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Turning Abandoned Buildings into Cultural Hubs

Cities are constantly evolving, and societal development leaves marks in urban environments. When industries decline or parts of cities are abandoned due to migration, large buildings often get left, disused, unregulated, leaving an empty hole in the heart of a centre.

With most of our recent ancestry being rooted in the industrial revolution, a majority of the spaces we think about date back to our industrial heritage, a time of community and development. From factories and depots, storehouses and spaces of mass manufacturing and distribution, it is in and around these places that people lived out their lives and built up a society. This is also where our modern cities were born, fashioned from the labour, skill, and creativity of the working people who forged the ideas of equality, solidarity and international networking.

Over time, as society has evolved, we have spread out a little more, and even though cities still remain intrinsic hubs of activity, culture, and life, we find that areas that were once classed as the “centre” become abandoned, with development and funding being pumped into the rundown part of town. This is a constant cycle however, and under the constraints of city planning, development and funding, areas of cities move from a state of developed to rundown, back to developed, and so forth, leaving behind a string of buildings and urban environments that have been failed by the system.

Out of town shopping centres and retail parks have been hugely significant to this movement, as well as online shopping, which has changed the way we consume, and only heightened in a post-COVID world. With housing shortages at an all time high most of these abandoned buildings are being snapped up as they get developed into flats or even student accommodation, but there are still some that the arts foundations and creative sector have been able to acquire and transform into exciting new venues. This proves that heritage can gain new life and purpose by being transformed into lively and modern cultural spaces. It could also be argued that cultural centres tend to be the catalyst for growth, with cities often building arts venues in the expectation that urban regeneration will follow.

Every day we walk past perfect spaces for a cultural centre that we can't see.

Architecturally sound, albeit in need of touching up and modernising, and when somebody shows us how repurposing post-industrial buildings can be done, it suddenly becomes so obvious. So why should we begin to work with the urban makeup we already have, rather than starting all over again?


Why should we deal with abandoned urban buildings?

Dealing with abandoned urban buildings and turning them into cultural spaces is a form of cultural activism that combines art, architecture, design and environmental sustainability.

Creating multi-purpose art buildings in abandoned buildings revitalises the anthropogenic element of the building space and area, increasing community redevelopment, as well as self-development for new, sustainable growth in that part of the city. It promotes sustainability of building materials and waste by reuse and repurpose, whilst also remaining a historical relic.

The Issues around Adaptive Reuse

Even though we know there are many advantages to repurposing abandoned buildings, developers and designers still come up against challenges when attempting to make the old something new. The regeneration of disused buildings into art resources is not straightforward and has become the bone of contention for many cities, including our hometown, Bristol. Companies, such as Invisible Circus and its sister company Artspace Lifespace, have focused their business model on the repurposing of such spaces, but have unfortunately witnessed Bristol becoming a victim of its own success with regards to this.

Illustration by Rose Popay - Source

The cycle of disused buildings being turned into art resources and spaces attracts an array of artists. These artists then make the town or city "cool", which drives gentrification. This has a knock-on effect and pushes artists out of the cities to make way for developers and middle classes as rents get heightened to levels artists are not usually able to afford. These issues are being highlighted more and more, especially in Bristol, by fantastic projects and events, such as, Futurville, where during this time a 2020 report was published by Artspace Lifespace revealing that many of Bristol’s artistic and cultural spaces were under serious threat from rising rents.

Meanwhile Spaces, Bristol, were first taken on by Invisible Circus, which led to a huge surge of artists relocating to Bristol in the late naughties. They took on the space before developers re-developed them into office spaces, but at the time the adapted space was hard to fund and considered a risky venture due to the short term nature of it. This meant that the project was barely possible to fund as no one was willing to invest before it got taken on and put into its current, far more expensive form.

Another perfect example is Hamilton House, Imagineerium’s headquarters, where for years there have been ongoing negotiations about its artist studios, as many artists have been forced out due to rising rent costs. This has led to upset artists, protests, and community ownership.

In today’s current climate, more often than not, with property at a premium and a housing shortage, developers will snap up these abandoned buildings and turn them into flats instantaneously. This has happened to many buildings in Bristol/London/Berlin/New York, and the city's art scene has therefore suffered because of it. Property and land is most expensive in the centre of the city, and even though there is the biggest supply, there is also the biggest demand.

Berlin is a perfect example of a “city plagued by gentrification” where extortionate rental prices are driving people further out of the city centre, and out of the city altogether. However, thanks to the efforts of activists protesting heavily in the city over the last few years, Berlin’s municipal government announced a five-year freeze on rental increases within the city, something other cities all over the world should be taking note of and following suit. It must be said though, that this doesn’t completely change the situation we are facing, and this is covering up just the tip of the iceberg of a long-standing historical issue.

However, it’s not all negative; there are many advantages too.

What are the advantages?

Adaptive reuse can be the perfect way to breathe new life into an old building, while conserving resources and historic value. Today we see many great examples of repurposing an existing structure for new use in architecture and design. From Quarry Theatre at St. Lukes in Bedford to the home of Wake the Tiger in Bristol, both are at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to theatre design, and by drawing upon intimate patterns, designers and craftspeople have renovated these previously derelict industrial buildings and turned them into entirely new and vibrant focal points for the regeneration of the surrounding area.

