Farewell to the Foundry

By Andrea Tocchini, 21 April 2010

With its closure looming, Jonathan and Tracey Moberly, co-founders of the beloved East London arts and ale venue, The Foundry, relate the queasy history of Shoreditch's development and the council's collusion, to which this rare autonomous space has fallen prey. Interview by Andrea Tocchini

The Foundry is one of those rare places that remind you why so many people choose to move to London and are prepared to swallow the high rents, social control and depressing weather that characterise the city, not to mention life in a liberal capitalist society. Located in the heart of Shoreditch, the Foundry has been, for the past 11 years, a unique gathering point in London's ever so predictable and fashionable East End.

Image: Pavement socialising at its best - outside the Foundry. Photo by Jack & Raf

Bar, gallery and venue, the peculiarities of the Foundry are not to be found within its format. But the compelling mixture of people that constitutes the social fabric of the Foundry and the mix of artistic and creative practices that have collided here over the years have made it one of the most lively and relevant experiences in the Hackney and Shoreditch area.

Recently, though, Hackney council finally gave the owners approval to demolish the building in which the Foundry is located and replace it with a 20-storey hotel. A vast number of protests forwarded to Hackney council's planning department and a spontaneous campaign against the demolition of the venue was not enough to persuade it of the damage this decision represents to the local community. At a public meeting on 3 February, the decision was made official. Ironically enough, the hotel to be built will be part of the Art'otel chain, devoted to recreating a museum-like environment for its guests by exhibiting mainstream artists' work within an on-site gallery.

In simpler terms an independent space will be replaced by a corporate, commercial environment which uses art as a prop rather than encouraging creativity in all its fecund chaos. Needless to say the whole issue was not easy to swallow for Foundry co-founders and current tenants, Jonathan and Tracey Moberly, who regard the council's decision-making process as careless and the official documentation they produced as riddled with inaccuracies.

Andrea Tocchini - Let's start with what supposedly will be the end: when is the demolition going to take place?

Jonathan Moberly - We don't know yet. We know that we are safe until the end of April, and after that, whatever the developers decide, we would have to go. In principle we agreed that there is no need to evict us until they have to knock the building down. Now they have got the council out of the way - after they had given them the red carpet treatment - it's just up to them, you know, what their timetables are. But unlike many speculative developers, they are certainly very keen on this Art'otel project.

AT - Quite a paradox taking down an art venue to replace it with a commercial site which ironically contains an art gallery, isn't it?

JM - It's disgusting really. They are always trying to push it upmarket, it's the gentrification process. And that is not something we could have discussed with the developers, because obviously that's what developers do, but the council itself hasn't stepped in, in any way whatsoever - not necessarily to protect - but at least to work out what was going on, and to try to somehow accommodate people like us.

AT - Do you feel that this signals a shift in the council's attitude towards artistic and creative spaces in Hackney?

JM - Well, to be honest I don't think that's ever been any different. I always had the feeling that Hackney Council brushes up against the city, and I always had the feeling that that hurts them a little bit, and that there is nothing they want more than a little bit of the city to step over the borders. They are somewhat dazzled by the glamour of dealing with people like these. In fact, this is what's happening with the Olympics too: suddenly this local council is earning an international stage. They would not be qualified to take this position, and it is not necessarily corruption as in stashing money in people's pockets, I think they're just lost in the glamour of it all.

Image: Art'otel's golden skyscraper, body-snatching Shoreditch soon

AT - But do you think there is a difference in the way the council behaves towards places like the Foundry compared to when you settled here 11 years ago?

JM - No, not really, I think the council has never been helpful. In fact everything that happened here was despite of the council's behaviour from the beginning. Everything's been gradual with the council, until you've got big business coming in. I mean, initially artists were moving into the area because you could pretty much choose a space - any space - name a price and get it, that's why we came here originally, even then the council didn't want this to happen. They still had the idea that this was a light industrial area, and that's what it was for. They tried to keep planning controls here, so that if you wanted to open up a leather workshop here, great, if you wanted to open an art studio - well - that's not really in the planning, you know! So the result was that there weren't any leather shops or artists, or indeed anything. The whole area was empty. A desolate place. This whole live-work idea, it was in spite of the council, people really had to push for it. Making a living space/artist's studio in a place that was formerly an industrial workshop was never promoted by the council. Everything that's emerged, has emerged in a certain sense, without any planning...

