Tileyard Studios: the art of the possible in placemaking

Paul Kempe

Paul Kempe,

If you want to witness the art of the possible in placemaking then visit Tileyard Studios.

The Studios are a 10-minute walk from the tip of the Argent Scheme in Kings Cross. Walking up York Way, a long empty industrial road, I check the postcode I put into Google Maps. I then turn right onto an old business estate. The first building is a catering delivery company. Again I check the postcode.

Two hours after arriving to interview Paul Kempe, the investor and co-founder, I leave pumped full of enthusiasm and energy by what he and his passionate co-founders have created at Tileyard.

JS: Tell me about how Tileyard started.

PK: About 7 – 8 years ago I bought this place. It was a really tough time because we exchanged just before Lehman Brothers went under and all the funding we had suddenly evaporated because the world just stopped lending. We inherited a really run-down estate which was seriously under-invested. We had some crappy tenants. 65% vacancy and we didn’t really know what to do with it. The reason I bought it was to do a breakup and sell it off but the people we were going to sell it to couldn’t get any funding after the financial crisis so suddenly we found ourselves lumbered with this place and thinking shit we are in trouble here. We had empty space that we couldn’t sell. We were getting screwed by tenants on their rent reviews because they knew we were 60% empty and were therefore only willing to pay £5 per sq ft. It was awful.

So I spoke to two guys. Nick Keynes and Michael Harwood who used to be in a band called Ultra and who I had invested in 3 years before. I got them up here and we had loads of space to do what we wanted so we decided to do a few music orientated educational talks to the industry. That seemed to work really well. People liked coming up here because it feels like you’ve got the wrong place and it’s out of the way. After that, we thought is it possible to create a music-centric centre? It was a big ask because this was before the Argent scheme and York Way was a wasteland.

Nick Keynes came up here for six months and sat in an office and picked up the phone for 6 months trying to get people up here.

They managed to get four or five guys from the music industry who were brave pioneers. So we had a core of about six people in this large grim looking estate.

The music industry is quite a small world. Suddenly these six people felt it was quite cool – ok it’s a bit rough and industrial but we like it. So they started talking to other people and all of a sudden things started to happen.

JS: The estate feels very different today…

PK: We now have 80 studios. We are the biggest concentration of music studios anywhere in the world. I was in LA recently and they don’t have anything like this.

The studios were the hook and then we got some amazing people to start coming. People like Mark Ronson and Chase and Status. Then their management started to want to come up here and then music lawyers. Then songwriters wanted to be here and then producers. So organically we developed this ecosystem of creatives. Music-centric but all built organically. We’ve never advertised ever. We’ve never used any agencies.

It’s a joy to be up here. We have created a really unique place in London.

JS: What does placemaking mean to you?

PK: Placemaking is ensuring that you don’t stand still. You’re always moving forward and always trying to give more to your clients.

Five years ago there were about 70 people employed here now we have over 1,200 people. But we have a whole range of people. We have superstars from the music industry but also people beginning their journey. We have a Hub where you can rent a desk for £325 a month. We have a number of examples of people starting with a desk in the Hub to then having over 100 people two or three years later.

JS: As an Investor how do you balance the need to see a return with the necessity to be patient and let a project evolve and develop?

PK: If you can create the right atmosphere and place then the returns will follow by definition. This is something that has taken us six years of intensive work. It hasn’t happened overnight and it has been some seriously hard work. You have to have a vision of where you want to get to and I have another vision of where I want us to go over the next 5 years.

We have just started Tileyard Education which is really exciting and we are starting to run MA Courses next September in things that people will find useful. We are not running courses for the next drummer but in music management or songwriting. We are trying to do courses which enable people to get jobs in music and a lot of those jobs will be created in Tileyard. A lot of our masterclasses are written by some real superstars here.

JS: What things can be done to improve the process of making places like this happen?

PK: The planning process is always tough. The particular planning policy for this area is very restrictive. Some of these policies need reviewing as they are outdated. When they were drawn up it was for a great reason but the world has moved on and some of those policies have to move on as well. We have so many people that want to be here and we have found it difficult to develop more space in the new buildings that we have acquired.

We have a lot of support from the people in Islington Local Authority but the planning policies that they have to use need to be more flexible and if the government or the Mayor can do anything to help then it’s acknowledging that these set policies which are treated as though no one can ever touch them are wrong. Planning policy has to be more flexible.

JS: What really excites me about Tileyard is it feels like you have a model which could be replicated to other parts of the country…

PK: We are doing just that. We have bought 100,000 sq ft in Wakefield. Why Wakefield you ask?

I love Art and I am a patron of the Royal Academy and someone I knew there very well was leaving the RA to go to Wakefield. They were leaving to work in a gallery called Hepworth and they suggested I go and visit. So I did go up and it’s an amazing gallery. I would say in the top 5 galleries in the UK. This is an amazing space.

I got to know the Director General quite well, a super guy called Simon Wallace and we were standing there one day and I said you have this amazing building but it’s a bit of a lunar landscape around here. You have this lovely river running through and this lovely gallery but nothing else.

About 100 yards from the gallery are these derelict beautiful traditional old mill buildings, red brick and really very attractive. Apparently, some developer went bust, council owned it and they haven’t done much with it. Simon then introduced me to the council and that was about 3 years ago. I met the council and the council were amazing. The leader of the council is a guy called Peter Box and he is one of the most dynamic council leaders I have ever met. He wants regeneration. So I invited him down to Tileyard and he came down with some of his council members and they loved it and he said whatever you do I want you to do this in Wakefield.

So that’s exactly what we are going to do. We have done the first phase of clearing the site and we are creating a very similar model to what we have here. They are terrific buildings on the river, 100 yards from an amazing gallery which has 300,000 visitors a year and we can create a really special creative quarter there. We are building a campus type model for all creatives.

That is one real life example of us exporting what we have created here to another part of the country.


ou get even more of a housing crisis.

Perhaps if the quality of architecture tried to be exceptional with attention to history and place and inclusivity and independent local businesses benefitted we might start as an industry to earn the respect of those nimby’s with (actually) a just cause. That would ease a housing crisis.

As a property industry if we try a bit harder to think about creating better places then we would massage out some of the irritations in the system, create more and lasting value and have a great deal of more fun doing it.


Big idea… A new way of doing regeneration

We need a new word because the word re-generation has been ruined. It now gets tarred with the suggestion of ‘fake news’.

The developer community has to look harder at itself and ask how did we get in this mess? Why are we not sitting at dinner parties being hugged like heart surgeons for repairing something that was bad? Places that encouraged prostitution, poor health, crime and crucified all hope. Those are the areas where we go to work, to repair and grow the productivity of our Island.

We really do a great job when we do a great job. When we do a bad job it lasts for the same amount of time. We mess on our doorstep and it stays there for a 100 years. We exclude people, we don’t provide opportunity, but create welfare issues and alienate people.

Developers, politicians and communities need to find better ways of working together; asking difficult questions and searching for better answers. Straight, constructive talking; joint ventures, partnerships joined at the hip.

London is becoming hollowed out, dysfunctional and exclusive. London doesn’t have opportunities for all. We need to fix that and developers have a huge role to play.