Originally a trend among artists seeking to create imaginative and practical living and working spaces, the conversion of abandoned buildings has grown into a worldwide phenomenon. Now, with people from all walks of life embracing the idea of converted living space, it is easy to forget quite how different and innovative "loft living" seemed in the Seventies. Consider Oliver's Wharf, a handsome tea warehouse on the River Thames. A protected London landmark, it was built in 1870 by the Oliver family, and a century later became one of London's first loft-block conversions. By the 1990s, some of those conversions had started to look dated, and two young architects, Jonathan McDowell and Renato Benedetti, have achieved a handsome re-conversion in one of them, a rooftop apartment and workplace for the owner, an architectural enamellist.
When Benedetti first saw the apartment, it was unoccupied and had been gutted by the previous owner, Lord Palumbo, and what remained - woodwork and bare brick - was rustic rather than metropolitan in feel. It was, Benedetti recalls, "like a big, dilapidated barn". The new owner wanted an open-plan living space that emphasised the river. McDowell and Benedetti drew up a plan for renovating the 232-square-metre, double- height space, introducing cast-iron columns supporting oak trusses under a pitched roof. By adding a new top level, roof terraces and mezzanine bedroom and fully-glazed shower room, they increased the floor space to 372 square metres.
Walls were sandblasted to give the brick a mellow glow. Floorboards are broad planks of English oak with underfloor heating. Spanish limestone was used for the main three-storey-high dividing wall, sandblasted steel for the two-storey-high fire screen which contains the gas fire, bookshelves, a seat and a sink - this also conceals a secret steel stairway to the studio, and supports the studio floor. Throughout the apartment, intensely coloured, enamelled steel screens and cupboard doors by Vera Ronnen and the owner have been placed to reflect the natural light, while windows, skylights and glazed sections in a special cast-glass mix are designed to keep light beaming into the core of the apartment. Even the staircase, built from folded plates of shot-blasted steel, around a screen of cast-glass slabs, is designed to pass light down through the space. Thus, by day, the whole space is bathed in watery luminescence, and reflections of the river play magically upon the ceilings. Cast-glass slabs are everywhere, even in the shower screen and seats suspended above the floor. "The textured green glass with entrapped bubbles looks like melting ice," Benedetti says.
The owner's desire for a light, open-plan living space that emphasised the river, has been brilliantly realised. On the riverfront, there is no problem with being overlooked by neighbouring buildings. And with an unobstructed vista of the river and Tower Bridge, sunsets on the western aspect are spectacular.
Not all large-scale conversions are residential, of course. Restaurants have long been housed in old schools, railway stations, chapels, but warehouses and factories offer scope to accommodate large numbers of diners. Sir Terence Conran set the trend in this country, building on the success of the first of his series of restaurants, Bibendum, which occupies the old Michelin tyre depot in Fulham Road, but again this is not a purely British phenomenon - one restaurant in Helsinki was once home to the telecommunications company Nokia, while the Waag in Amsterdam is so-called because of the building's history as a goods-weighing warehouse.
Many spacious old buildings lend themselves beautifully to the purposes of museum and gallery, and have helped to solve the problems of a generation of conceptual artists, beginning with the Arte Povera in Italy in the late 1960s, who suffered from a lack of space to exhibit their work.
American sculptor and painter Donald Judd has created a new form of museum at Marfa, Texas, in a cluster of abandoned military buildings and Second World War aircraft hangars. Large permanent installations of his own and other artists' work are housed in the hangars, quarter-masters' stores, the armoury and in adobe-style additions, where change is brought about, not by new juxtapositions, but by the changing environment - natural light, weather conditions - and the changing perspective of the viewer.
The abandoned power station at Bankside, London, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in 1947, would not seem to be the friendliest showcase for sculpture and paintings. The Tate Gallery's decision to acquire the building for its modern art collection was, however, based on the exciting dynamics offered by the vast spaces. As the director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota, has pointed out, there is an increasing tendency for some artists to involve the physical space of a gallery or museum in their work.
The Henry Moore Studio at Dean Clough, in Halifax, West Yorkshire, is in a converted seven-storey Victorian carpet-weaving mill. It has given sculptors and artists an extraordinary opportunity to create bold work. The floors, built to take the weight of carpet looms, can support up to one ton per square foot. Often, loading bays and giant double doors - even cranes and fork lifts - in former industrial spaces facilitate the installation of works of art. Richard Long fork-listed 15 tons of coal into the studio for one of his magical circles, while German sculptor Ulrich Ruckriem created his huge monoliths out of the local York stone.
The amount of unbroken wall space in such buildings is an obvious advantage. The Musee d'Orsay in Paris, which was originally built as a train station for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, now houses paintings and sculpture, including a collection of Impressionist paintings. And in a smaller but equally intriguing conversion, Spain's leading museum of modern art, the Reina Sofia, has found a new home in a converted hospital in Madrid.
As the closure of ever more hospitals continues to exercise headline writers, it is to be hoped that the buildings may at least be put to some creative use.
'Converted Spaces', by Nonie Niesewand, with
an introduction by Sir Terence Conran, is published by Conran Octopus, price pounds 30