AT - How did you start the place up? Was it occupied?

JM - It was occupied. It used to be a bank. It was a Barclay's Bank, I think one of the first waves of branch closures in1989 or something like that. Right back then the people who are now building the hotel bought the building. In fact they bought a series of other buildings in the surroundings, including the car park - which was not a car park in the beginning, there was a set of warehouse buildings at that time. It was bought piece by piece by these property speculators, the Ruben brothers. And they did nothing with it. They weren't interested in any one of the buildings, or indeed in whatever happened to them, all they were interested in was the land speculation. The next door building, for example, they were proud of telling people that it had collapsed, you know, ‘It just fell down...'. They just collected the whole site, and some of it was illegally demolished. The car park itself was illegally cleared. Of course the council did nothing. They just complained that the parking was illegal, but then did nothing.

I think behind it, the council liked the idea of a golden skyscraper. I always said ‘the council wants to see a golden skyscraper', didn't mean to be taken so literally! I always had in mind that they were gonna go for - not so much a hotel - something like a corporate office, maybe Reuters headquarters or something like that. Admittedly the owners have always muttered about a hotel, and the story was that they were going to build one, but the Holiday Inn went up over the road, and that deflated them somewhat. The Rubens own loads of stuff, they were involved in the building of the Olympic village as well, this isn't a big project for them, it just adds to their portfolio.

AT - So funny that on top of that Hackney Council still seems to be making the effort to promote the area as the creative hub of London...

JM - That is what disgusts me the most. There's an awful word they use: ‘vibrant'. I always found it suspicious. When you hear an area is ‘vibrant' you're basically in trouble. They've always used it in these marketing terms. Before the Foundry, I used to run a little pub on Charlotte road, near Hoxton square, in the '90s, and I remember this guy from the council I was dealing with for some reason - when he wasn't working he used to run a night there - he was so chuffed when I told him we were doing this small art and design publishing company [Ellipsis] in Hoxton Square and he was like ‘What, for real?' He said, ‘This is what we are telling everybody this area is all about, but we had to make it up!' And in the '90s, when the first wave of prank about the area was spread, we used to get these groups of intrepid young trendy Japanese tourists wandering around Shoreditch and looking for the galleries, and there was nothing here. You'd see them walking around in the pouring rain and couldn't help but feel sorry for them.

Image: Artist David Medalla and writer Guy Brett at Draw_Drawing 2, July 2006, the Foundry

It's the council playing estate agents games really... One thing that really irritated me that happened round about when the Foundry started or even earlier, the council decided to hire some architects to market Shoreditch presumably thinking of Shoreditch as a problem. When we first moved in there was nothing here. The pubs would be closed at the weekend, and you certainly couldn't get a taxi in and out of the area. A non-class area, there was no-one here, and Hoxton, round the corner, was really deprived, one of the poorest boroughs in England. It used to qualify for EU funding, one of two places in Britain. It was the Hoxton area and bits of Liverpool. And actually that's still the case. This idea of Hoxton in marketing terms is really weird, because apart for Hoxton Square, Hoxton Proper is desperately deprived.

Once they had a marketing theme, with a firm of architects coming out with a slogan, totally unimaginative, that said ‘Hoxton, South of Shoreditch' which turned the joke on its head as well because Hoxton is North of Shoreditch. That was great for the estate agents though, because they could play all the games with both Hoxton and Shoreditch. The campaign consisted of posters, but also of the words Hoxton or South Shoreditch set in stone on the pavements. You can still see them in the corner between Old St. and Pitfield St. or in Charlotte Rd.. So it's money: the council pays for this stuff to happens which benefits absolutely no-one except the estate agents. That's the only time I remember the council putting a bit of effort into this area, except occasional oddities like the piece of street art in Old Street that cost a fortune. It took weeks to put it up and never worked.

