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Oxo Tower Wharf

by Stephen Prendergast

Published: July 2015

Oxo Tower is sited between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge, on the south bank of the River Thames. Once it was a meat processing store. Now it is home to the living. Oxo Tower fronts the Riverside Walkway, a popular route for tourists on their way to The Globe or Tate Modern. On the ground floor are bars, cafes and two exhibition spaces, and on the top floor a swish Harvey Nichols restaurant. The first and second floors are reserved for studios and galleries, over thirty of them, leased to top quality designers and crafters. Visitors can wander around, meet the practitioners, enjoy the art and of course purchase or commission work. The setting  is clean and bright and well signposted.
Go back 40 years and the picture is very different. Oxo Tower was due to be demolished. The area had suffered terrible bomb damage during the Second World War. Much of what remained had been bulldozed to accommodate the Festival of Britain in 1951.
By the early 1970s the residential population had fallen from 50,000 to just 4,000. It was a bleak landscape with acres of derelict land, yet loved  by the locals. The area was ripe for development. In the 1970s plans were afoot to build glass and steel towers with over one million square feet of rentable office space. But first they had to demolish the remaining houses.
People who lived and worked in the area were angry at the injustice of losing their homes and places of work. They united together and formed an action group to oppose the development. A seven year battle and two public inquiries ensued. Victory came when the Greater London Council bought the land and sold it to the action group who then supervised the development of the thirteen acre site. Coin Street Community Builders was born.Today they are a thriving social enterprise, a local employer, and an inspiration to others.
Coin Street Community Builders are careful to select designers and makers from a variety of creative disciplines. It’s impossible to review them all in this brief article; the following is a snapshot of just four.
Studio Fusion Gallery specialise in contemporary enamel art. Owned and run by a co-operative of seven artists, they have been located at Oxo Tower since 1996. If you associate enamel art with crafts from the past, visit this gallery. The work is modern and creative, utilising a spectrum of making skills. Artists from all over the world show here. Click the ‘archive’ button on their website and marvel at the work going back several years. Sarah Letts, one of the seven owner-artists, likes the location. “We get quite a lot of visitors here and people come back all the time, but we do change the exhibition every six weeks or so. We have a good clientele which we have built up over the years. It’s good being on the Riverside Walkway and near Tate Modern. It’s a lovely walk along the Thames.” Studio Fusion is at 1.06 Oxo Tower, on the Riverside of  the building.
Lauren Shanley is a textile designer with a passion for transforming recycled materials into magical collages layered with colour and texture, often themed around stories. Using vintage cottons, brocades, silks and velvets, she makes jackets, skirts, dresses, gowns, handbags, cushions, quilts and wall hangings. She handcrafts the recycled fabric using a combination of stitching, embroidery, appliqué and beading. Her work is colourful, sometimes psychedelic, but never pastiche. She is a wonderfully creative designer with a bold and witty aesthetic. Visit her shop   at 1.04 Oxo Tower, on the Riverside of the building.
Mikala Djorup makes gold and diamond jewellery. Her studio is at 1.16 Oxo Tower, on the Barge House Street side of the building. She was at Gabriel’s Wharf, also part of the Coin Street community, for eleven years before moving to Oxo Tower in 2014. “Oxo Tower is a nice environment, it’s in the heart of London, a fantastic building. When I moved here I had the chance to make the workshop exactly as I had always envisaged it.” For Mikala, combining the workshop with the exhibition space is important. “People who come past can see me working at the bench. It shows I’m approachable, that I do bespoke work, and I can answer questions right away.” Mikala’s work bears a stealthy beauty. Behind the apparent roughness of her pieces there is a skilled and intelligent crafter who knows how to bring materials to life, and when to put her tools down.Extremely fine work.
‘Alan Vallis at OXO’ was established in 1997; situated on the second floor, Alan’s gallery overlooks the OXO courtyard on the south side of the building. As a consequence of Alan’s travels,   his jewellery designs are often inspired by the craftsmanship and expertise of the countries visited and particularly their objects from Antiquity.
“My ‘Stacking Rings’ are influenced by the decorative patterns, textures and colours of the Middle East, whilst my ‘Coiled Rings’ were inspired by the box construction techniques of the Shakers  of North America.”
Alan’s interest in diving has introduced a recurring marine theme in his work; textured and pierced forms reminiscent of shells and pebbles eroded by the action of the sea.
The success of Oxo Tower highlights a common problem: in order to thrive, artists, crafters and designers need dedicated studio space. It’s a universal problem. The December 2014 edition of The Art Newspaper carried a story about artists in New York being forced out of the city because of massive rent hikes. The irony of course is that once artists populate an area it becomes a sought after place to live and rents shoot up. Detroit is now the place to go if you want good studio space, because the rents are dirt cheap.
Ricardo’s Law of Rent* states ‘the rental value of  a land site is equal to the economic advantage obtained by using the site in its most productive use.’ This is why land always goes to the highest bidder, regardless of the wants, needs, aspirations or wellbeing of the wider community. This is the economic law which was turned on its head by Coin Street Community Builders, and just look at  the outcome.
Everyone who lives in, works in, or just visits the Coin Street area – 13 acres of land beside the River Thames – can now profit from the natural bounty of the location, including the artists, crafters and designers who work there. Artists, crafters and designers contribute much to the wellbeing of society. With ready access to affordable space they could give so much more.

*David Ricardo was a classical economist and contemporary of Adam Smith.

Ted Bowman

Ted was one of the founding members of Coin Street Community Builders and its Chairman from 1985 to 2012. Ted was born in 1927 and lived in Borough, Southwark. Outside of his family life and his work as a night printer, Ted devoted much of his time to his community. Through his involvement as a trustee and chairman at Borough Market, Ted heard about the preparation of the Southwark Thameside Development Plan which he felt ignored the needs and interests of his community.
He consequently founded the North Southwark Community Development Group in 1972 which, for the next 25 years, engaged local residents in the planning and development of the North Southwark area.
In 1977 the Group and other community organisations in and around central London formed the Campaign for Family Housing – later the Campaign for Homes in Central London, CHiCL – in response to a concern at the rapid loss of housing and residential population which was leading to the closure of shops and schools and undermining ‘community viability’ throughout the area. Ted advocated a strong emphasis on affordable housing, particularly for families and those on low incomes. The North Southwark Community Development Group was involved in the formation of the Coin Street Action Group in 1977 and played a significant role in the public inquiries that looked at the future of this area of London.
During Ted’s 27 years as Chairman of Coin Street Community Builders he brought about the completion of the South Bank riverside walkway, the laying out of Bernie Spain Gardens, the construction of 220 affordable homes for four ‘fully-mutual’ housing co-operatives, the creation of Gabriel’s Wharf, the refurbishment of Oxo Tower Wharf, the building of the Coin Street neighbourhood centre, and the creation of its many community programmes. From 2012 until he died in 2014 Ted was Honorary President of Coin Street Community Builders in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the organisation.
“Ted was the bedrock upon which Coin Street Community Builders was founded. He led the organisation for 27 years and inspired both staff and board members. He was a selfless, modest, committed and fair man whose achievements can be seen across the South Bank and Bankside areas of London. He upheld the vision of central London as a place where communities should live and he championed a more just society.” Iain Tuckett, Group Director.

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