Friday, 28 June 2013

Entrepreneur Kate MacTiernan on Danny Boyle's new film festival Shuffle - and restoring a derelict asylum in Mile End

After falling in love with a disused psychiatric hospital in Mile End, Kate MacTiernan is helping to bring the building back to life, starting with a summer of arts events and a film festival curated by Danny Boyle. She tells Nick Curtis her plans.

Amid the thundering traffic of Mile End Road it's easy to miss the derelict St Clement’s Hospital — but Danny Boyle used to look at it every day. Before he was an internationally acclaimed director of movies, and defined modern Britain in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, he lived in a tower block next to the gauntly imposing Victorian buildings that were, by turns, a workhouse, an infirmary and a mental institution.
This summer Boyle — who still lives locally but no longer in a tower block — will curate Shuffle, a programme of films as part of a wider community arts festival, the St Clement’s Social Club, on the site. The events are being staged under the concept of “meanwhile use”, that brings life to sites slated for development.
Conversion of the hospital buildings into flats, and the building of community homes on the site, begins in early 2014 under a pioneering scheme but the hope is that there will be ongoing cultural activity on the site.
The person who got Boyle involved is Kate MacTiernan, a 28-year-old Australian with boundless energy, sudden convictions and impeccable contacts. Five years ago, travelling in Europe after her architecture degree in Melbourne, she met Rohan Silva, then a special adviser at Downing Street, and decided on five days’ acquaintance to move to London to be with him (they married this year).
A year later, while studying at the Architectural Association, she was introduced by Newsnight’s political editor Allegra Stratton to Maurice (now Lord) Glasman of the community organisation London Citizens, which was eyeing up St Clement’s for an experiment in land re-use.
“I do have a tendency to fall in love with stuff,” says MacTiernan. “And I just fell in love with the building. We came in the winter when it was covered in snow and it felt so dark and mysterious and Victorian.” A security guard showed her a curio: a small theatre with a stage at one end, originally built in the Fifties, where “the patients — we’ve got to call them service users now — held a Christmas pageant each year”. In the late Sixties, the theatre was taken over by two pioneering occupational therapists, Myra Garrett and Holocaust survivor Lotte Tendler, as an everyday social club where artistic endeavour was encouraged as an alternative to the zealous application of electro-convulsive therapy elsewhere on the site. Both women are still alive at 85 and 92. “I was swept away by the stories,” says MacTiernan. “There were lots of actors and poets kept here, and there was a bar at the social club and people from the outside world could come in. It was a very happy place.”
The theatre would become the focus of the festival but first the wider plans for St Clement’s had to be ratified. Over the course of four years (during which MacTiernan worked for an East End architectural practice designing mosques), London Citizens persuaded the Mayor’s office, which has owned the empty hospital since 2005, to donate it to the specially formed East London Community Land Trust (ELCLT), the first of its kind in the UK.
“It’s a new housing model and Boris  Johnson has been very supportive,” says MacTiernan. “We have gone into partnership: us, the developer Linden Homes and the Greater London Authority. The whole of the land will be held in freehold by a foundation, which means ground rents can be invested back into community activities: 250 commercial residential properties will be developed in the listed hospital buildings, and community land trust flats and three-bedroom houses will be built on open ground [making up 10 per cent of the development]. The prices of these are linked to wages rather than market price — they come in at half the cost of a normal house, and when you sell one, you sell it back to the trust. And 25 per cent [of the properties] will be socially rented.”
When London Citizens met local groups — schools, faith groups, housing associations — to drum up support for the ELCLT, they heard the same thing over and over: “Everyone said there’s no heart to Mile End. There are great transport links but nowhere to go. People wanted community space, arts space, nursery space, a place to do and see interesting things.”
MacTiernan came up with the festival as a way to “cleanse the building of its dark history, and bring back the good bits, like the social club” but also to show how cultural use might inform the development in future. For his part, the Mayor says the scheme has “huge potential to breathe new life into a neglected part of the capital, combining quality housing developments with new cultural spaces that will enable ambitious events such as Shuffle to happen”.
The film programme came about almost by happenstance, though. At Christmas, MacTiernan commissioned a huge bow for the front gate from a local sculptor, to celebrate the hospital being brought back to life. “I called it ‘a bow for Bow’, and asked my friend Steve Hilton [David Cameron’s former director of strategy], who worked with Danny on the Olympics, to ask Danny to come and launch it. When he saw the theatre, he clapped his hands and said, ‘We can do something here. Let’s do a film festival’. I said ‘All right, you curate, and I’ll do the rest’. Once Danny’s on board, it opens lots of doors. He is very passionate, very energetic and completely honourable: if he says he will do something, he does it.”
Boyle also donated enough funds to make the theatre functional. Lawyers, security firms and audiovisual suppliers have donated time, expertise or equipment free, and the place is abuzz with guerrilla gardeners and volunteers. MacTiernan has a talent to enthuse.
The St Clement’s Social Club arts festival starts on July 19, with some activities open to the public and others just for local groups. Trendy east London architects MUF will organise an art camp for children with Asperger’s from nearby Phoenix School inside the listed hospital buildings, but the gardens, a bicycle workshop and a cafĂ© built by the homelessness charity Crisis and upcyclers East London Furniture will be open to all.
The public can also come to several events in the theatre, including an evening of “Outsider Poetry” presented by former patients and staff at the hospital, and a drama about mental health staged by local theatre company Eyestrings. Then, from August 8, Shuffle will show not just a selection of Boyle’s own films (Slumdog Millionaire, Shallow Grave and the almost-unseen short Alien Love Triangle) but the likes of Attack the Block, Julien Temple’s London: the Modern Babylon, and short films programmed by former Labour MP Oona King’s husband, Tiberio Santomarco — the couple also live locally.
There will be an outdoor screen as well as the theatre, plus “bars, and dancing to cool bands, for 11 nights”, not to mention the chance to soak up the evocative Dickensian surroundings of the place.
Throughout our conversation I’ve assumed that MacTiernan and Silva, who is now a tech entrepreneur, must also be East End locals, like all of London’s cool kids. She looks a bit shamefaced when I ask. “Ro and I lived in Bethnal Green for three years,” she says. “But we’ve just moved to Clerkenwell, which I love. But this [St Clement’s and the ELCLT] is all about local people and local things. So I feel a bit silly ...”
Shuffle runs at St Clement’s, Mile End Road, E3, August 8-18 (


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