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'Creative Cities' at the BFI: report part one

Above: opening panel discussion at the BFI - with, from left, Caroline Robbie of BDP, Sharon Ament of the Museum of London, Heather Fearfield of Future Cities Forum, Ken Dytor of Urban Catalyst, and Robert Laycock of Marlow Film Studios

Future Cities Forum enjoyed hosting its March 'Creative Cities' event last week at the British Film Institute with leading figures in the UK's museum sector and film industries, including Sharon Ament, Director of the Museum of London, and Robert Laycock, partner of the Ian Fleming estate who is spearheading the planning application to build a new film studios campus in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.

Our first panel discussion looked at the latest trends for investment in museums, connected jobs and housing in creative districts as well as new film campus design. Sharon Ament and Robert Laycock were on our first discussion panel with the Chair of developer Urban Catalyst, Ken Dytor and BDP Principal and co-head of the media environments team in North America, Caroline Robbie.

Sharon is overseeing the move of the Museum of London to its new site in Smithfield in the City of London due to open in 2025/6 and with new ideas on museum curation and audience attraction.

Many museums are recording that they are not up to full visitor numbers yet post pandemic and are weighing up the value of putting on new exhibitions with balancing their finances. Sharon is keen to create a day to night economy at the museum where people can visit the 'temperance cocoa rooms' for a coffee, the cafe acting as a community facility drawing in the surrounding population as well as visitors to London.

It is an initiative that has worked well in Norway with restaurants and bars now open much later into the evening at the new Munch Museum, to catch the passer-by in the dock-side Bjorvika district.

How museums attract new audiences and work in a connected way for larger visitor or tourism economies is being supported by the DCMS. Last November, it announced a major £2.25 million boost - 'NewcastleGateshead Initiative' - working in partnership with Visit Northumberland and Visit County Durham, to develop new attractions, build on local heritage and cultural assets and maximise the potential of the region's natural assets. The aim has been to attract more investment, welcome sporting, business and cultural events, support business growth, and create new jobs.

Sharon says she is currently experiencing a full range of emotions from 'hysteria to euphoria' when she considers the continuing task ahead of her with the museum move and never thought at some stage in her career that she would be in charge of a half billion pound real estate project. She reflected on the 'contorted' site of the current museum on London Wall compared to the new location in the market halls at Smithfield:

Above: original 'fortress' site of the Museum of London in the City of London

'When it opened there was a Guardian newspaper article suggesting that the Queen could open the museum if she could find it!. The architects had failed to get the full site for the museum in the 1970's and from the get go we were impenetrable, being in the middle of a busy roundabout. There were no bridges across.

'The city surveyors approached me offering a new site at Smithfield to give me a new front door. We started out planning this move, thinking about how visitors can get into us and then considering the full re-imagination of what we will become. You have to be more creative when dealing with old building that had a different purpose than when working with new ones. What do you do with an (underground) train line running through the site? How do you work with Victorian beams, how do you inhabit the spaces? So we went back into our DNA of over seven million objects and our standard for community engagement with children's voices, collecting the common person and understanding London. We have fifty museum curators but also ten million people out there who are also our 'curators'. We cover thirty three boroughs for our audience and connect across the world too. It is a museum of the street and we are working to bring that street inside. We want to be 24 hours and that means deep time, night time, real time - even 'tea time'. We are going to sit in the middle of a neighbourhood and on the Elizabeth Line and we must make the best of it, but we are also - I say - only two stops from Paris.'

Sharon was asked whether there is any sense of guilt in still celebrating London, when there is so much of a new focus by central government and politicians on levelling up the North and Midlands?

'I lived in Liverpool for most of my early life, but no I don't think we should feel guilty about celebrating London. I see people flowing in and out of London to live and do creative projects. There is culture going out from London. We do really need to re-frame our arguments. London has some of the poorest boroughs in the country, and London itself needs to level up. My job is to show, despite living in dense conditions, how millions of people have lived and rubbed along together over the last 2,000 years and long may it continue. I think the levelling up argument is despicable and I won't put up with any divisive rhetoric between London and the rest of the UK.

Above: CGI from Stanton Williams of entrance to the London Museum (Museum of London) at West Smithfield, created out the historic market buildings, and close to Farringdon station

Pockets of deprivation also exist along the Thames Estuary and Future Cities Forum invited Ken Dytor, Founder and Executive Chairman of Urban Catalyst, to comment how what is needed in terms of investment, jobs and connected housing. Ken has been developing private and affordable social housing in Purfleet.

