A return to the lofty ideal

They're talking about a revolution in living. Young sophisticated urbanites are turning their backs on comfy flats in favour of spacious lofts. Well, that's what the property developers would have us believe. Caroline Roux discovers, however, that the principles of the loft manifesto have all but been forgotten and even the owners of genuine lofts soon carve them up in to warrens of minuscule rooms. Then, in London's King's Cross, she finally finds two men who remain true to the movement.
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PEOPLE DO strange things in lofts. They erect a tent in the interior's vast draughty middle as a bedroom. They split them down the middle when they divorce (but live with the frisson of meeting the new lover in the shared elevator). They build a glass bed that swings from the ceiling, or put a hot tub in the centre. Robert Mapplethorpe built a cage in his to sleep in and hung a masturbation machine by the bed - a mirror surrounded with bright lights that blinked on and off to enhance the fulfilment of his narcissistic pleasures.

Or at least people used to do strange things with lofts. But lofts, and the people who live in them, have changed very much indeed. They've always been part of New York's great urban myth, although plenty of penniless Bohemians have also discreetly occupied unused, unloved industrial spaces in London for several decades. But New York's original artists' spaces are now changing hands for millions, while in London industrial buildings looking for love have become big game for property developers rather than the refuge of the poor creative type.

"In 12 months time, new lofts in central London won't be available," says James Lynch of City Loft Company, himself a developer, but one only interested in larger spaces. "The standard house-builders have climbed onto the bandwagon. They are doing two-bedroom flats masquerading as lofts, converting 1960s office blocks and reskinning them. You read the same old stories in the press about the loft lifestyle, but it's over. Everything's been broken down into smaller units and made too expensive. The myth doesn't match the reality."

There have certainly been plenty of stories in the press about Clerkenwell. It is where Harry Handelsman's Manhattan Loft Corporation pulled off London's first upmarket loft-style living development in 1991, in a beautiful empty building in Summers Street, and made the idea of buying yourself a plumbed- in shell a highly lucrative marketing concept. Handelsman now has buildings all over the city, including his massive on-going project opposite the Tate Gallery's new Bankside home, and his activities have generated more column inches than any other developer this decade. Harry didn't invent "loft-living", but he did put the quote marks round it.

The subsequent rash of other loft-style living projects have brought back into use any number of rejected non-domestic sites from old abbattoirs to disused schools and laundries, and revitalised a scattering of neglected urban zones. Just about everyone, from the Department of Environment down, is happy about it, too. "It is almost always difficult to defend demolishing buildings, especially these volumetrically rich industrial ones," says the young architect Adam Caruso who has built both new houses and converted old industrial spaces, "and existing buildings often are more characterful. Even where we have our office - it's a very banal Sixties building, but it has great windows." But not everyone is so thrilled with the process of gentrification that has, for example, swept its way down Charlotte Road in London EC2, or the more fundamental changes it has brought in its wake of higher prices and diminished availability.

Loft-style living could hardly be more different from the taming of a difficult and gritty industrial space that old-style loft inhabitation implied. Rather like the relationship between chocolate and chocolate- flavoured coating, it's a sugary and artificial approximation of the real thing. But the arguments are not so much about taste, although that does come into it ("Loft-style living? It's hysterical!" exclaims one old-school inhabitant), but more about space.

"Planning policy has contributed," says James Lynch, "by not demanding that a conversion should be a certain size, say a minimum of 1,200 square feet. They won't insist on that because they say they're not suitable for family accommodation as they have no amenity [amenity here meaning outside space such as a garden]. But if you have 1,500 square feet, internal amenity can be created." Instead, the planners have allowed the density to increase in such developments; one building is broken down into smaller and smaller units but the prices continue to rise and rise. "Now developers say they can't sell big units because they're too expensive, but if they had never been allowed to create the small units, the price of the larger ones would have stabilised at a lower per-square-foot level."

Lynch, for all that he is a developer and in this to make money, does practice what he preaches. The units in his developments average 1,500 square feet. He sells them as shells, for around pounds 140,000, and offers a pounds 20,000 fit out (basically a functioning kitchen, bathroom and wooden floors) "as a sales incentive". Some buyers are still the expected designer types, but even the denizens of Notting Hill and more luxurious enclaves besides are being lured east by the promise of a vast expanse of uninterrupted wooden flooring and exposed brickwork.

"It's good value for money," says a young merchant banker I meet moving into one of Lynch's off-Old Street shells. "I lived in a really posh flat in South Kensington before, but it was a third of the size of this. I sold it for pounds 250,000, so by buying this I've reduced my mortgage."

His interior contains some beautiful remnants of the building's non-domestic past (just like a loft should) - exquisite honey-combed metal ventilation panels in the bathroom and a wall of the original brown-glazed Victorian tiles. But don't his friends gasp at the lack of stucco and cornices and other Sloane-zone symbols of wealth and privilege? By all accounts not at all - apparently even glamorous young socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson has apparently been sniffing around the Old Street locale. "People are interested in a different way of living," says the banker. "They want space, not fuss. I'm no designer, but these ideas have even reached me, so it must be quite a big trend." And what about living surrounded by undecorative council estates and no nice wine bars or interior-decorating shops? "Well, it's a very well-run estate - there's no graffiti, you know. I think the tenants are vetted."

