including United House’s Paynes and Borthwick scheme in Greenwich, southeast London. This scheme will feature a gallery of art by Rubedo, Richard Wilson and Marcus Tomlinson when it is completed next year (a virtual replica of the gallery can be seen on the scheme’s website).

Chelsea Futurespace
Chelsea Futurespace, an art exhibition venue at Grosvenor Waterside © Futurecity

“You could say that S106 acted as a catalyst for greater involvement in the culture of the community,” says Davy. “But the problem is that you would be presented with an arbitrary sum, and told to make art out of it. Whereas the norm is for the developer to begin a process and successively bring in architects, landscapers and marketing people, we persuade the developer to involve us from the very beginning, to create an integrated concept whereby architects and artists will have an ongoing dialogue, to create a narrative of ideas.” Often, the initial response to Davy’s approach is that there is no budget for the arts. But, he says, “it is also about making creative use of an existing budget. So, if £40k has been set aside for street seating, for example, why not use it to work with young artists? Culture, in the modern sense, embraces all aspects of the design process. We are trying to get developers to think more creatively about spaces and how people interact in them”.

It is not only brownfield sites which benefit from this approach. Futurecity has been appointed to develop a cultural strategy for a £320m prime central London development, known as St James’s Market. The project – a joint venture between Crown Estates and Oxford Properties – will combine preserved historic façades with 21st-century architecture in a complex of offices, homes, shops and restaurants.

Although the strategy has yet to be officially adopted, the Grosvenor Waterside project in Pimlico is an indication of what could be achieved. This gesamtkunstwerk, includes a residential block designed by Make architects that incorporates an artwork by Clare Woods, etched into the anodised aluminium façade, while a water sculpture by Ekkehard Altenburger and the six-metre-high aluminium “Shack Stack” by Richard Wilson occupy the central square. St James’s total disbursement in the cultural element of this project alone came to £1.55m.

A dance performance at Kings Place arts hub
A dance performance at Kings Place arts hub in King’s Cross © Mariona Vilaros

Cultural commitment from developers on this level, however, remains rare in the UK. “I have not noticed a real swell of philanthropy among property developers,” says David Graham, of independent planning consultants DP9. “You could argue that by making a cultural contribution, the developer’s S106 payment is reduced. It is all a question of how things are quantified, and what the specific needs of the local area are. But there are exceptions, such as the extraordinary Kings Place project, in London’s King’s Cross development, whose cultural contribution to the area far exceeds any community obligation.”

Kings Place is the award-winning project of developer Peter Millican. With its seven floors of offices, restaurants, art galleries and two concert halls, the scheme is a paradigm of how a successful office development can draw in the community around it.

“The area was a wasteland when we first arrived,” says Millican. “The British Library had arrived in King’s Cross, but that was about it. The concept for King’s Place was to create an architecturally inspiring, mixed-use development which would, without recourse to public capital funding, deliver a major new arts centre and offer something to the local community. When we opened in 2008, the area was still very edgy, and it was a hard sell getting people to come to concerts. But with the development of St Pancras, the arrival of St Martin’s School of Art, the new science block, and the impending arrival of Google, the place has changed enormously, and had a positive effect on local house prices. We have seen a huge transformation in the area.”

What motivated his investment of £25m in the cultural aspect of his development? “I thought it would be a good thing, on many levels,” says Millican. “It creates an environment where people like to work and, therefore, attracts better tenants. It makes for a better long-term investment for the developer. And, of course, it is good for the city.”

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