What happens when an art and design college, a community centre, a developer and local council combine forces to create a public studio and collaborative making space for local people?
Throughout 2017, Central Saint Martins was exploring ways to open more to its surrounding community in King’s Cross. Projects were broad, for example, BA Ceramics built a public ceramic kiln with Global Generation and MA Industrial Design students collaborated with Camden Council on modular design solutions to overcrowded living conditions. Through projects, big and small, relationships were built and a network of organisations grew.
But how could these collaborations and partnerships create something more tangible, more visible?
A dedicated space
Global Generation, a local charity connecting communities with nature, was taking charge of a meanwhile site behind the British Library, working in partnership with the site’s developer. The Story Garden, as it was called, became the possible place for a dedicated collaborative space. The foundations for a larger project formed on existing relationships between Global Generation, Somers Town Community Association (STCA), Camden Council and Central Saint Martins with the final piece of the partnership puzzle coming from developer Lendlease.
“There’s a clear model for maker spaces but MAKE isn’t that. There’s no case study like MAKE; no institution has ever done this before… It’s never been done, a college, community centre, developer and local council all coming together around a common interest. It is hugely ambitious.”
Georgia Jacob, Creative Producer, Central Saint Martins
Creating a collaborative studio space outside of the College meant that activity could be removed from the busy student spaces and embedded within the public landscape. This distinct place with open door for public collaboration was a statement of intent.
“Somers Town, and its community, has a disconnect with its stakeholders, a fractious relationship with landlords, organisations, developers,” explains Sarah Elie, “When we started working with students we wanted to get young people – and their families – to see that the opportunities for the students were also for them. They might say ‘it’s not for me’ but how do you know? It may not have been for your uncle or your mother, but your world is different… It’s about bringing people together as human beings.”
The space opened in September 2019, with weekly sessions for anyone to drop-in as well as a programme of structured workshops. Activities spanned the gamut, from introductions to woodworking and a sewing circle to model making to imagine climate futures and a Day of the Dead festival.
“It’s something completely new to the young people we work with. They have a lot of ideas but often don’t have opportunities to bring those ideas to life. Having access to MAKE is the chance to do that… Working with MAKE challenges them to build the confidence to cross over to new spaces and meet new people.”
Jamie King, Youth Leader at STCA
For Professor Adam Thorpe, academic lead and head of Public Collaboration Lab, the key to success is ensuring all are benefitting mutually. “We work to connect people, place and resources,” he says, "We codesign a project with partners so that it works for all the different people that are involved in it.”
Skill sharing and developing are at the heart of MAKE, be it the students from Central Saint Martins or local community members. “We’re building employability into everything we do,” says Jamie King, “So, it’s about capacity building the young people and the wider community to thrive and grow within these networks.”
As well as bringing the expertise and innovation of Central Saint Martins into a new public space, MAKE was also for students interested in working with communities, for example, one particular project saw recent graduates design and deliver public participation programmes.
Keeping social at a distance
Any initiative focused on people, place and making met existential challenges in 2020 with the coronavirus lockdown. How could activity be moved in a digital direction? Students, staff and participants continued to connect, challenging each other with prototyping games. While lockdown altered the programme for the year, it also brought to the surface the social functions of a space, the need for connection continues even when the physical place is closed.
TrashCAN brought together BA Product Design students, Public Collaboration Lab academics and Somers Town Youth Centre to create sustainable products to sell at a local market. Originally designed to be a real-world project, it shifted onto Instagram altering shape to fit the new normal.
Success for MAKE is a sustainable initiative that can respond as its context alters. 2021 sees MAKE move from its founding phase to a new era in which the community takes control. Reflecting on the past two years, Jacob says “We made a physical space, out there on the ground, it can be experienced... But the visibility of this impact, and how it might shift the way we all work together, is going to take years to reveal itself.” Staff and students will continue to collaborate with the community through the space while also developing on the learning with mobile public making projects and the cross-European T-factor research initiative.
The space will be handed to the community to run under the leadership of STCA. “We’ve always known that the ideal model is for it to be community led,” says Thorpe. MAKE now has its foundations in the local community on which to build beyond lockdown.