Another one they've done is in the same planning approval that rules the demolition of the Foundry. They don't waste even half a sentence on the question of how to save the Foundry or protect it, but they stipulate that £150,000 should be spent on a piece of art. And they also stipulate that the Banksy piece on our back wall needs to be saved.

AT - About that, it seems that most of the news coverage focuses much more on the Banksy piece contained in the lower ground floor corridor, than on the demolition of the building and consequential closure of the venue...

JM - That's what is pissing us off, because it's not the issue, the issue is the Foundry. Articles in the Guardian and the Hackney Gazette also focussed on the Banksy piece, while the real story is that a very precious art venue which is alive, and which has hosted 3,500 artists throughout ten years is going to disappear, along with the community that surrounds it.

AT - Most important, considering that the very reason the developers won their battle so easily with the council is that, according to the latter's documentation, you are only a bar and not an art venue. How can that be accurate?

JM - We think they are breaking the law. They misrepresented us in their planning recommendation document. Hundreds of pages they wrote where they couldn't describe us as anything other than a bar. The lot of it is a summary of objections really, but in the site context, pages one and two, paragraph one states ‘The Foundry is a bar'. Whilst paragraph seven goes ‘there are Banksy stencils which need to be saved'. No mention of the art in the Foundry, yet one whole paragraph is devoted to the Banksy pieces. Although that should be making even more of a case, shouldn't it?

The architects couldn't believe it. They never had it so easy. Gillian Nicks. The planning service officer, who wrote the planning document decided that. It was as if an employer of the architect's firm gave the presentation. And she's the council officer who was supposed to be impartially judging, while she was actually just selling the scheme. She stated that we are a bar and put us under the A4 class use. A4 is the category that defines bar use planning. When we opened this place there was no distinction in these categories, and our original planning was for restaurant, gallery and theatre use. The planning was always a mess because the council never wanted to make us comfortable on that. We were always never quite legal. Our planning expired, we had to re-apply and they lost our application, or they left it in limbo, so that we were always exposed to anybody coming along and enforcing us. But never to my knowledge were we formally described under this A4 use category. I looked into their planning records and there is no mention of that. Usually to change a category someone has to forward an application, or someone needs to take a decision. Gillian Nicks claims that she didn't know that we were doing art because in planning we are described as A4 use. I couldn't find any documents except the one she wrote herself, that describe us as such. The idea that she had no clue of what was happening here is appalling.

Image: Avant-garde noise battles it out with electronica

Tracey Moberly - Or the idea that she couldn't make the effort of going to a filing cabinet and having a look at what planning permissions are given to whom.

JM - Well she is basically lying. Our argument is that the document Nicks wrote misrepresented us so much that the council could not have possibly made an informed decision.

AT: Does that leave room for an appeal?

JM: No, there is no appeal process, if the developers' application fails they can appeal, if objections fail they have to go to court. We've got two options in front of us: one is to go to court, and the other is to make a complaint to the council. We've started that process going. Also, the council has got a history of not responding to letters or returning calls from us. As part of the consultation process we sent letters to the Deputy Head of planning, Head of Regeneration and Cultural Services, three letters to three individually named people. The letters were hand-delivered, and contained information on what the Foundry does, press cuttings, the photos of our catalogue from last autumn, when we had 14 different shows, more exhibitions than any other gallery in the East End. We did not get a single acknowledgement from any of these departments, they would not return phone calls. In the case of the Deputy Head of planning, I left the letter with his PA who later denied having received it.

They're out-Blairing Blair. Tony Blair told these people they can get away with anything. Part of it is the arrogance of Labour being in power for 13 years. These councillors aren't worried about keeping their jobs. The problem with Hackney Council is the same with the Labour party, they've had too much comfort...

