Vault Festival, the UK’s second largest arts festival, is being forced out of its home by a landlord who fails to understand the value of culture, writes Richard Upton.
Landlords and developers are, for the most part, dinosaurs. The younger, or more visionary landlord and developer might describe themselves as “placemakers”, which is amusing as we humans have been making places as a species for around 250,000 years.
But creating senses of place is essential. It’s the character behind the city which attracts people to it; this drives national and local economies, it creates community which engenders stronger individual wellbeing and it creates cities-within-cities, where different people can fall in love and feel at home in the place they are in.
This is what Vault Festival has done, the second biggest arts event in the UK, in an underground spot below Waterloo station. It has brought thousands of people together for a laugh at a budding comedian’s stand up gig, it has undoubtedly created new friendships as audience members grabbed a drink together between cabaret shows and it has added a great deal to our cultural scene.
But on Sunday, Vault will be forced out of their venue. Leaving these so-called “placemakers” grappling with filling the vacancy left by this beacon of creativity.
Rip out beautiful things like Vault and you may leave a gaping hole in your “place”. The Vault Festival was served notice by their landlords last month, who said they are favouring more commercial work than the grassroots arts festival, which helps so many new creatives get their first break. This decision means the arts festival in the UK has to find a new home.
As and when the market turns for the worse this idea of favouring more commercial work could be a tragic decision for developers as well as for culture in London.
But the issue of Vault Festival and their landlords, The Vaults, is so much deeper than The Vaults itself. The issue is about real places, and The Vaults is a real place. That is, defined by heritage, the story of “place”, along with thousands of brilliant and independent minds which capture, in the shaping of that place, the rhythms of humanity – in lasting legacy.
Most developers shape things “top down”, but the best places are shaped from “bottom up” (or, more accurately, “organically”). The wise developer allows the organic to grow from young seeds. That creates a better place. And, incidentally for landlords and developers, a more valuable and sustainable place.
These matters are usually technically and legally complex. But the idea that character and commercial success are mutually exclusive will hollow out our city if we’re not careful. If we buy into the belief the only way to turn a profit is to accept a soulless long lease, we may as well give up on the idea of cities altogether.
We need only look to efforts to make Canary Wharf more interesting, with the Winter Lights Festival, to see the importance of drawing people in with more than just a building.
On the cusp of Soho, the number of pop up exhibitions near Tottenham Court Road Station are a haven for tourists and commuters, and a chance for up and coming artists to show their work.
There can be way more value than the internal rate of return of a “commercial property” alternative, if one is clever. Let’s hope the developer of The Vaults is the most progressive of all dinosaurs – and stitches The Vaults back in. For the benefit of their shareholders, and for all of us to enjoy.