I was at Somerset House last week to manage some workshops. I hadn’t worked there since 2010 when planning the leviathan music project BT River of Music. I thought I knew the building quite well. It turns out I didn’t.
What lies behind that grand neoclassical façade? It is a question begging to be asked when you stroll off the frantic Strand and experience a moment of peaceful symmetry in the central courtyard. (Back in 2010 I remember finding out at least part of the answer: characterless meeting rooms and gloomy, administrative corridors. Not surprising really when one of the building’s main functions in the past has been to house various government offices.)
Nowadays, however, it’s also worth asking what lies beneath the façade. For deep down in the belly of the building is a most unexpected find: a thriving village, almost a small town, of designers and makers. This is Makerversity, a rentable space for creative types to experiment, build, collaborate, plan and, well, make.
It’s an apt use of this subterranean area that would have seen, back in the 19th century, the Thames lapping at its walls and boats dropping off important government officials. Above ground in the newly opened west wing it’s all potted palms, pillars and posh cafes. Below ground you wend your way through a maze of shabby service corridors that eventually lead, if you’re good with directions, to Makerversity’s reception, portal to a nether community of imaginative minds and skilled hands.
I was there organising some Sew It Forward sessions as part of Hubbub’s Refashion Day. Hubbub is an ambitious, fresh-thinking organisation, also based at Somerset House, whose mission is to creatively engage the public in environmental issues. Their focus is on people’s passions such as fashion and food, and they develop imaginative, original, fun projects around these themes to get people thinking and behaving a little more sustainably.
A great example of what they do is the recent Oxford Pumpkin Festival, which took as a starting point the indigestible fact that 18,000 tonnes of Halloween pumpkin are thrown away each year. Using food waste as the seed they curated a series of interesting events including talks, cook-ups from surplus food, tours of the Oxford Food Bank, gleaning sessions, composting workshops and much more.
Refashion Day is a good example of their collaborative approach. They sourced funding from the North Bank BID and invited ethical fashion guru Zoë Robinson from The Good Wardrobe (who happens to be my wife) to curate a day focused on prolonging the life of our clothes.
Sew It Forward, The Good Wardrobe’s skill-sharing initiative, kicked off the day with some drop-in sessions where expert seamstresses were on hand to offer guidance on mending or adapting your garment of choice. At lunchtime, upcycling pioneer Orsola de Castro gave a fascinating talk on the possibilities of textile reuse as an innately innovative and stylish design solution. And in the evening there was an upcycling workshop led by TRAID and a jewellery making session led by A Alicia.
One of the highlights for me was watching the patient, focused attention on the faces of people mending their clothes. It was an inspiring day all round that demonstrated the power of personal creativity and imagination, and how the proliferation of practical skills can change society for the better.