VENUES / Room for manoeuvre: In London, empty offices are providing space for artistic enterprises, as Leo Burley discovers. Below, the downside of recession

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The Independent Culture
SOLVE the following equation: x million sq ft of empty office space plus one moribund property market minus any foreseeable end to the recession divided by thousands of artists and theatre companies looking for creative space equals . . . if the social algebra is fairly simple, the ethical and aesthetic problems of making art in office space are more complex. Despite the risks, more and more groups are learning to deal with the developers.

'Most people are quite bowled over when they see the space,' said Rachel Wyndham, a freelance arts administrator. The space in question is 6,000 sq ft (560 sq m) of Norman Foster-designed open-plan office, the entire ground floor of 172 Great Portland Street, London W1. For those used to slightly less exclusive working addresses, it is definitely of the bowling-over variety.

The property is managed by Great Portland Estates who, in conjunction with Westminster council, plan to redevelop it within the next five years, so at present it is unsuitable for long- term tenancy. Wyndham, formerly with the Almeida Theatre in Islington, negotiated for use of the space on behalf of several groups under the collective title of Creative Block.

'They've laid down some fairly strict conditions,' she explained. 'All the groups involved must have charitable status and there's no security of tenure. We pay a very nominal fee for use of the building but they can give us three months notice to quit at any time. We're allowed to have cocktail parties but nothing larger, though that's not really a problem. Nobody here is in the business of having raves. We're really looking to use the space more creatively.'

In the communal area at the centre of the office, four actors are involved in a heated discussion of how best to present a script. Since Creative Block came into being a month ago, the previously empty building has hosted several writers' workshops, a course in improvisation technique, and almost daily rehearsals.

Carlton Chance is spokesman for The Black Ensemble, an organisation representing people of African descent within the performing arts and the largest group presently ensconced at Great Portland Street: 'Apart from the obvious advantages of accessibility, the space itself confers respect. People simply take you much more seriously if you're showing them work here in the middle of BBC land, rather than some community centre in the sticks. It's easier to attract funding and membership.'

Chance is politely realistic about this latest opportunity: 'The developers and Westminster council have placed a huge resource centre at our disposal and we're very grateful - they seem to be genuinely supportive of what we're doing here, but we're under no illusions. We got this space on the back of the recession and the rebel in me says 'Good, we deserve it'.'

Wyndham is similarly pragmatic: 'I personally feel that there should be more public funding of projects like this, but there isn't - that's just a fact of life. All the groups realise that they may have to move on, but we hope to use this space as a springboard for future projects. This isn't the only empty building in the West End.'

While Creative Block and friends ride the ill wind of recession in central London, there is a gale blowing in the south-east of the city. The follies of the 1980s construction boom stretch as far as the eye can see, though not all the office space is as empty as it looks. Alaska, a large Art Deco structure in Bermondsey, was designed by Wallis Gilbert in 1932. In 1987 Charterhouse Estates redeveloped the main building with the aid of a pounds 4.6m City Grant, just in time for the slump. Its huge white rooms, intended for local businesses, now feature fine art, sculpture and mobile theatre productions.

Charterhouse offered free studio- space to invited artists on condition that they would each contribute two pieces of work to an annual show in the main building, would not alter their spaces permanently and would move when asked to do so. Otherwise, there were no conditions laid down about the nature of the work. Such arrangements are becoming increasingly common, as they both protect buildings against squatters and attract publicity.

'The developers were very straightforward with us from the start,' said Tom Geoghegan, whose El Loco Jago theatre company was given permission to stage three short Moliere plays on Alaska's roof terrace, 'They wanted to generate a favourable environment for sales and to see the building used - we wanted to take an audience out of the theatre and put them in a vulnerable space. It was very much a reciprocal arrangement.'

There was no written agreement between Geoghegan and Charterhouse, merely a request that El Loco Jago pay a pounds 500 returnable deposit to cover any damage and give one performance free of charge. 'It's a fairly insecure way to work,' according to Geoghegan, 'and if there's a problem with the space, the artists are the ones that lose out.' Just before their first show on the roof a television crew turned up to film there, and they had to fight them off.

Alaska's roof terrace views of the City and Docklands are also available from the fourth floor, where Adam McEwen's installation has involved the removal of certain floor sections. The remaining tiles form a spiral path punctuated by short, cryptic references to money: 'It is a fool who does not enter the market place' reads the first one, though later it is 'Twice the fool who takes his wallet with him'. Titles of business self-help books annotate the horizon's larger landmarks; 'The Name's the Thing' states the panel nearest the Lloyds building, while a view of Canary Wharf is captioned by 'Beyond the Trust Gap'. A final panel at the centre of the piece asserts that 'The Cream's in the Deal'.

'The phrases relate to the way in which business works with other people's money and the idea of commission - profits made from the abstract movement of cash,' explained the artist, who once worked briefly as an investment banker. 'Business and art relate in all kinds of ways and if you want to engage in that relationship it helps to be aware of how loaded office space is. You can't just treat buildings as blank spaces, and I'd personally find it difficult to show anything in Canary Wharf. . . .too much marble. If you're not on your toes then it's easy to be eclipsed by the environment in which you show.'

It is perhaps a sign of the times that McEwen's piece has eclipsed its patron. Charterhouse Estates went into receivership last month (see below), though not before some of the artist's inscribed floor panels had attracted buyers. The irony is not lost on McEwen: 'These are interesting times for artists - I've managed to sell four panels of floor that the developers couldn't sell as office-space.'

Creative Block accept project proposals for their communal space, and The Black Ensemble welcome new work from writers of African descent. Scripts and ideas should be sent to 172 Great Portland Street, London W1 5TB. Alaska's artists wish to thank the receivers for extending their show until further notice: 61 Grange Road, London SE1. Tue-Fri 11am-7pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm.

(Photograph omitted)