TM: And in this way, as a borough, they are not recognising the fact that we brought things into this area, helping the process of change within it, but again no acknowledgement for that.

JM: We never had any single piece of encouragement from the authorities. Not that we needed it. We've always been independently run, and never requested or received funding, and that's the way we wanted it. The idea of grassroots art doesn't seem to exist in government, unless the government plays a role in it. We don't exist in council terms, and the main reason for that is that we don't need funding. You only exist if you need something from them. To make a little line, a tiny thread between us and, say, the Arts Council. And applying for a few pence would create a connection. We would feature on their list. If that would have been the case, at the point in which we found ourselves under threat, machines might have kicked into action, a few of these departments could have made a gesture.

AT: How would it be different if you weren't considered A4 class use?

JM: Well if we were considered an art venue the council has planning policies that would have had to be put into place.

TM: They wouldn't have been able to shut us down, and therefore to give permission to the developers to carry on with their project.

JM: They have a regulation that states that since art venues are under particular threat from other commercial uses, the planning department must always address that and protect them. So the only way they could have given the red carpet to the developers is not considering us an art venue. The only thing we can do is to put a complaint through. The other issue would be, ‘can we actually pay for heavyweight legal advice?' Look at what the government does, look at the Iraq war. How do you fight that?

AT: The relevance of the Foundry as a venue and a community meeting point showed immediately after the news came out. What support did you receive?

JM: The reaction of the public was fantastic. The council was inundated with letters. The Facebook campaign reached 3,500 people. The media understood without any problem at all. We did not need to explain our argument to the media, they came to us and said ‘This is crazy, why is the council pretending not to know who you are?' The Cultural Services department was hopeless. We've tried to establish a contact with them through the years and all we got from them was a blank ‘We don't have any money'. What we were after was really just an acknowledgement.

TM: Also, we did have an offer of support from Ken Livingstone the other day. Mark Thomas is backing us as well.

JM: Ironically, when they saw all the names we had on the list, all of a sudden they wanted to speak to us. The Deputy Leader of the Hackney Council wanted to meet us before the planning meeting, which we thought was quite extraordinary given that normally they don't return our phone calls. The meeting itself was a bit pointless.

Image: The best worst toilets in town. Photo by Jack & Raf

TM: She [Jessica Crowe] called us to claim her support, and the first time I rang her, just to inform her that we were going on Newsnight, she did not ring back. I can't see how legally and justifiably a council can operate like that. People should be accountable for their jobs.

AT: If such an established and talked-about venue can go down so easily, doesn't the future for autonomous or independently run spaces look anything but promising?

TM: It wouldn't have to be like that if somebody would help. It's not that we are asking for money. All these people within this social fabric that we have met, and who combine here to do things, what's going to happen to them? I know people find other places, but I also know that this place is really important because of the policies that Jonathan and I have as people. And the Foundry is an extension of our front room (only my front room is tidier). People come to our front room and they respect it, and they gather to do things and talk about things, and everything starts happening.

It's the social fabric that inspires the artists and the performers. The melting pot and the meeting point for work to be made. The atmosphere which inspires new friendships and new collaborations. For example, and this whole idea is easier to define by talking about the people who more obviously made it, like the band Hot Chip. Two of their members had their first meeting here - one of them also did his first ever DJ set here, and they went on to become Hot Chip. You give people this format and they do it themselves and you never know what random element might come into play. The couriers mix in with the artist and vice versa and you never know what sort of formation might come up. It was the same for Banksy or for the Libertines, the social interaction going on in here at that particular time. This was the meeting place for the G20 demonstrations as well for example.

If the council are doing what they are doing. If there is no dialogue between the council and the people, I don't just worry for autonomous places. I worry for old ladies in their homes and kids that are growing up around here now. All sorts of things.

JM: At the end of the day the developers own the building so there is not so much we can do. Truth is that this whole thing makes the council look like idiots...

Andrea Tocchini <andrea.tocchini AT> is a writer, but his bar-tending skills are vying for control