A new perch for unwanted subway cars

Nancy Durham on a new home for London's unwanted subway cars
Inside a recycled London subwar car, studio space for creative people. ((Nancy Durham/CBC))

Imagine spotting this in the classifieds: London, England: Cool penthouse offices. Excellent views. Solar-powered, sleek chrome and glass studios offer bright, airy work environment for creative people. Rent £15 per week.

My words, but if London's Village Underground placed an ad that is exactly how it might read. And for just $30 a week you'd have office space in edgy Shoreditch in London's East End. 

Of course, you would be working on a roof, in a recycled subway car with fairly modest amenities. But, hey, location, location, location after all. More to the point, this space is actually doing the job for a handful of London's young entrepreneurs.

Rooftop perch, the new home for an underground train. ((Nancy Durham/CBC))

Village underground is the brainchild of furniture designer Auro Foxcroft, 30. He needed a place to work, but couldn't afford London prices so he came up with a solution.

He recalls riding on a train in Switzerland and thinking, "this would be a good space."

So when he returned home to Britain, he approached London Underground, which runs London's vast maze of subway lines to see if they had any old subway cars for sale. He soon acquired six carriages for a takeaway fee of about $200 dollars. 

Getting them where he wanted — on top of a roof — would cost an additional $40,000 or so but that was still a bargain for prime office space in London.

Come visit the perch

The local council provided the rooftop — an old brick warehouse — and financing came mainly from the London Rebuilding Society, a community agency dedicated to helping restore beat-up areas of the city. 

For its part, Village Underground aims to encourage "the production of new creative work and emerging cultural practitioners."

One of these practitioners is tenant James Grieve, 29, artistic director at the Nabokov Theatre Company. He's been working out of one of Foxcroft's recycled subway cars for the past year.

"It's helped us enormously to be placed in a tube train perched on a building," Grieve says. "It means that people are desperate to come to meetings with us because they want to come and see the tube."

A subway car with a view. ((Nancy Durham/CBC))

Like other rooftop workers, Grieve finds the space "creatively inspiring" and says its quirkiness beats "the homogenous London office with four white walls and an air conditioning unit."

Every little boy's dream

Another rooftop tenant is Gregarious Garfield who manages artists and singers and does "loads of exhibitions."

Sitting in the driver's seat in one of the subway cars, he exclaims, "It's every little boy's dream to drive a tube train isn't it. And I'm doing it now, look! Beep beep!"

He pulls on the brake, presses buttons, pretending they still work, and then picks up the phone for the driver's intercom still and announces, "OK, I'll slow the train down."

Garfield finds the train a calming atmosphere, a good place to get his paperwork done and he loves what he sees out the windows.

"You don't normally have a view when you work. In London, like most major cities, you don't see anything. And it's really kind of like not conducive to work to just see a brick wall.

"But it's lovely here. I can see things, I can see people. I can see Canary Wharf and I love that."

Auro Foxcroft, project director of London's Village Underground. ((Nancy Durham/CBC))

More spacious than you think

When he came up with the idea, Foxcroft was also inspired by the subway car's iconic value

"The London underground train is a big symbol of London. Everybody kind of loves it or hates it, so it's quite powerful," he says.

But the tube-car also has intrinsically attractive features. "It's very light. It's actually more spacious than you think when you take the seats out" and the open plan concept is popular with creative people who like interaction.

Foxcroft had his opponents as well as his share of bureaucracy in getting his subway cars off the ground, literally, by crane, to where they now perch.

But his outlook is optimistic and for others who toil to get their dreams launched he has this advice.

"Try and enlist the support of the people who inspire you the most be they film stars, politicians, musicians or artists and shoot as high as you can."

Foxcroft credits the office of former London mayor Ken Livingstone with being open to the concept.

Village Underground now has plans to hoist the same office space atop Berlin and Lisbon.

Canada, too, is in Foxcroft's sights. Early talks are underway about the prospect of putting a subway car on a roof in Toronto.