"People do seem to stumble upon us."
So says Julie, proprietor of Jules and Gems, a business living in one of the multicoloured sheds of Blue House Yard. Jules and Gems lives in the earthy red shed, sandwiched between a mint green shed and the eponymous blue house. Julie's got a point about the stumbling. Despite being one of the most visually arresting pieces of design that a zone 3+ part of London has seen in the past 10 years, you get the sense that not many people know these sheds are here. They seem a world away from Wood Green High Road — one of London's busiest shopping parades — despite being only 100 metres away.
It's all just temporary
While it's a shame that plenty of locals are currently missing out on the sheds, soon enough no one will be able to enjoy them. No building in London is permanent, but that rings especially true on this patch of land in Wood Green. Despite being infinitely more eye-catching than the countless anonymous office blocks that populate the city and last for half a century, these sheds have a lifespan of just over four years. But everyone knew that going in.
Haringey Council is investing £3.5 billion into "regenerating" Wood Green, with a new town centre providing around 4,000 jobs and 7,800 new homes. But such action cannot happen overnight, and so while the pieces of this mega-scheme are put into place, this small plot next to the council's offices was to be empty for a few years. That's where the colourful sheds, and a board-game-cafe-cum-taproom on an old double decker bus, came in.
The sheds, bus, and blue house are all the brainchild of Meanwhile Space, a company that finds temporary uses for spaces set for redevelopment. It's a recurring trend in the capital, finding alternative uses for buildings while their developers navigate the slow twists and turns of London's planning procedures. It's most obviously tackled by the genesis of live-in guardians. In fact, before Meanwhile Space got hold of the blue house, it homed guardians. But whereas guardianships provide cheap living space, Meanwhile Space provides cheap working space — both of which are in dire shortage in the city.
Meanwhile Space would love to provide both a space to work and one to live, and many of their counterparts on the continent manage to do so — such as the popular Le Grand Voisins in Paris. However, that isn't so straightforward with London's planning laws, hence these temporary spaces provide either accommodation or workspace, not both.
Which brings us back to the blue house, the colourful sheds and the bus — all designed by Jan Kattein Architects and each tackling a very different type of work. The sheds are home to a variety of shops: the aforementioned Jules and Gems sells jewellery (geddit?), and sits alongside record store Pick n Mix Records, refillable soy candle business Stanza Artigiana, and ethical fashion shop Pop London, to name a few. Each shed is rather cosy, so can only handle a few customers at a time, although there is an (equally small) upstairs space that can be used as studio/office. But because of their compact arrangement, they're also very affordable to rent, roughly between 60%-80% of market rate, and many businesses use this as a start-up space where they can grow before moving onto somewhere else bigger permanently.
There are currently two empty sheds in the yard, due to their previous occupants moving onto greener (and more spacious) pastures, but Alex Lauschke who manages them says he expects to have them filled within the next month or two.
The bus is home to punny board game cafe Cakes and Ladders in the day, and beer purveyors Earth Tap at night. Neither business could quite afford the rent solo, so instead they bus-share — the obvious next evolutionary step from flat-sharing. It's a kooky space. What was once the driver's seat now acts as shelving for the vast collection of board games. The bus originates from the nearby Arriva bus depot, and cost £4,500. It's certainly worth it — the greatest struggle Blue House Yard faces is footfall, but this statement piece tends to draw people in, especially with special events such as themed quiz nights to enjoy aboard.
In winter the bus is a cosy space, but as the days get warmer, you can drink your craft pint outside, possibly while enjoying one of the markets or photography exhibitions the yard regularly hosts.
A cooperative spirit
Finally there's the blue house, which has had past lives as a mental health facility and at one point, some sort of church. Nowadays, it homes 'creatives' — a nebulous term indeed, but an accurate one nevertheless. According to Lauschke, most of the studios/offices have been occupied by people local to the area since near enough day one, and unlike the sheds with their high turnover rate, once people get a spot in the house, they nearly never leave. That desire to stay primarily comes from the cheap rent, but we're sure it's helped by the cerulean theme that continues on the inside, and the impromptu art exhibition that one of the resident decided to hang on the walls of his own accord.
That's symbolic of the cooperative spirit and community aspect of the project that Lauschke is so keen to stress. This could so easily be meaningless PR speak from someone attempting to present Blue House Yard in the best light possible, but in the couple of hours I spend there, I repeatedly see the proof of it. People popping into one another's sheds, often for a chat, or the mere fact that two separate businesses manage to run out of one somewhat cramped double-decker bus (and do so quite happily).
Changing perceptions of the area
The project, although affordable to those it is providing space for, does raise some uncomfortable questions surrounding that eternal London hot topic: gentrification. Wood Green is one of the less affluent areas in the borough — Blue House Yard sits on the boundary of the Woodside ward and Noel Park ward, both of which have higher rates of unemployment than the average for the borough and London as a whole, and median household incomes well below the borough's and London's averages. Are the thousands who visit the nearby High Street daily steering clear, not because they don't know it's there, but instead because Blue House Yard just isn't for them?
Lauschke is surprisingly open on this topic. But he says the goal here is to "change perceptions of the area", and have a place that locals "can identify with" and be proud of. Before Blue House Yard arrived, the land outside was just a car park, and was a known drug dealing location on which someone was once shot. An area doesn't change overnight, and the yard had difficulties initially. Especially with a (now shuttered) pub across the road, the yard struggled with anti-social behaviour after tipping out time. That's become less of an issue over time, but Lauschke isn't naïve enough to claim that Blue House Yard is responsible for removing this behaviour — according to police, it has simply moved down the road to nearby Turnpike Lane.
What's left behind?
Even though she's only been here for a few months, Julie says she intends to stay in her shed right up until September 2021, when the cranes and diggers move in. Until then there's plenty of time to enjoy the multicoloured sheds that you'd expect to see at the seaside, rather than in the middle of the city. And after they're gone, there are plenty more spaces in London set for redevelopment in the near future, that could have plenty of other uses in the meanwhile.
And even though this space will disappear, the ideas it raises through its vibrant creativity, will hopefully endure.
Blue House Yard, 5 River Park Road, Wood Green, N22 7TB