Making Space In The Big City

Art & Culture

London’s been lacking something for some time now. Not just a 24-hour tube, or enough housing to accommodate its inhabitants, but also a place to go. A 100% bullshit-free space, with no boss, no profit and no commercial interests. 

Five years ago a group of people got together to fill this gap. Under the name DIY Space for London, they met regularly to discuss and plan the creation of a volunteer-run community centre in the city. After a string of fundraising efforts and a successful crowdfunding campaign they eventually amassed over £20,000. Then in Spring 2015, DIY Space found a venue in South London. With the help of a diverse team of volunteers, who gutted and rebuilt the interior, DIY Space opened its doors in September. It has been growing ever since. 

In April I popped down to the centre in South Bermondsey to have a chat with long-time member Chris. I wanted to find out more about DIY Space, its story so far, and what the people who run it hope to achieve.  

Arriving at DIY Space is a slightly odd experience. It's tucked away in an industrial area just off the Old Kent Road, about a 15 minute walk from Queens Road Peckham station. The surrounding area is home to tyre shops, African churches and the Millwall football ground. 

Step inside and the services on offer are diverse. Along with gigs, film screenings and the like, the centre hosts workshops, fundraising events, even yoga classes. Add to that Tome Records and Joey’s Kitchen and it’s clear DIY Space is a veritable community and arts hub. 

Chris tells me the hunt for a venue took a while. “We were struggling to find anything remotely suitable and affordable. If we had an unlimited budget, there’s plenty of places that would have been good.” The warehouse DIY Space ultimately chose ticks all the boxes. Unlike pricier lets in East London, they have the place all to themselves and enough room for over 200 people.

People are at the heart of DIY Space’s success. It operates on a members’ club model, which means everybody who uses the space has a stake in it. It costs £2 to join and members are free to get as involved as much or as little as they want. Members’ guests and walk-ins are welcome.
The space follows in the footsteps of other co-operatively run social centres in the UK and abroad. I ask Chris if Wharf Chambers, in Leeds, the only other similar project I was familiar with, influenced DIY Space at all. He tells me it was a big inspiration. In fact, along with Wharf Chambers, members of the co-op that launched DIY Space have also been involved with the Cowley Club in Brighton, The Star and Shadow in Newcastle, The 1 in 12 in Bradford and Bristol's Cube Cinema.

For Chris and others, the UK’s volunteer-led centres prompted the question: “Why isn’t there something like that in London?” It’s no coincidence that DIY Space’s founding members, well-versed in the realities of running a low-cost venue and coordinating volunteer labour, were best suited to launch it. 

The concept of a cooperatively-run space does have political connotations. Radicalism, anti-consumerism and punk ideologies are often closely associated with DIY ethics, but DIY Space seems to be about inclusivity first and foremost. Its website states “providing a welcoming space for everyone, including those whose voices and contributions are not always heard or appreciated, is a top priority for us.”

They’re hardly doing a bad job as it is, but Chris tells me there’s plenty of room for improvement. “We’re not a perfect space. We want to remove as many barriers as possible, but we’re also keenly aware those barriers exist here too. We have a lot of work to do and we’re determined to do that work.”

As our conversation draws to a close I mention that DIY Space for London is kind of a funny name. Chris says it wasn’t intended to be a long-term title, but by the time it came to naming the space the moniker had already stuck. “I can’t imagine it changing” Chris says. “We have a lease here for five years, maybe that will be extended, maybe it won’t be – but if we need to move somewhere else I imagine we’ll take the name with us”.

I joke that in five years time maybe it’ll be in Croydon. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Either way, DIY Space for London, wherever it is, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  

Visit the DIY Space website HERE. Listen to their show for NTS HERE.

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