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Foundry, where artists rub shoulders with pop stars and couriers, set for demolition
Plan to replace home of east London alternative art scene with 18-storey hotel
Thursday 4 February 2010
Pete Doherty used to host its poetry nights, the band Hot Chip formed there, and artists from Banksy to Gavin Turk have adorned its walls and propped up its bar.
But now the Foundry, an east London gallery and pub that for more than a decade has served as a focal point for the area's alternative art scene, is set to be demolished after the site's owners drew up plans for an 18-storey hotel and retail complex.
Hackney council last night approved plans to pull down the building which houses the much-loved if rather ramshackle space in Shoreditch close to the edge of the City, despite protests from the gallery's founders that it performs a vital artistic function in the London borough.
In what its supporters regard as a particularly ironic twist, the council intends to salvage a wall painted with one of the biggest Banksy murals in Britain, even as the remainder of the building is demolished. The planned redevelopment, part of the Art'otel chain, will also incorporate gallery and retail space and a spa.
Foundry founders Tracey and Jonathan Moberly expect to be evicted by April, when the site will be cleared for the construction of a circular tower block by award-winning architects Squire and Partners. The Moberlys said they were "pretty resigned" to the fact that the art space would close, and had no objections to the conduct of the architects or the developers, Park Plaza hotels. "That's fair enough. This isn't our building, we've been renting, and they have been supportive in helping us look for another premises," said Tracey Moberly.
But the couple are angry with Hackney council, which they accused of refusing to designate the Foundry as an artistic space, which they say would require the council to seek to resettle it in other premises, preferring to refer to it in planning documents only as a pub.
The council has also specified its intention in the planning officer's report for the "safe removal and retention of 'Banksy' art work" – a six-metre high painting of a rat with a knife and fork over which the building's owners have constructed a protective wooden covering. A spokeswoman for Squire and Partners said: "The aim of the client and design team is to permanently locate the artworks on site, in one of the public galleries at ground floor – this is to be agreed with Hackney council."
A council spokesman said it would not comment on any aspect of the development ahead of the planning meeting.
The Moberlys, an artist and a former art publisher, opened the gallery in the former bank building in the late 1990s, intending it to be a place where any artist, regardless of experience, could exhibit free of charge. The couple opened a bar on the ground floor to cover their expenses, but have always considered its two basement galleries and performance spaces, linked by graffiti adorned walls, to be the building's main focal point. They have forged long-standing links with artists in Russia and Haiti and regularly display works by international artists.
The comedian and activist Mark Thomas, who has performed there, said the Foundry was "one of the most truly artistic spaces in London". He described its battered sofas and graffitied walls as "the fixtures and fittings of London's underground art scene" and the Moberlys as "the Saatchis of alternative art" in the capital.
"What's unique about it is their ethos that anyone can exhibit there, from Gavin Turk to a student who just happens to have an interest in maps, or something," Thomas said. "It's totally unique. And now in its place we'll have another hotel, another shopping mall, another huge cinema."
"If you go there you realise that it's not like any other space in London," said Turk. "Shoreditch has become so commercialised, like the new West End, and there isn't really anywhere that runs like the Foundry does."
Darren Coxson, a co-founder of a welfare charity for London bike couriers, said his colleagues loved the Foundry for other reasons – namely that it offered so much space on its pavement outside to park their bicycles.
"We are quite a transient, international community and the non-corporate, artistic atmosphere fits with the courier lifestyle. For me, these modern developments completely take away the character of an area," he said.
But Squire and Partners said there was also "significant local support for the scheme, which will help regenerate this part of Shoreditch".
The Moberlys are looking for alternative premises, but are eager to stay close to the area's transport links and diverse community. "We'd like to dig our heels in and stay in this area," said Tracey Moberly. "It's not going to be easy, but it has to be possible."
First, however, they would like to talk to Tate Modern about the possibility of relocating the gallery's subterranean graffitied walls, where early murals by Banksy and New York street artists Faile have been scribbled over by countless art lovers, poetry fans and drinkers.
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