MDX Interiors BA and MA students have taken part in a pioneering collaborative project, supported by Brent and Camden Councils, engaging with the local community in Kilburn to imagine the future of the area.
KilburnLab – led by Director of Interior Architecture and Design Programmes Dr Francesca Murialdo, a Kilburn local, and department colleagues Naomi House, Jason Scoot, Michael Westthorp, and Gareth Williams, involved exploring with local residents and other stakeholders ideas for the adaptive reuse of places in the neighbourhood.
Impetus came from Camden, one of the two successful applicants that secured £40,000 of funding and support through the Greater London Authority’s High Streets for All Challenge to scope a pilot Community Improvement District (CID).
The CID pilot in Kilburn High Road aims to provide local people, community organisations and businesses a say over the strategic direction of high streets, and follows longstanding calls from Kilburn Neighbourhood Forum and others for better co-ordination between Camden and Brent, the local authorities which cover the area.
Students built 3D miniatures of shops along a stretch of Kilburn High Road and later, a laser-cut street map of the district. Their imaginative concepts for the future of the disused Kingsgate Community Centre, which closed during the pandemic, were displayed on campus at MDX Degree Show Metamorphosis, and at Camden Council-run Kilburn Library Centre in June as part of the London Festival of Architecture.
The High Road shops model was displayed at an event in January at the Kiln Theatre convened by One Kilburn, a local authority initiative aiming to bring together all those interested in improvements to the area. In June, a workshop facilitated by MDX staff and students about the Kingsgate Centre, fed in to the student exhibition at the Library.
“To work with a big community, there are so many opinions there,” says Iwona Porebska, in the final year of her Interior Architecture BA when she took part in the project. “It’s difficult to compromise things for everyone to be satisfied with the outcome".
Iwona contacted community organisations such as charity Kilburn State of Mind, which addresses loneliness and isolation, and tried to adapt spaces in the Centre to accommodate two organisations. She enjoyed the experience of engaging with these groups as if they were real project clients. She listened intently to local people from different backgrounds and observed how they engaged.
“I felt like I was part of it,” she says. “I did a visit to the Kingsgate Centre and met the guardians taking care of it. They remembered all the facilities – it had a place to eat, a dance studio mainly for kids. They gave me ideas about what the building was and what could be preserved.
“When I was a kid in Poland, I went to a community centre as well,” she says. “I could sense some similarities. If my community centre closed, I would be missing it”.
Master’s student Fatima Pooladvash designed a Robotics Hub for the Centre, offering coding and robotics classes and workshops.
“It was definitely enjoyable to engage with locals” she said. “I found that most of them appreciated Kilburn’s diversity as a special feature of the area, and want to preserve this in proposed designs”.
Matteo Spiga, who came to MDX for the final year of his BA degree after initially studying architecture in Italy, says he didn’t know what to expect at the start but warmed to the project “as I like to talk to people; one-to-ones, asking questions. It was more about the community than the development of the Centre”.
Knowing that he wanted to do something different involving nature, his design was for a community centre “for everyone”, including burrows and voids above and below ground for urban wildlife to shelter in, and hides for people to observe them from. “As humans, we tend to believe we’re the only ones who can use space: I wanted the opposite,” Matteo says.
David Kaye, co-chair of Kilburn Neighbourhood Forum and a lifelong Kilburn resident was impressed with Iwona’s design for the Kingsgate Centre, with a debating chamber doubling up as a performance/music space in the middle: “A very democratic space – people can join the meeting or be on the edge of it”.
“I was very impressed by the books [of designs] produced by the students – I thought they were quite amazing products,” David added. “The model of the High Road really works as a focus of discussion”.
David’s Forum colleague Sally Holder, who comes from a voluntary sector and community development background, attended an open day for the project in a local park and the exhibitions at MDX and Kilburn Library.
"I was blown away by the creativity and innovation I witnessed,” she says. “Talking to the students, they conveyed enthusiasm, pride and professionalism. It was refreshing to see Kilburn High Road from their perspective”.
"It perfectly aligns with the Neighbourhood Forum’s goals, and I believe it will generate valuable stories to enrich our consultation process”.
“To me this is what education should be about — the students contribute and learn by putting theory to a real life situation”. Sally says she would like to see the same approach used in other areas embarking on regeneration.
“It has been wonderful to see how the students’ initial work and presentations evolved into the final output,” says Gabi Abadi, Principal Regeneration Officer at Camden Council.
Sue Sheehan, the council’s Principal Participation and Partnerships Officer, says the project represents a unique approach of proactively asking the community what they think is needed ahead of a neighbourhood regeneration scheme.
“This work was going on anyway,” says Sue. “Why not have this partnership [with MDX] and conversation? The students are a resource - they are sharing their imagination, and this fuels other people's”.
Gabi says any concerns about working with students, as a transitory community, in a sensitive local context were allayed. “The students and institution have gone beyond extraction and have built trust and positive relationships locally”.
“Maybe students can have conversations and relationships with residents that we can't as councils. The councils can help give a real-life concept - almost a hypothesis. That helps students to build their skills”.
“The future of Kingsgate Community Centre is a real project. I hope when we go out for local contributions and input, we can use students' work as an evidence base”.
“It's been an easy partnership,” says Sue. “We hope the conversations continue afterwards”.
"It's so lovely to be involved in something so vibrant and inclusive,” says Kilburn Community Library Manager Priyanka Sharma, who joined the library just as the exhibition of student work was being installed.
“The fact it was so heavily arts-based made all the difference. An exhibition is always going to be more appealing than a surgery or forum.
“Kilburn has a very strong sense of identity and pride that you don't get in many other places in London. There's a strong understanding of people's heritage. People come into the library all the time saying they remember what the High Road was like when they were children”.
“We were getting a lot of positive feedback from residents. We had people from local shops and services coming down for events, perusing the signage boards.
“Having students in and their insight is original and fresh in itself – since Interior Architecture was what they were studying, it brought a nice level of professionalism and instilled a sense of trustworthiness among the public. When people saw it was a passionate and enthusiastic group of young people doing this work, you saw their demeanour change”.
The KilburnLab project formed just one part of MDX’s involvement with the 2023 London Festival of Architecture. Other elements were an exhibition of student ideas for adaptive reuse of sites in Golders Green (Interior Architecture and Interior Design Year 2); an exhibition exploring the links between architecture and clothing (Fashion Foundation); two In Conversation events at MDX’s Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture; and architectural walks around Hendon - sketching with architect Nuno Pais - and the Grahame Park Estate.