We interviewed Alicja Borkowska, Co-founder and Director of You & Me Architecture, about the Tottenham Shopfronts project she worked on in 2014/15. This was part funded by Haringey Council’s Growth on the High Road project and focused on improving the look of independent shops on West Green Road and the High Road.
What role did You & Me Architecture play in the Tottenham Shopfronts project?
We were appointed by Haringey Council as the main architect and designer. We were also the main contractor which is a bit more unusual because generally architects just do designs and someone else builds it. We found that this was really beneficial for the project as it meant we had a lot more control over the finished result. We started around five shops at a time and did them in smaller phases mainly in West Green Road. In terms of how we approached the project, we were involved with the council to do an initial scoping report. We did a condition map which identified the condition of the shops, which ones were local independent businesses and which ones had sponsored advertising. The project was to support the local businesses and also shops that were in particularly bad condition. We tried to cluster the improvements in key areas – on corner sites and main entrances to the high street – to maximise the impact. After the scoping report we went out and leafleted the high street to tell people about what was happening. We ended up doing 22 shops and a few art works.
What was your particular role in the project?
I was the main project architect and project manager. I have quite a small office and it was only me and the other director, Iris, at the time. It was quite nice as it was always me meeting the shop keepers, then going back with the design and then with the construction side, supervising the build. For the shopkeepers it meant that things weren’t being delegated to people they didn’t know and there was a conversation continued.
How did you consult with the local businesses to make sure they had a say in the project and the designs?
We met the businesses and took them through a consultation. It was asking questions like: what’s your most important product, do you have an existing brand, do you have an existing colour scheme, what don’t you like about your shop, what do you like about your shop, are there any other shops on the high street or in the West End that you like? We also asked them how they wanted their shop to look. Then we went away and did a design or a couple of design iterations. We did Photoshop visuals in order to show the designs because I think sometimes when you do sketches, or architects black and white drawings, it never looks like that so using Photoshop with the actual colours and spacing is the clearest. Sometimes the shopkeepers loved it and sometimes people were quite hesitant, obviously it’s their shop, their business, so they said, ‘oh, I don’t like this, I don’t like that’, ‘I don’t like it at all’, ‘I’ve changed my mind’ – people would drop out as well. So we’d go back to the drawing board and take on board their comments. After that we’d go back and do a redesign, we’d have another meeting with the shopkeepers and agree that and then that was signed off officially with the council. That was the design stages and once we were on site there were a few things that we had to finalise like the detailed graphic in the window.
Maureen from Celebrations Partyware had existing balloon branding and a red colour scheme and she’d just got a whole new uniform so she was really keen that her shop used the branding that she’d already established. We worked with her really closely. It’s very much about displaying the shops products. Kejetia, which is an African grocers, had all these amazing plantain, cocoa beans and these big mashers. Her whole window was blocked up so the idea was to try and do some vinyl graphics showing those products along with little stories.
Have you got a favourite shop or design that you were involved with?
I really like Diamonds which is up on the High Road. It was quite a traditional shopfront and we put mirrored vinyls on the front, we took down his existing canopy which was really not in the proportions of the original shop, and we reinstated the weatherboarding and traditional hand painted signage. What I like about it is it stands out a lot with the mirrored vinyl but it’s still quite in keeping with the original design. I also really like West Green Carpets. The bold graphics on the side elevation are inspired by their carpet patterns.
What budget were you working to?
The budgets were small so we had between £2500 for the single units and up to about £6000 for the big corner ones.
You mentioned Maureen’s shop Celebrations Partyware – can you tell me a bit more about the impact the project had on her business?
She’d been there for 19 years and, because it was quite a bold red and white graphic with balloon writing, she said as soon as her shop was done people would walk past, sort of back track and go into the shop and say, ‘Wow are you a new shop?’ and she was like, ‘no, no I’ve been here 19 years’ and then a sale would happen! I think when you look like you are a new shop people notice it. It’s a really amazing party ware shop but it looked quite run down, it just looked the same and people weren’t going in. We try to incentivise people to look after and be proud of their business.
What made you go for the project? What interested you?
We’re really interested in doing community work, work on high streets and public projects. As designers we find it a lot more engaging and exciting. People don’t often have access to design and because the shops only paid 10% it was quite a good opportunity for them to get involved. It’s really rewarding as well. It becomes more difficult as you’re trying to deal with bigger issues and I think there’s a lot more opportunity for design in public projects. In shops you can be quite playful because you can use a lot of colour so it appealed to us.
What was the biggest challenge you faced with the shopfront project?
I personally found the biggest challenge was the fact that there’s so much change happening in Tottenham at the moment and there’s such a big strong community. It’s always that debate between regeneration and gentrification and I think the project we were doing was enforcing the local businesses which are already there. It’s also the bigger question of regeneration, and making things nice, and whether that’s going to push people out. I think with this project it’s not because you’re trying to make the local businesses stay and give them a nicer shop and a better frontage. We just tried to be as open as possible and tell people what’s happening because I think
if people don’t know they can feel a bit threatened about what’s happening. There were quite a few conversations just on the high street and most people were really excited but people were like, ‘what are you doing?’ People are just scared of change I think so for me that’s the biggest challenge. There were things like the NLA regeneration conference which was happening in Tottenham and there was quite a lot of protesting happening. The regeneration of Tottenham is so wide and this was one of the small projects within that.
Did anyone come up to you who was really opposed to the changes?
There was one time in a shop where there was a guy who couldn’t really understand what we were doing. I think generally when you explain what’s happening people are really supportive because they can see that it is a positive project. It’s sometimes hard to think what’s the right thing to do as an architect and where do your responsibilities lie.
That’s something we took forward very much on the project we’re working on at the moment in Thornton Heath – we’re working with a community engagement consultant. We learnt that it’s really important to keep people informed.
Have you got any future plans to work in Tottenham again?
Yeah we’d love to. We just had a meeting with the team that we worked with to say it would be great to do some more work so watch this space!
All photos are courtesy of the Tottenham Shopfronts blog where you can find more details and photos of the project.