Inside London’s ‘Bank of Ideas’

Posted on by Peter Watts

Ever since the financial collapse of 2008, London has had more empty office space than it knows what to do with. Or at least, more than most people know what to do with. On November 19th, however, one empty office block was put to imaginative use by members of the headline-grabbing Occupy movement, who walked in to a building just north of Liverpool Street and immediately set to work turning it into the Bank of Ideas, a community space for London.

The Bank of Ideas now occupies the entirety of a huge building on Sun Street that is owned by the UBS bank and had been empty since 2009. Pay a visit and you’ll be struck by the warmth of the welcome and the relentlessness of the activity. Notices on every wall advertise upcoming talks, marches and film screenings, and when a shout goes out that it’s time to give the building a community clean, yet more bustle results. It’s energising and impressive.

Bryn Phillips, 28, is one of 20 ‘caretakers’ who help run the initiative, having moved into the building when discovering it was empty while staying at the nearby Occupy campsite on Finsbury Square. “There was a list of 100 empty buildings we could target in the City of London and this was top of the list,” he says, although the building is actually just outside the City in the neighbouring borough of Hackney.

“It was empty and open. People had been inside to strip the copper out which left it quite vulnerable. We discovered it was owned by UBS, and after researching UBS they seemed the perfect target for a Situationist critique of the finance industry. However, the idea wasn’t to make a protest, it was to create a community centre. This is a huge space and we wanted to welcome some of the community groups that had lost funding for various reasons, usually related to austerity measures. There are a lot of homeless charities that have been badly affected and we can house them and make the sort of Big Society statement the Tories would never be capable of.”

The building is indeed vast and it is all been put to use. There’s a family centre, meditation room, banner-making workshops, art room, a screening room, a Free University and countless meeting rooms for debates on everything from ‘Do We Need Education?’ to ‘Overcoming Ethnic Segregation: A Workshop on Post-Colonialism In Practice’. The website keeps people informed about what is going on and anybody is welcome to drop in. The occupiers are mainly young, but with an even mix of genders, race, class and nationalities – this isn’t quite as simple as a talking shop for rich, white middle-class drop-outs. It’s also impressively organised. The front door is open to all, but the media are asked to sign in and everywhere you can see flowcharts, whiteboards and timetables. This is no chaotic hippie commune; the organisation owes as much to the methods of middle management as it does the spirit of the co-operative.

All those involved are giving up their time for free, whether that is the electricians that helped them rewire the building or the lecturers that come by to give talks. ‘We try to run everything free and we exist solely on donations and skill-sharing,’ says Phillips. ‘We get donations from visitors and we also have people coming by to help – so we had health and safety inspectors come round to ensure everything was up to the correct standard.’

Phillips estimates around 100 people sleep in the building – there are tents and sleeping bags in just about every room – and hopes the Bank of Ideas will stay open for business for some time yet. “It’s difficult to say how long we can keep it open because ultimately that is a matter for the courts but any repossession order will be appealed,” he says. “We can’t go into detail, but we have legal argument that we think gives us a claim to the building.”

There is history here, thanks to London’s long history of protest and counterculture which has thrown up many examples of street-led community-focused protest from the Anti-University of the 1960s to the homeless charity Centrepoint. This began in the 1970s when homeless activists occupied Centre Point, a West End skyscraper that had been built and then left empty because rising land value meant the owners felt no need to fill it.

Phillips embraces this precedent. “We’re aware at how Centre Point started,” says Phillips, before adding in a sign of the boldness of the enterprise and the determination of the organisers. “In some ways we aspire to become just as established an institution in the future.”

Bank of Ideas, 29 Sun Street, EC2M 2PS

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