New Live-style in Old Buildings in London: Interview with Harry Handelsman
Irina Chipova: You are the founder and one of the partners of London-based Manhattan Loft Corporation which, apart from constructing new housing, specialises in renovations and residential conversions of old buildings, including ones which weren’t initially residential. What’s the reason for that? And what’s the connection between London and Manhattan?
Harry Handelsman: It has a lot to do with my background and personal experience. I grew up in Germany and as a young man in the early 1970s ended up in New York. It was the time when young people, mostly artists, were starting to take up residence in empty factory buildings in south Manhattan. They were throwing down the gauntlet to tradition. They were driven by a desire to change their life. And I was simply captivated by these wonderful, light-filled interiors.
So after living in New York for seven years you moved to London and decided to transplant that sort of lifestyle?
Not straight away. I really liked London— it’s very diverse, there are lots of old buildings here. I started my business activity here with renovation projects. Or rather, revitalization. Lots of buildings and whole areas right in the centre with excellent transport connections were languishing in a down at heel state. For example, my first project was concentrated on the area near Hyde Park. Once upon a time it was a flourishing area, but after the War many of the inhabitants moved out, the houses fell into disrepair and it became a deprived area... These areas were unfashionable. I bought up houses in places like this fairly cheaply, carried out renovation work and tried to attract new residents to these areas in order to raise their social status. This was the process of regenerating central London, giving it back a normal life.
How did you manage to attract new residents to an area with an image problem?
It was a bit of a gamble. To start off, I bought five houses near Hyde Park. Everything about the project was ideal— the location (which as we all know is the all-deciding factor), the buildings themselves, wonderful interiors with surviving period features— plaster mouldings, carved wood and all sorts of really interesting details. The only minus was the reputation of the area, which is what made it possible to buy up properties here cheaply and then sell them on somewhat less so, which was at the same time a plus. I was certain that if new residents moved into these houses then the social situation in the area and its status would change significantly. The area was not in the wrong location, it had simply fallen into decline. You have to realise that in New York lofts appeared in areas where previously there hadn’t been any housing— they were industrial areas. But in London the situation was different— here it was about residential areas, districts where people lived very well in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. I wanted to go back to that.
Port East Apartments. London, West India Quay. 2000 © Harry Handelsman
Bankside Lofts. London, Southwark, 1999 © Harry Handelsman
Sommer’s Street Lofts. London © Harry Handelsman
Main images © Harry Handelsman