I wrote a feature on the Redundant Architects Recreation Association, an artist and makers’ collective based in Clapton, for the Winter 2014 edition of Wily Badger magazine. Click to read the full article.
Clapton’s architect collective has quietly been installing its work all across London, creating employment for the local artists and makers who were disproportionately hit by the recent economic downturn. Redundant Architects Recreation Association Co-founder Joe Swift tells us how the collective got to where it is today
The number of artists and makers looking to join the Redundant Architects Recreation Association (RARA) has hit a wall: there is simply no more room.
That isn’t to say there are currently increased redundancies of talented craftspeople – far from it. It’s just that RARA’s reputation has outgrown itself. The work is coming in and the business has grown steadily over the past six years. What started as a £2,000 credit card debt has become a functioning business with work that can be seen across the city. “We need to expand so that we can start giving places to the people on our waiting list,” explains Joe Swift, a founding member of RARA.
“Our membership has grown slowly, like a moss accruing. Many people have used us as a stepping stone, moving on to bigger things, but now we have a group of people who have decided that RARA is where they want to stay,” Joe says of their current expansion issue. “We’re at this critical point where we don’t have a single corner of space that can be offered to transient users, which was the whole reason we started RARA.”
Upon graduation and after finding their first full-time jobs, the original founders of RARA – Sam Potts, Dan Nation and Joe – found, as so many people do, that the dream of working for a large firm when you have little real work experience was unstimulating and unfulfilling. Sick of working on CAD designs all day, they used their spare time to explore where they could take their practice.
“So we had an idea,” Joe tells us. “For the London Festival of Architecture in 2008, Sam and Dan got local artists from around South London to come down to these railway arches we had found. Sam had a huge fiberglass speaker that he made during a previous work placement, and we made two more to create a sound system.” The artists were invited to create soundscapes in the arches. “This was our architectural intervention – albeit a brief one – that was all about having a dance and getting people to use this space in a new way. In the daytime we’d have cups of tea and people could listen to the sound art through headphones, and in the evening we would have a party, with DJs and cans of beer.”
The group pulled the project off without their own studio space or the money to rent one. “We had to borrow friends back yards and garages, and we kept having to move these huge speakers around.
It was a nightmare, but it was all part of us trying to create a collective,” Joe recalls. “As soon as this project was finished, we asked ourselves, ‘do we carry on’? Of course we did, there was never really another option.”
Alongside their full-time jobs, the group set about building the foundations for RARA. Every free minute was dedicated to finding a space, until the unit on Grosvenor Way – where RARA is today – was discovered on Gumtree. The space was being offered at £1 a square foot, so the group took what they could afford and split the £180 monthly rent between the three of them, although eventually they would be forced to take responsibility for the whole space, when the original tenants left.
“At the time, Clapton wasn’t very trendy, it was hard to get to and no one really wanted to come here. We found that the artists and makers living in the area were all struggling in some way, and for them the space became a really valuable resource. We sublet a large portion of it to these other makers for three years, and as we gradually grew our membership we were able to start taking the space back,” Joe explains.
The decision to move to Clapton was one borne out of necessity, but now the location has become of paramount importance to the group’s members. Not because Clapton has become something that it was not four years ago, but because the members all live nearby. The benefit of having somewhere near home to drop off tools, and the fact that there is a builders merchants near by cannot be underestimated – and RARA certainly could not boast these qualities had it been based in Zone 1.
That said, with the neighbourhood changing at the pace it is, RARA’s future in E5 is uncertain. When we ask Joe how he feels after the Tram Depot sale, his outlook is realistic: “Grosvenor Way may well end up becoming a street of residential housing; the price of the land will become too high for the current owners not to sell it. But we have built up some good assets and we’ve got a strong business that will be able to survive moving on to a new place,” Joe tells us. “We’ve managed to create a business that is employing local people, which I would say is a success. By moving our business we’ll be able to keep growing, and keep finding jobs for people.” The search for a new space is ongoing, but locations around Clapton have been considered, including Chats Palace.