Ken said:

'When you walk into a room like this at the BFI, your level of excitement just goes through the roof and that is what culture can do for creative districts and the economy of the country. When I was ten years old I wrote to the 'Ministry of Castles' and asked for a job. They said I was too young but as an adult I became a member of the English Heritage committee, because culture and the creative industries are a powerful force.

'I think we need to understand UK PLC - it is revered from all over the world. I started going to China about 15 years ago and they wanted to pull down their industrial buildings and it had to made clear that pulling them down meant stopping growth. Now they ask me how can you help us with this heritage knowledge. Along the Thames Estuary there is a rich cultural mix and London at one end of it is phenomenal. It is a great staging post. In the Thames Estuary there are two bodies - the 'production corridor' driven by the GLA and then the creative estuary and I was talking last night to Kate Willard OBE, who is Chair of the Growth Board and Government appointed Thames Estuary Envoy, about the poverty along the Thames Estuary and what we can do about it.

'Connected jobs and housing is very important. I am a trustee of the High House Production Park, based near Purfleet, where there is a training school and you can learn about backstage crafts, which is very important as each theatre in London has a different setting to maintain. When we started thinking of building homes in the area, we called a meeting of local people and they asked, what is this new settlement going to do for us? They wanted local employment. So we have been working with South Essex College on training schemes and these are for local people, while building affordable housing in Purfleet. We have put in an integrated medical centre and other facilities such as a school, but we meet every month to consult with local people and we do change the scheme according to what they say. When we started our planning application a couple of years ago on the development we invited the Chair of the local community to speak and that made all the difference.'

Above: The 'Hub' at Marlow Film Studios (CGI from Wilkinson Eyre)

Investment interest in new film and production studios is continuing strongly in the UK. The forthcoming Media Bill is planning to ensure that public service content is prominent, available and easily accessible across a range of platforms, can update the public broadcast framework for the digital age and promote the production and distribution of distinctively British content. So our panel discussion continued with the issues around providing enough studio space for production to take place in the UK, providing high-quality content and ensuring that young people are receiving the right kind of skills training in order to take up jobs within the industry.

Planning for a new UK centre for high-end film and TV production has been submitted by a group of local entrepreneurs and arts industry professionals in Buckinghamshire at the former gravel pits near the town of Marlow. The team behind the property company has delivered between them projects such as the London Olympics, King's Cross and CB1 Cambridge.

Buckinghamshire has a long association with Oscar winning films and creative industries and is home to Pinewood Studios and the National Film and Television School. Robert Laycock, Co-founder of Dido Property Ltd and his team want to leverage the future studios' place in this local cluster, providing new jobs, skills, education, training and apprenticeships in a growth industry, which they say has the potential to provide wealth and prosperity for future generations. They add that the aim of the project is to enhance the ecological and transport infrastructure of the area, while bringing cultural and recreational benefits to the community. Engagement has been designed around an exhibition, feedback forms, online community meetings and newsletters.

Above: part of the proposed Marlow Film Studios campus (Wilkinson Eyre)

The master plan is intended to provide versatile production facilities flexible to the diverse needs of the TV and film industry. There will be four independent clusters of studios and offices with sufficient capacity to cater for multiple concurrent productions, integrated into the existing landscape through a connected green network that brings additional nature to the site. The team says there will also be a recreational outdoor space of high ecological value together with a Culture and Skills Academy space and a main square with amenities, such as a cafe, for occupiers. The Studio Hub will be a primary point of focus for the site with screening rooms, exhibition space, cafes, restaurants with a Public Right of Way next to it and through the development.

Robert stated in the panel discussion that 4,000 jobs will be created if the campus goes ahead:

'We are looking at half a billion dollars inwards investment. This is an enormous area that has been scarred by gravel workings and the project is providing skills training and opportunities for young people who want to get into the film industry but simply don't know how.

'I would say that it is great that £18 billion has been spent on the Elizabeth Line but I am afraid Marlow in transport terms is still in the 1920s. So we are putting on a public bus to help bring crew in and out of the site. Film making only happened accidentally in California and the truth is that we have the leadership and culture in the UK to carry out this industry. The crews that are needed are tightly clustered around Buckinghamshire, they are invisible but they are there. They have to travel on top of very long days and so we have to think about them, how they get to the film studios, their accommodation and facilities when they are there. There is a reason that Tom Cruise has been filming Million Impossible in a muddy field in Longcross and that's because it's where the crews are. Bucks really understands the film industry and it knows it can have its own version of Silicon Valley.

