OUT OF the tatters of the property slump, from the shreds of unoccupied offices and disused factories, a different style of living is being fashioned. It was as long ago as the Fifties that artists and photographers began the trend in New York, but it is now in these twilight days of the recession that the idea is being fully explored in London.
The formula is so beautifully simple, quintessentially urban and economically attractive. You buy an empty factory, or an office block, or a warehouse (there are millions of square feet empty), and you make it your address. In New York they called them lofts, this being an appropriate name for the huge, cavernous spaces with triple-height ceilings across which mezzanine floors could be thrown for sleeping quarters.
So there is no longer any need for design- conscious imitation of the industrial style - installing the right materials to achieve the look, exposing the services and reducing the clutter in order to create something that hovers between art-gallery minimalism and shop-floor functionalism. It is possible now to take the home right back into the factory, and to celebrate genuinely vast floorspace with an acreage of windows and hardware to match. The loft is the perfect antidote to the Victorian house that dominated the homeowner's imagination during the Eighties.
Sometimes this colonisation of empty commercial or industrial space comes about as a result of a cell of creative talent deciding to live and work together. Elsewhere it happens when enlightened developers seize the moment. Only six weeks ago Colin Serlin, managing
director of London Buildings, acquired the Alaska building, a stunning 1939 factory designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners (of Hoover factory fame); four weeks ago he started to sell the loft space through estate agents Alan Selby & Partners.
The building is classic Hercule Poirot - towering white walls patterned with racks of horizontal glazing bars, white exterior staircases with ocean-liner handrails, and a set- piece central glazed stairwell. The Thames, with its riverside restaurants and fancy food shops in the shadow of Tower Bridge, is within walking distance. The recording studio, State 51, is in the basement.
Within, the raw shells of the old factory floors await occupation. You identify the kind of people expected to buy from the props scattered in the one-bedroom version, dressed for showing. Skis have been carelessly flung to one side in the hallway; red pepper skins in olive oil wait by the kitchen sink to be eaten.
Six hundred square feet have been priced at pounds 60,000; 4,000 square feet, with views that extend all the way round from Guy's Hospital to the Crystal Palace television mast, will cost more than pounds 250,000. Bryan Ferry used this cloud-scraping penthouse recently as a stylish background for a video.
The dereliction of the inner city washes round below - gipsy trucks, unoccupied buildings and a tarmacked school playground. With lofts, however, these are all positive factors; a little sleaze is part of living in the heart of the city, the accessories of true urban chic.
Architect Tony Fretton, who has turned a school in south London into a series of loft spaces for some of the country's best-known photographers (who guard their privacy too jealously to allow themselves to be photographed), explains that a certain amount of grit is necessary in the formula. 'A loft needs to come out of a conversion of a building that wasn't residential in the first place, and to have one room that is bigger than you ever imagined you could buy. And it needs to convey an impression of not having cost much to start with. A loft is cheap. And hip.'
The origins of loft living should not be forgotten, he adds. 'Artists of the Fifties moved into these empty spaces in SoHo - South of Houston Street - in New York, because they weren't doing studio work or easel painting. They wanted to be associated with physical work, real work, industrial production. SoHo then was unfashionable, just like Hackney or Watford. That set the tone for lofts.' Andy Warhol's Factory set more tone than most.
'Lofts are the current fave rave,' Fretton says, 'and developers are rushing to get their hot little hands on all that space. There is about eight times the amount of office space that we need in London, so the scope is huge.'
In the Eighties the architect Piers Gough of CZWG, then with his former partner Roger Zogolovitch, attempted to import the concept. They set up the London Loft Company for the purpose. The enterprise is fondly remembered by current enthusiasts as a great milestone in the development of lofts. But Gough chortles as he recalls that the company never actually designed, purchased or sold a single one.
'Lofts didn't take off in anything like the same way here,' he says. 'Partly because many of the dockland warehouses have lower ceilings and tiny little windows with thick brick walls, so they were turned into ordinary flats instead.' An old hat factory in Charterhouse Square, near Smithfield market, seemed much more suitable, and CZWG managed successfully to convert it for a group of 11 designers and artists that reads like a Who's Who of design.
