“i needed an office” — stu goulden, acollectiveBack
“This,” says Stuart Goulden, pointing to the street outside 22 Pavement, below what will soon be his office window, “Is literally as central as you can get. I would say, right there, that’s the centre of the city.”
It’s the perfect place to try something new. Stu is apologetic for Acollective’s appearance, as he and Rick Chadwick are in the thick of renovations that will transform the pile of rooms above the old Pavement Vaults pub into York’s first creative co-working studio spaces. But when he lifts the old office carpets, heavy with the early 1990s, to show off the floorboards that will eventually be exposed underneath, there’s a twinkle of confidence when he tells us about how the varnished wood will transform these unprepossessing spaces. Then he rolls the carpet back down again. “We need to protect them while we’re still painting.”
Under the dull office carpets, the floorboards; under the pavement, the beach. It’s hard to imagine what revolutions were wrought upon York when the first experimental paving was put down along Pavement in the fourteenth century, or to picture the interest that must gathered around the workers as they laid the first stones. It seems so normal now. And Pavement is such a nondescript word, that you need the explanation of the street’s history to understand why anybody would name a street that way.
Acollective, when it opens this July, might not make such a seismic alteration to York as its first paved street, or draw equivalent curious crowds; although Stu and Rick are planning to open with a party. But it aims to become something as natural in the city as stone-paved streets, and that has to be an aim, because nothing quite like it exists in York now. Everything has got to start somewhere, and it might as well start here: in the centre of the city.
“This has all come about because I needed an office,” says Stu. Despite his prominent role in the creative and cultural life of York, since founding media chameleon One&Other in 2011, through successfully driving the bid to make York a UNESCO City of Media Arts, to his present creative consultancy, Like No Other & Co — “I work with lots of different people in the city to try and do lots of interesting things,” is how he describes it — that was the one thing Stuart Goulden lacked. An office.
And he had been looking. Everywhere. Ask the right people the right question and they’ll tell you; oh yeah, they had that Stu Goulden in the back of their shop the other day, looking for some space where he could make a place to work. His needs aren’t much, and are the same needs as many of the lone operators jostling for coffee shop elbow room and wi-fi with the excitable morning tourists and the weary afternoon ones.
“Like in most cities, in York the creative and cultural sector is one of the fastest growing,” says Stu. “But unlike most cities there just isn’t the office space or the ground space to accommodate them.
“There are some good serviced offices, but they’re targeted more at professional services than creative companies. There is a gap between individuals working from coffee shops, or one or two people working from home, and the offices for agencies of twenty or more. The whole reason we’re doing this is because we couldn’t find that space ourselves. So we’re trying to create it.”
What they have at the moment is a top floor collection of spaces and rooms that, separated by half-twists of staircase and sub-divided along the years from pub to offices to vacancy, that will be renovated, decorated, and unified into Acollective. The aim of Acollective is not simply to provide the desks, chairs, plug sockets and internet connections that are the core essentials of work; but to also provide the harder to define, harder to buy fringe essentials that, as the increasing popularity and spread of co- working spaces has shown, are as much a part of creative working as self-assessed tax returns.
“More than anything, rather than just office space, we want Acollective to be an office community, where people can work among other creative individuals,” says Stu. “We want to help people thrive in the positive energy that young creative businesses can produce.
“We’ve been a bit quiet about it so far, a bit reserved,” says Stu, but even so, there has already been a lot of interest. “It’s a real mixture. Some digital companies, musicians, filmmakers. One sector that we didn’t appreciate was blossoming in York is authors. We thought people might want solitude if they were going to be writing a novel or a magazine, but actually they want to be here, in among different people. We’ve even spoken to a magician. He creates a lot of great tricks for himself and other famous magicians that he’s not allowed to name, and he needs people to test them out on.
“It will be important to get the right people in and get the balance right. We like the fact there will be plenty of opportunities to bump into people in the kitchen and have conversations that we might not otherwise have, and certainly not be working from home. That’s going to be one of its main strengths.”
With a presence above Pavement, and the benefits of being a community, Acollective should also strengthen the creative scene in York, at least making it more visible. One of the first results of York’s bid to be designated as a UNESCO City of Media Arts wasn’t only the success of the bid itself, but the way it jolted an ambitious but undercelebrated sector into full view of the city.
“It surprises a lot of people,” says Stu. “A lot of the businesses are out of sight a lot of the time, or don’t always do their work in York itself. But the sector was really passionate about gaining international recognition, and joining international networks. They were doing some incredible work but wanted to be even more ambitious, and were supported by organisations like the council who shared that ambition.”
