Words by Indigo Clarke
Rescued from imminent scrapping, four tube train carriages in London’s East End are finding new life as unlikely offices, finds Indigo Clarke
Wandering through the creative hub of Shoreditch, you’re bound to cross paths with someone or something out of
the ordinary – or, in this case, stopped in your tracks by the sight of four train carriages elevated above a viaduct
atop a massive warehouse on Great Eastern Street.
The former Jubilee line carriages, taking in views over the ramshackle East End, have taken on a new lease of life as studio spaces for young creative professionals. The once obsolete carriages, along with two old shipping containers, have been entirely reconstructed as functional workspaces using sustainable or salvaged materials. The vast, painstakingly restored warehouse space below has gone from derelict waste of space to urbane venue within 18 months – and all through a process of “begging, borrowing and blagging”, according to the project’s inspired initiator,
Foxcroft is director of Village Underground, a company providing low-cost studio spaces to creatives in need.
A not-for-profit social enterprise, the affordable workspaces have been designed to support young creative and cultural practitioners pursuing independent businesses and careers. “I’m a furniture designer and wanted my own studio,” explains Foxcroft. “But because of the limited choice and high cost of workspaces around London, it was impossible.
I decided I needed to find or create a space for myself and for like-minded people to work.”
“I’d had the idea of reusing train carriages as workspaces for years – they’re the perfect space to work in – a lot of windows and light, and actually quite spacious. From a workspace perspective, it’s also important to display your creativity through your environment and to work in a place that inspires you. In early 2007, a whole range of creative people, from architects, interior designers, filmmakers, scriptwriters to artists, will be working here,” says Foxcroft. With over a year and a half spent searching for a site, then nearly two years extensively renovating it, this project has truly been a labour of love. With no leads, and constant letdowns and deal breaks, Foxcroft persevered with his eccentric plan to obtain a warehouse space for little cost, then situate train carriages (purchased from London Underground) somewhere in or on it, when most would have called it a day.
“When Auro first came to me with an idea to find a site to reuse tube trains as affordable studio spaces, I thought he was a nutter,” says Daniel Bridge, Planner at Urban Design company EDAW, and formerly Head of Invest in Hackney, an investment agency that promotes new business in the area. “But the idea is brilliant and it worked – and he managed to make it happen with very little funding. There has been such an overwhelmingly positive response from people like Hugo Boss and MTV who want to have events at the warehouse space, and in the trains above.” Invest in Hackney worked closely with Foxcroft to facilitate the Village Underground project. “We were really impressed with the innovation behind the idea,” says current head Lindsay Tripp. “The concept fits perfectly with the creative, edgy feel of the borough. Furthermore, easing access to affordable workspace is something Invest in Hackney actively supports. Creative workspace in the area is increasingly difficult to find as the high cost of living and studio space creates a financial chokehold on those in the typically low-paid creative industries. We also used the Village Underground space to host our own event profiling future commercial developments in Hackney.”
Just off the main drag, the vast brick warehouse, featuring high ceilings and striking archways, is currently a sought-after exhibition, performance and events venue home to high-end fashion, film and art events every other night. It’s hard to believe that just a matter of months ago this impressive space had no roof, was completely derelict and burnt out – with a stray, mangled car or three dotted throughout. Offered a low-rent ten-year lease on the space and the viaduct above through Hackney Council, Foxcroft immediately accepted – only taking in the enormity of the project once signed and sealed.
“I had my heart set on following through, and didn’t want to let the opportunity slip by. Once the reality set in that I was taking over a huge, utterly dilapidated warehouse, I freaked out,” admits Foxcroft.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to do this, what have I done, where will I find the money to fix it?’” Using all means available to him, including his brother who mainly controls the warehouse venue, Foxcroft slowly and sustainably made headway. “The project would never have happened without the free help and services from dozens of friends and professional people including architects, lawyers, financers, accountants and business mentors. My job has been to orchestrate everything, while also being the bricklayer, producer and marketer.
“One of the most important elements of this project is its environmental design. I wanted the spaces to be working examples of ecology in building, design and architecture. From the reusing of train carriages and shipping containers to reclaimed timber and plastics – everything we have used is recycled or recyclable,” says Foxcroft. Soon moving his business into the deceptively spacious environs, architect Nicolas Laurent has been actively involved with the project for nearly two years. “I like things that are quirky and unusual, and I’d always been interested in checking out the viaducts around Brick Lane,” says Laurent, explaining the reasoning behind his association in the scheme. “I met Auro and liked him – and really like the carriage spaces and concept of creating attractive, affordable work environs by building at a low cost.”
“The project has followed Auro’s vision, but he is very considerate of the design options I have offered him, and I’ve had to be very flexible to ensure the costs have been kept down. It took a lot of conviction to pursue this project – many people didn’t believe in it or think it was possible. Because you are at the mercy of your budget – and we had virtually zero budget, sometimes I wondered if it would come together,” says Laurent. Budget, or lack thereof, has been the major setback – causing frequent, and lengthy, delays. But finances raised through the hiring of the warehouse space, not to mention the endless freebies from companies and consultants, assisted in production. The question of safety could have been a further dilemma, as the train carriages were only accessible via makeshift ladders and scaffolding throughout renovation and construction.
“I had no idea how the council would respond to trains being suspended on viaducts,” says Laurent. “But planning went quite smoothly. The staircases and walkways have been designed while liaising with the fire brigade to ensure safety, and to make sure everything conforms to strict guidelines.”
Following the unlikely success of this inspired project, Foxcroft is considering an international expansion of the concept, taking Village Underground to cities around the world. For the moment, he is content for the London chapter to take centre stage, promoting it as a platform for culture and creativity. “One of the train carriages will be set aside for creatives travelling through London,” explains Foxcroft. “That way this project will be about more than just a bunch of designers in London – but rather an international community of people who can inspire and collaborate with one another.”