Gough has also just finished converting a 1928 Thirties stucco building nearby in Summer's Street, once used to manufacture dyes for printer's inks. (This area of London was once the heartland of the printing industry.) The building was designed by Stanley Peach, whose other great claim to fame is the centre court at Wimbledon. Gough describes its style as 'an heroic repressed classicism'.
The industrial archaeology of pipes, deep beams and thick concrete floors has been left. 'It's not the place to be if you want a chintzy life,' says Gough. 'It is almost a protest, in the sense that if you live there you're saying you don't want the conventional three bedrooms and the front garden.'
The Manhattan Loft Company (21-22 Grosvenor Street, London WIX 9FE) has sold 22 of the 25 lofts here since September, for between pounds 80,000 for 632 square feet and pounds 250,000 for 1,722 square feet with two roof terraces, and the last three are already under offer. It is significant that they were all sold off-plan, a technique that is supposed to work effectively only when the market provides the right boom conditions to make people buy what is really just a twinkle in the developer's eye. Those who bought the dream here range from doctors and designers to computer experts and singer Tanita Tikaram.
The true loft, though, is more likely to have the dimensions of an aircraft hangar and to come about through individual effort. Fiona Naylor, a designer who is also working with the
Alaska building, has just acquired her own loft, which is a good 4,000 square feet of shell within a Fifties concrete frame office building in Clerkenwell, on the edges of the City. Since it lies at the very summit of the building it allows her to build 500 square feet on top, and it also has 400 square feet of roof terrace.
Fiona Naylor's is a story of real determination and business flair. 'I got a group of people together,' she says, 'and tried to buy 20,000 square feet here, and then 18,000 square feet there, and narrowly missed.'
She also tried for the Summer's Street building, which is nearby, but lost out to the Manhattan Loft Company. 'I ended up going in with a photo agency which has taken three floors, a developer who has taken two floors to rent, and we now have the top floor.'
She warns amateurs away from embarking on a similar enterprise. 'You have to be very tenacious, because in the end the only people who really succeed are the developers. In the last two years, if you move very fast there have been buildings to pick up at auction. Most people have the nave idea that it is just like buying a house, but it requires much more.'
This runaway space, however, will have cost her less than pounds 100 per square foot once finished, so the sums are attractive even if the wheeling and dealing is not. She hopes to move in by Christmas, but first the clean simple design she has for it must be realised. A diagonal wall is planned on the north / south axis, separating a third of the space for bathrooms, bedrooms, laundry room, etc. The rest is internal parkland lit by Crittall windows that drop to the floor, punctured only by the passenger lift which, having no door, beams people into the room as swiftly and silently as Scottie in the Enterprise.
To someone such as Naylor, ordinary terrace houses are earth-bound and mundane in the extreme. 'I want to have a blank canvas to design on. And I want to be as close to central London as possible, to be within walking distance of restaurants, cinemas, everything,' she says. 'If you are living in a city then you should use it and not let it use you. If you play it, you have a fantastic time.'
And so the bandwagon rolls on. London Buildings is currently creating lofts wherever it goes. At King's Cross Marina, it sold nine lofts in Gatti's Wharf in one day in May this year through Alan Selby & Partners. Another batch, priced at between pounds 60,000 and pounds 106,000, will come on the market in November. And at Plympton Street, in Marylebone, 11 more are planned at prices between pounds 80,000 and pounds 140,000. The design is by Eva Jiricna, whose previous work includes the famous monochrome interiors of the Joseph's fashion stores.
Not only are lofts magnets of creativity, but also appear to offer a solution to inner city decay. Piers Gough has long mourned the abandonment by the middle classes of city life. 'Cities need all sorts of activities to keep alive, and yet here we have them being kept alive by economic vagueness rather than planning policies. Interestingly, all this has happened out of dire commercial slump; when capitalism fails, it produces good things.' The
Lofts in the Alaska building, featured last week, are available through Pilcher Hershman & Partners (071-486 5256) and Alan Selby & Partners (081-986 9431).Reuse content