Among the businesses Stu lists as part of that ambitious, passionate sector are Stage One, in Tockwith, who invent, manufacture and construct the technological solutions required for spectacles like the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012; and Athens 2004, Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010, Sochi 2014, and more; Bright White, on Swinegate, who use digital technology to reinvent what museums can be and do in the future; KMA, changing public spaces into playgrounds through digital projections; and Revolution Software and Charles Cecil, in the city centre, whose most recent games of a 25-year history have been downloaded more than five million times to iPhones alone.
There are many more, and it was Stu’s job — “my pleasure” — to write the UNESCO bid, and write about what they were all doing, and persuade UNESCO that York should be a designated creative city — a designation that is permanent. It’s also now his job to make sure the designation gets results.
“IT’S ABOUT ENCOURAGING THE NEXT GENERATION OF TALENT TO BE EXPERIMENTAL”
“It’s an opportunity and a challenge. Something like a capital of culture year is quite easy to articulate and easy to understand, but a permanent designation really demands that everyone is part of it, and that everyone benefits.
“Part of it is about supporting and growing the businesses that are here, and part of it is to attract digital and media companies from around the UK who perhaps didn’t have York on their list before. And we have some great festivals and events here that we want to take to an international scale.
“It’s also about encouraging the next generation of talent to be experimental, to take these subjects up at school and college and university, and about retaining that talent when it’s developed. Whether people want more experience in the sector or are just curious about it, we want people to get involved and help shape it at the very beginning.”
A bit like Acollective HQ, the designation should put some smoke in the glass of so far so opaque parts of the city, that have been gazed straight through as people assumed tourism was ruled by heritage. Perhaps, with a UNESCO media leg up, tourism can scale the old city walls and show something more of the city.
“One aim is to create an arts centre for the city. That’s something that doesn’t currently exist, which in a city of York’s size is disappointing, but that’s the kind of transformative impact this can have.
“We’re also looking at all the public spaces, which are extremely busy during the day, but can perhaps be busier at night. Can we bring those to life and tell the story of our heritage in a new way? We have always been a city of storytellers, but with advances in digital media, there are now new ways to tell those stories.”
York’s long standing and comfor table relationship with its past sometimes exists uneasily alongside the city’s need to be as much a part of the 21st century as of the centuries long gone; fighting to be designated for its digital media, as well as its historic media, can expose some of those tensions. What Stu sees, and what he has seen in York since arriving six years ago, is a city that is ready and capable of supporting people who want to explore new directions. “I moved up to help rebrand Norwich Union as Aviva, and for the last five years I’ve been working for myself. I like being in a position where I can have ideas and try to make them happen, and I think York is a great place to start a business.
“It’s a very supportive place. When you want to try something new and put your idea out there, some people challenge you and criticise you, but the majority will try to get behind you. It’s a really nice spirit that I think you need when you’re just starting out because it’s never easy, and you have your own doubts.
“I think York is at an amazing point where it knows what its past is all about, and it attracts seven million tourists because of its past. But it is now starting to ask questions about what it wants its future to be.
“There are still opportunities. There are still new demographics that we want to attract to the city. We don’t want people to just come here because of the built heritage, because they will only come once. The history here is so rich and weeep uncovering new bits of it, and I think the creative industries are adding a new layer to what tourism is.” Elevating York’s digital and creative sectors won’t obscure or replace its heritage; after all, nothing in York can be elevated above the Minster anyway. But it can provide something alternative for tourists, and something tangible for the people who live here. Stu lives here; and while a few doors down The Golden Fleece trades on its reputation for ghosts — anywhere up to fifteen, by most available counts — here at no.22 it’s Stu and Rick haunting rooms that, hidden beneath the beige paint and partition walls, have history of their own. The ground floor might be a Greggs and a Betfred now, but it was once The Pavement Vaults, a pub lost to York in all but name — that’s soon to be revived at the old White Swan Hotel down the road — while Acollective revive the rooms upstairs. And maybe even the rooms in the roof. Since committing to the idea in April and getting the keys in May, the renovations have been down to weekends and nights and Stu and Rick, getting it ready for the experts who will take it to the next level.
“I’ve learned to love DIY,” says Stu. “I actually really enjoy it now. I was a bit intimidated by all these tools at first, but it’s been fun banging in nails and ripping up carpets. “It has involved a lot of work, and perhaps not many people would have been able to do that because of the work involved. But once we saw the potential of the place, we just felt it was perfect.
“We’re really excited to see what happens as a result of being here. What collaborations will happen, what work people will be producing; we’ll be running evening events, so we’ll see what those socials start to look like. It’s not a big open plan space, and it’s hard to appreciate what it’s going to be without any furniture and with the carpets still down. But it’s a nice little oasis in the city centre.”
It is like an oasis; it’s quiet up there on the upper floors, under the eaves, waiting for something — something like Acollective — to happen.
“Actually,” says Stu, looking from his window on the centre of things, “York’s not the wildest place. But I like the buzz of the city. The window will be open all the time in my office.”
Originally published in The City Talking: York, issue 01