'However, it is a 'fortress' IP-driven business and it has to be more open. There is no lack of desire from kids to get into the film business but they need on-set training with a producer. We need to break down barriers to steward them into roles.

'Only 50% of the world has the internet but when the rest of the world gets connected, there will be a voracious consuming of content and that won't go away. Yes, there will be bumps in the road but we are good at ideas and story-telling in the UK and the Chancellor is right when he says we have to go further than we are already.'

Ellie Evans, Partner at Volterra, an economics advisory business has been working with Robert and spoke from the audience:

'The truth is if we don't build the Marlow Films Studio here, it won't show up magically in the North and this links to the levelling up debate. We will simply be losing economic value. Of course there is not enough of a workforce yet but we are making pathways available to people. We must take hold and commit otherwise we will lose tax revenues that could be re-cycled into other things. I was at a meeting yesterday in the City of London where it became clear that no one spends money in Leadenhall Market. Now there are plans for a massive event space and garden there to encourage families not just employees to go there and enjoy it. This is a really good example of what the creative industries can do.'

Caroline Robbie, Head of Media Environments in Toronto at architects firm, BDP, also joined our first panel at our creative industries and cities forum. Caroline says she aims to achieve solutions to design challenges approaching her work through a perspective that is grounded in art.

She has led teams on a number of design-forward and award-winning projects including the Deluxe studios in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York, Artscape Daniels Launchpad, OCAD U CO along with the Corus Entertainment workplace, 60 Atlantic Avenue and its sister site, 80 Atlantic in Liberty Village and BDP Toronto’s own studio. Her role as a thought-leader in the industry and in the workplace is strengthened by conceptual design installations at major exhibitions and industry events.

Caroline is a former director and board member for Ontario and Canada’s professional associations for interior design as well as serving on the board of the Toronto Arts Foundation and the Advisory Board for Creative Cities International based in New York City. She has over 40 years' experience in the industry internationally as a former director of Alsop Architects Ltd.

BDP is working on the Downsview project near Toronto and Urban Toronto describes the project:

'In its entirety, the Hangar District is a 102-acre site, originally referred to in the planning documents for id8 as Taxiway West, that occupies the southwestern arm of the larger Downsview Airfield lands. The site has a long history of industrial uses over the last century, and is deeply connected to innovations in the field of aviation in both the pre-war and post-war periods, as the manufacturing centre for aircraft companies such as Bombardier. The lands are currently occupied by a number of industrial structures including 12 hangar buildings, and a handful of associated buildings surrounding the hangars to the south, as well as extensive surface parking. All of these existing structures maintain a low-to-mid-rise massing.'

Caroline Robbie commented on the project in the discussion:

'I am a Canadian and I work in Canada and this is one of our projects at BDP. We are turning an old defence air field into a new production facility. It is where the De Havilland aircraft were built and we want to create something new here not pull down the buildings, giving them a new lease of life. Tech is pushing everything forward and there are volumes that have a lot of stuff around them - we are dealing with real background and not green screens. The film industry really is moving very fast.'

She continued on the strength of the UK film industry:

'You guys really need to know the UK product is the best in the world for film and all the work and talent about CGI and gaming design. There is a strong history and it is an industry that is trying to create sustainability. The UK is always the pioneer and creating something around social values.

Above: Downsview Studios Campus, Toronto, Canada (BDP)

Caroline concluded her part in the discussion by setting out the important features in allowing film cities to grow:

'Film companies care about tax breaks and that the talent is there for the crews, so we build facilities quickly. We shouldn't try and control a private industry. That's how Toronto grew quickly and then gaming as we have very good animators coming out of our universities. There are concerned conversations about facial capture, but I would say don't put breaks on these industries. I try to align with my clients' perspectives and produce buildings that can be open on time to meet production deadlines. I want to be part of the solution. The entertainment industry is growing for what people want and we need to provide the training skills to meet demand.'

Sharon Ament rounded up the first panel discussion by saying that we really need to remind ourselves that there is the digital and analogue world and people want to be in (physical) places:

'Social places as well as digital are really important. We have a democratic street scape providing important inter-connection. Content is everything. We have all been to a wonderful museum where there is no content. I think we have to have that awareness of what good quality content is and strive for it.'

Below: aerial view of the Museum of London development site at West Smithfield (Stanton Willliams)


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