The rampART social centre was established May 2004 in a derelict building previously used as an Islamic girls school then left empty for two years before being squatted along with the vacant houses in the block. The building underwent transformation from the moment it was opened - a partition wall on the top floor was removed to create a space large enough for banner painting and the once empty building was soon bursting at the seams with furniture and equipment collected from the street.
With meetings, rehearsals, workshops, film screenings, benefit gigs and other performances, the space was quickly put to good use and evolved. PeaceNews volunteers created a wheelchair accessible toilet and a ramp that could be placed at the entrance and windows on the ground floor were bricked for sound proofing after the weekly samba band practice led to a noise abatement order.
Different layout were tried in the hall and modular stage created. The kitchen was rearranged to make it a more practical space and a permanent serving area built. Further work on these improvements were put on hold when the local authorities started correspondence about health and safety inspections. A series of risk assessments and visits from the fire brigade followed, then emergency lighting, smoke alarms, extinguishers and safety notices sprung up around the building. The biggest job was the construction of a new fire exit as previously there had been only one exit from the whole building.
The highly effective sound proofing was seriously compromised by the new fire exit and a second noise abatement order was recently served despite the best efforts of the collective and most of the event organisers. Most of the complaints, however, related not to music from the building but noise and nuisance generated from people in street during and after events and this has proved to be a much harder problem to solve than soundproofing.
Perhaps one of the biggest factors to shape the rampART has been it’s proximity to the London Action Resource Center (LARC) . There has been virtual no interest in office space at the rampART, with groups preferring the long term security offered by LARC. Groups have tended to prefer using LARC for regular meetings while larger one off meetings often end up at rampART along with benefit gigs and screenings. It's strength as a gig venue has led to a bit of a party culture in terms of proposals, something that the collective is keen to keep in balance.
Current use and status
The need to keep noise off the street during events has led to work making the roof garden a more attractive place for people to go for a breath of fresh air or a cigarette. A covered area with seating has been built and railings set up around the edge but it remains to be seen whether this is a practical solution. Excessive noise from the roof is still likely to generate complaints and in the past, providing access to the roof during events has resulted in major damage to the tiled area of the roof when drunks have dislodged slates, creating leaks which have bought down the ceilings and destroyed equipment.
Attempting to encourage more events other than parties, the collective recently made the biggest changes to the building to date. Although there have been various large meetings and even weekend long gathering at the rampART (for example, the last few months has seen public meetings relating to DSEi and organising meetings and gatherings relating to both the No Border and Climate Camp), many people have commented that the rampART was too dark for such meetings. To address the problem walls on the first floor have now been removed to make a large, light and airy room about two thirds the size o the downstairs hall and good for meetings of up to 50 or 60 people.
The community served by the rampART has generally not been a local one, but a community of politically motivated people from around the capital and beyond. There have also been hundreds of guests from all over the world enjoying free crash space while attending events in London. For example, seventy Bolivians stayed earlier this summer.
Regular users include the samba band, the radical theory reading group, the womens cafe, food not bombs and the cinema collective. The 24/7 rampART radio stream that started with coverage of the European Social Forum has expired a long time ago, resurrected occasionally for live coverage of major mobilisation like the G8 or DSEi. Other radio collectives now use the space to broadcast their weekly live shows - Wireless FM which came from St Agnes Place and Dissident Island Disks.
What does the future hold for the rampART? While developers have bought and submitted planning applications for the squatted houses next to the rampART, there remains no indications that the warehouse itself will be redeveloped in the near future. With the property market cooling off significantly, who knows how long the social center might remain.
Since the climate camp there have been suggestions that the rampART should have an eco refit with rainwater harvesting, grey water flushes, perhaps even compost toilets and renewable energy. Whether it is worth doing these things in a squat, or whether anyone has the energy, skill or commitment to make it happen is another matter.
The current collective is keen to get more input and regular involvement from groups that use or would like to use the building. There are plans for a users meeting which, unlike for more practical organising that takes place at the normal weekly meetings, would be something of a consultation. It would be an opportunity for the collective to analyse the current and potential role of the rampART to different groups and campaigns, as well as giving chance for people not familiar with the collective to gain greater understanding of the decision-making processes, practical issues and problems related to project.
Also planned is an assembly of as many different campaigning groups as possible, along the lines of the long defunct 'London Underground' or 'Radical assemblies' that used to take place in London, Brighton and elsewhere at various times. The general format would be a go round in which each group has a couple of minutes to say what they are currently up to and what people can do to get involved. After the go round there might be some discussion to help link up collaborations or spin off meetings and actions, followed by a quiet social evening, food and drink in order to allow informal networking.
The aim is to help create a greater sense of unity between disparate groups, link up individuals to others working in their location or area of interest, reduce duplication of efforts and avoidable clashes and generally help to strengthen 'the movement'. Initially this would be a one-off event although the hope is that it will prove useful and generate momentum to become a regular assembly, perhaps hosted on rotation in different parts of London.
On cafe, kitchen and waste...
"In the early days the project included a café in the ground floor of one of the squatted houses but this was soon swallowed into private domestic use. A couple of attempts to clean and improve the layout of kitchen gradually made it a more usable space. An ongoing battle with mice and cockroaches means that no food or food wastes can ever be left anywhere in the building which is hard to achieve especially when there are guests staying.
Early on there were compost facilities on the roof but worries about rodents and disbelief that the building would be evicted before long enough to make use of the resulting compost meant that composting efforts were abandoned. Recycling has also been half hearted and inconsistent with many event organizers choosing to dump recyclable waste rather than taking it to nearby collection facilities.
Disposal of rubbish of all kinds has been an ongoing issue, with the council threatening fines for putting stuff out for collection. The rampART routinely gets the blame for the fly tipping occurring across the street. This is somewhat ironic as the vast majority of content of the building has come from the streets in the first place leading to suggestions that the rampART claim land fill tax credits from the council."
On first floor meeting room renovations...
"The bookcases and computers remain part of this new larger room but the collective has decided to close the hacklab in recognition that it’s a dead project without anyone organising activities. The intention is to scale down and redesign computer facilities throughout the building taking into account the way the building is now known to be used."
On public meetings and gatherings...
"These types of events often attract the police and their attempts to intimidate exiting activists and newcomers. Last month during DSEi week, poor inteligence resulted in embaressed police staking out queer bingo instead of a convergence space."