While the banker has proved himself able to luxuriate in his generous square footage and love his less fortunate neighbours, there is a pragmatic new wave afoot. The new buyer is seduced by the beauty of those shells and then quickly converts the space into a suburban home, albeit with dramatic metal-framed windows, and the possible insertion of one wall in glass brick (which, along with exposed brickwork, seems to be to the mid-Nineties what wall-to-wall shag was in the Seventies - omnipresent, and rarely quite right.)

"At one level, it's quite a decent little house," says a solicitor who, as an original Summers Street resident, is an early example of the new pragmatist. "Compared with other apartments in the building it might be - well, it is - less adventurous." The solicitor has taken his 1,300 square feet (bought for pounds 129,000 in 1992) and slotted in a cosy, if unexceptional, collection of rooms on two floors. We move from the sitting room (grey carpet, ordinary furniture, stunning windows) to the adjoining dining room (long black table surrounded by Meda's "Spaghetti" chairs), and into the traditionally fitted kitchen. "We wanted to be able to let it, if necessary," he says. "For that we needed to make it acceptable to people in the City. And we've got children, and want to have friends to stay. That's a conventional reason to have separate bedrooms and bathroom upstairs." So here you have it - the loft with the downstairs loo.

But, for all the suburbanisation of the loft concept, the creeping gentrification in London of all points east of Holborn, and the fact that Liberty Lofts' latest development is in the outlying eastern district of Clapton (the pounds 50 per-square-feet prices are excellent but, believe me, this place will never turn into TriBeCa: the excitement of gritty urbanism is rarely to be found at the end of the bus route), James Lynch is not entirely correct in his assertion that real lofts have had their day.

All around town, there are those occupying big and defiantly non-domestic spaces who did not find their homes through an estate agent's brochure or via a graphically sophisticated awareness campaign plus launch party announcing the arrival of a new kind of living at a warehouse near you. There are people who live with big padlocks hanging off their heavy industrial double doors with not a letter box in sight.

"I looked for a year," says an industrial designer who has just put down a deposit on 1,500 square feet in Waterloo which he found after wearing through shoe leather all over the city. "You have to walk around every area you like, or where the buildings are interesting, and look until you see something. Then you have to find out who owns it. This building did have a small sign outside, but lots of them don't."

At pounds 75,000 it will sound like a bargain to anyone who didn't have to put in all the effort to find it. Another pounds 40,000 and three months should see to the site's rehabilitation, much of which will be essential work required by building regulations. Living-come-work spaces are subject to a huge range of them, covering both industrial and domestic concerns.

Fashion photographer Christoph Martin rents his space from British Rail. He too found it by foraging through the hinterland of London's King's Cross, tracking down the owners and striking a three-year deal. "It had been empty for three years," says Martin. "We first came to look at it at night, and it was really derelict. There were neon strip lights dangling from the ceiling and the bathroom was covered in stains and full of bloody old bandages. We didn't walk in and think `this is great'."

What he had discovered was the first public boxing gym in England, a huge square space built in 1864 in their spare time by the German engineers working on King's Cross station. What he has inherited is an extraordinary archaelogical site, and quantities of old boxing equipment including gloves, rope and punchbags. Other vestiges of its history include a set of British Rail lockers, baskets (used for storage) and a fully functioning safe from the now closed postal sorting office that was next door. The original showers - with four huge shower heads, old tiling and a decorative pillar complete with Corinthian capital - are still used by Martin and his flatmate Michael Henken. Martin's bedroom is the old weights room; Henken's has a wood-pannelled outer wall that is an archetypal piece of station architecture.

The 3,500 square foot is not glamorous but has the luxury of space. It is neither organised nor a mess, domestic nor industrial. Martin uses it for shoots, and hires it out for pounds 500 a day. "It's an atelier," he says. "We cut wood in here, we work.

You don't see the dirt, so it doesn't matter." They also rollerblade, play basketball and sometimes set up the ping-pong table that's stored in a room out the back.. They clean once a month. The few pieces of furniture are on wheels so the space can be reconfigured in minutes. "That way you don't get bored."

Of course there are disadvantages. There are only a few windows in this ground-floor space: the building was divided horizontally into two and the man upstairs gets the spectacular domed glass roof. It is cold in winter, "but when you come in you put on another sweater, it's what living like this is all about," says Christoph Martin. Yet the building has an energy that comes with its rawness and demented industrial leftovers.

"We often leave the door open and people just wander in," says Martin. "One guy - a local poet called Aidan Dunn - came in and told us we were living over an ancient city, one of the first London settlements. Apparently, this is the most magic spot in all England."

Be that as it may, there's nothing magic about Martin's home for those looking for a chic lifestyle option, or a semi in Surbiton. But if anyone is still wondering about the difference between lofts and loft-style, maybe it is here that they will find the answer to that mystery. !