Reactivation and adaptive reuse of abandoned buildings is advantageous for many reasons, including:

  • Cost - When compared to traditional building projects, adaptive reuse has several significant financial advantages, including forgoing all demolition expenses, which often eat up a significant portion of a construction budget. On the whole, adaptive reuse uses more labour than it does building materials, and while material costs have skyrocketed in the last few decades, labour costs have increased only slightly, therefore providing an opportunity to save on costs. There are also often local council incentives for adaptive reuse of buildings.

  • Speeds up construction - Rehabbing an existing building takes a significantly shorter period of time than building a whole new structure. Many spaces in an old building may be usable after only minimal refurbishment, so even if the project is still ongoing, owners can open parts of the building for business.

  • Popular with the community - Creative adaptive reuse projects are an incredibly popular option within communities because people enjoy the historical preservation of significant buildings in their area, as well as new unique landmarks and creative designs. Reusing an older building can actually be a key factor in driving customer interest in the development, especially if it has scope for a presence on social media platforms.

  • Decreases urban sprawl - Adaptive reuse offers a counter to “urban sprawl” or the unrestricted expansion of urban areas. When new developments are built on newly acquired land, our spread as a species continues, but this often has negative consequences, including the contribution to air pollution and other environmental impacts, such as dangerous traffic patterns and social isolation.

  • Creates a new community beacon - Adaptive reuse architecture is functional and often incredibly beautiful. A perfect example is the Tate Modern in London. An art gallery housed in the former Bankside Power Station, a decommissioned electricity plant, it is now one of the most visited attractions in London and thanks to an adaptive approach, the builders have created a unique and beautiful art gallery cultural beacon in the city.

Examples of Architectural Adaptive Reuse

As the great manufacturing age ended in Europe in the 1960s and 70s, the buildings of the industrial age were vacated; but these places seemed to attract new generations who had different ideas for their use. The abandoned industrial sites were called back into service through architectural salvage, as what can only be described as ‘culture factories,' which were in the highest demand in the cheapest, most convenient ways. New forms of innovation from music, dance, performance, and visual art that signified change and freedom, filled these disused buildings of industry, rehabilitating the industrial heritage in a whole new way.

One of the first transitions from the old to the new was called The Factory, Andy Warhol's studio founded in 1962 at 231 East 47th Street, Manhattan.

The architecture reflected most arts or cultural centres that occupied old industrial buildings, with brick walls, iron metalworking, surface pipes, mechanical boxes and lots of support pillars. Warhol was the son of working class parents and famously said that “everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it,” perhaps portraying his motivation to turn the more unsightly buildings into spaces that would soon become a part of the pure creativity of art.

Today, as addresses go, 35 Factory Road does not sound inviting. Its exterior may not look like much from a distance either, a 1950s industrial shed filled with a jumble of offices and warehouse spaces. But recently renovated, it is described as “16,000 square metres of raw potential in the heart of the Royal Docks, an expansive test bed for creativity.” The Beams, named after its factory-style light wells in the roof beams, is a perfect example of preservation and rejuvenation done well for the sake of art, culture and community.

Photo by: Haydon Perrior

Examples close to our hearts include Wake The Tiger, the world’s first ever amazement park. Previously an old paint spraying factory called Trimite, it has since turned into the Boomtown offices & workshop. The kitchen has been transformed into the base of Loki Poki while the workshop, which was originally turned into the nightclub Area 40, is now the fantastical immersive experience Wake The Tiger, which we were delighted to have been a part of the design and creative team for.

Money Heist: the Experience, London is another great example, and one we were also involved in designing and developing. The fully immersive experience took over the Old Christie’s auction house on Pall Mall in London and transported audiences to the centre of Netflix’s most watched series, La Casa de Papel, leading participants through the biggest robbery the world has ever seen, with scenes brought to life through magnificent special effects and a multitude of magical moments.

This brings us on to a trend we are also seeing a lot of and that’s empty high street buildings being taken over by immersive experiences, coined as "meanwhile use" before the building is taken over by a new permanent tenant. This inbetween use enhances the building’s probability to sell as "meanwhile users" often improve the state of the building, cleaning them up, and fixing things in order to make them more attractive for the market. A wonderful example is Sparks Bristol, which sees a collaboration between Global Goals Centre and Artspace Lifespace, as they turn M&S Broadmead, Bristol into a temporary arts and sustainability hub.

Final thought

In the past, abandoned buildings were often seen as a symbol of urban decay, becoming a refuge for squatters. But now, by turning them into cultural centres with art galleries and workshops, artists have a space to show their work or create new pieces. We believe that there is no time to lose when it comes to this cost-effective and sustainable transition of rebuilding to last. There are obviously success stories, as we’ve mentioned, but the current reality isn’t quite as optimistic, however the more we talk about it the more conversations will open up. On this note, we truly believe that thanks to the integration of circular design and the re-imagining of post-industrial buildings, cultural centres have the capacity to pop up in cities throughout the world. There is the opportunity for bold and exciting new designs to take hold of the shells of abandoned buildings, creating welcoming art communities and hubs. We just hope that their value is acknowledged and that architects and designers get the chance to revolutionise cultural centres through urban renovation initiatives…

Imagine That!


  1. Abandoned Places: A photographic exploration of more than 100 worlds we have left behind by Keiron Connolly -











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