This paper draws on a Leverhulme-funded research project entitled ‘Interim spaces and creative use’ (2012-2014). The project investigated five present-day temporary projects sited on vacant land in London. Conscious of the long history of creative temporary occupations, the project pushes against the ephemeral nature of interim projects of the past, strategically documenting the five case studies through interviews, film, site surveys and photographs.
The specific purpose of this paper is to contextualise this recent fieldwork against the wider historical background of the creative temporary uses of vacant urban space, therefore negotiating between definitions of ‘vacant’ and ‘empty’. Vacant spaces have been historically associated with dereliction or abandonment, ‘lost space’ (Trancik 1986), ‘urban voids’ and ‘cracks in the city’ (Loukaitou-Sideris 1996). Against the perception of vacancy as waste and emptiness, a more positive reading has been promoted through the notion of the ‘terrain vague’ (de Sola-Morales 1995).
Although the present-day case studies emerged out of a very particular political, economic and cultural context, that of the late-2000s recession, this is not the first time that temporary uses have emerged in the history of London. Some of the case studies of the research project are located on sites with legacies of use that stretch back far beyond the 20th century and such histories complicate our readings of these short-term projects. The paper is however primarily concerned with the post-war context of London, up to the present day. Using the case studies as a spur for reflection, it provides an overview of the key moments in the evolution of creative temporary projects developed in vacant spaces. The discussion
also highlights links between past and present projects. Setting out from the post-war reconstruction years, the paper explores the 1960s countercultural projects as well as the 1970s post-countercultural community garden movement and the urban ecology turn. It then considers the impact of an increasingly global environmental awareness in the 1980s, leading up to the 1990s regeneration boom. This broad survey is supported by specific historical examples of creative use - some of which have proved to be truly temporary whilst
others have managed to endure - explored through published material, interviews with initiators and archival photographic records.
Through this historical review the paper links London projects to wider movements worldwide, with particular references to US and Europe where a direct influence can be established. Key themes emerging that provide insights into practices and ideologies relating to ‘emptiness’ are discussed and their legacies for contemporary urban projects identified. The paper observes that there has been a historical evolution in how ‘empty space’ has been discovered, made visible and reimagined in 20th century London, and highlights its relevance for today’s vacant urban spaces.