As RARA’s membership has grown, the group has been able to take on a range of projects; and with it’s cross-disciplinary membership, the Redundant Architects are able to actually build and make many of their designs, a skill often forgotten when working in a corporate practice for too long.
Notable projects have included a 9-metre high sculpture of a dog that debuted at Secret Garden Party in 2012, Google’s 2013 Gay Pride float, and the wayfinding stations for the Southbank’s Festival of Neighbourhood in the same year. For more on RARA’s local projects, see the ‘Members in focus’ boxout below.
Maxim Lyne, the environmentalist
Max discovered RARA through a job advertisement back in 2011, and became a member in late 2012. Looking for a low-cost workshop space to build lamp prototypes, RARA’s relaxed atmosphere and community of designers and makers appealed to him.
Max uses locally grown timber to make his products at RARA. He worked for a period with a tree surgeon, where they were given a patch of sweet chestnut coppice by a country estate in exchange for fencing materials made from the coppice itself. Max strongly believes in the importance of supporting the men and women that work in today’s woodlands, as they are maintaining a long and rich heritage of woodland activity and rural employment, as well as encouraging woodland preservation.
Max worked with the Greater London Authority to deliver the Mayor’s 2013 Low Carbon Prize (now Low Carbon Entrepreneur), an annual competition run throughout academia in London to promote energy saving innovation. Max wrote competition material, managed networks of student and academic contacts, helped to host events, and was part of the first round of judges.
Laure Ledard, the urbanist
Laure discovered RARA in 2011 through an advertisement on Gumtree. In the threeyears Laure has been with the organisation, she has been instrumental in setting up RARA as a genuine cooperative, evolving the business to a point where all members are now directors, and are fully involved in the democratic management of the organisation.
Our favourite project of Laure’s is the Ping Pang Pong table – a three way ping-pong table used to encourage engagement among residents by asking them to play, laugh, move and engage with their environment. Ping Pang Pong tables have been installed at various sites across London.
In 2012, Millfields Park in Clapton got its very own Ping Pang Pong table, as part of that year’s London Festival of Architecture. It was so popular among residents that RARA sought to make it a permanent fixture, on the site of a disused paddling pool in need of regeneration. The group raised support through the crowdfunding platform SpaceHive, but were unfortunately unsuccessful in obtaining planning permission. “The Millfields Park Users Group seemed to have already proposed some designs for this peculiar site, and had an ongoing relationship with the planning officer in charge. Unfortunately, nothing has happened yet to regenerate this derelict and dangerous paddling pool,” Laure reflects. The Ping Pang Pong table continues to move around London encouraging people to play and laugh.
Alexandra Parry, the artist
Alexandra originally worked in a studio that also housed film and jewellery makers, but craved a space where it was acceptable to make a mess. RARA was an ideal fit, and she has been with the organisation for nearly two years now. Alongside members Andrew Marsh and Eva Freeman, Alexandra looks after RARA’s social media communications. She is also part of the project group, where she keeps an eye out for new opportunities for RARA.
In 2013, Alexandra ran a table making workshop in Clapton, in preparation for the Hackney Harvest – a street feast which took place on Narrow Way. Alexandra was keen to get the general public involved in building the infrastructure for the occasion, making the preparation process part of the event itself. Alexandra enlisted the help of RARA members to deliver the workshop, providing a varied array of tutors. Tasks ranged from working with hand tools to painting, moving materials and more complex construction and problem solving. The aim was to build people’s skills and confidence through making.
“It’s really empowering to make things and there are plenty of materials for free in London that people can find in skips and on the street,” Alexandra tells us. “And there’s nothing like having a tea break with 20 people!” The tables and benches have now been donated to various sites around London, such as the Robin Hood Community Garden in Clapton and the Wilton Way Estate near Hackney Central Overground station.
View the original print PDF here.