Art and anarchy in a Mayfair mansion

spends a weekend with the Da! Collective in their £6 million squat, investigating whether the mainstream media’s portrayal tells the whole truth

Anarchist flags aren’t usually found in Mayfair. It’s embassy territory, home to foreign dignitaries and overshadowed by the almighty US Embassy, crowned by a golden eagle perched on the roof. The area is patrolled by police officers with tactical-scope equipped machine guns. Local showrooms sell £100,000 plus Chevrolet, Corvette and Aston Martin sports cars, and estate agents will sell you a country house in the swankier parts of Surrey for a small fortune. The barmen wear tuxedos and the door men wear top hats. In the world of Monopoly, Mayfair is the place to own a house. Yet for a brief while, amongst the Mayfair millionaires, a squat was added to the board.

The Mayfair squat was started in October after its current residents had patiently watched the building for six months. When I arrive to ‘squat’ for the night at 18 Grosvenor Street, a £6.25 million grade ii listed townhouse, I am unsure what to expect. Even more intriguing than its location, the townhouse’s new anarchistic flag has been raised by an art collective of students and ‘young people’. The youth of the new energy that has swept through the building betrays itself in places; Beyonce lyrics in the kitchen instruct residents to put “everything you own to the left, to the left” of the sink. As I arrive, someone bashes out a rendition of Madness’s It Must Be Love on one of three broken pianos that stand in the entrance hall.

Called the Da! Collective, The Guardian labelled the new residents a “a raggle taggle group of teenagers”. Drinking tea out of a sugar bowl and sitting on a DIY chair, Stephanie Smith, one of the original members of the collective, expresses concern over the title. “It’s true most of us our under 25”, she says, “but when the Guardian came there was only two teenagers here, and they don’t live here. The average age is 21. Most of us art students or ex-art students. We have one guy studying for an MA in Philosophy. We have a lot of older people come and use the space – we have a established artist using some of the space upstairs”. Tom, another original member, agrees; “Some people see this as alternative to getting any old dead end job”.

The building plays various roles; for four people it is an alternative home, to some it is an alternative art studio, to most it is an unconventional place to hang out. “There are only a couple of us who really have nowhere to go”, Tom tells me, “other people are renting elsewhere, but they find this environment much more exciting to work in and hang out in. Some people work full time and enjoy coming here, some people are full time students and like coming here as communal place to work. That’s been really encouraging. Everyone sees this as only temporary. So were just trying to enjoy it whilst it lasts and to make the most of our time here.”

How to ‘make the most of’ the time is slightly ambiguous. “It’s all about using unused urban space and the environment to live and work in,” Tom says, “It’s more of an experiment in different ways of living. A lot of it is geared around anti-consumerism and radical politics but its mostly about art.”

The six storey building, consisting of several bathrooms, conference rooms, ornate chandeliers and a grand central staircase, is full of half finished art products. To get into the main dining hall, I have to duck under a half built Trojan horse that forms the door way between two rooms. It’s head disappears at the ceiling and reappears the next floor up. “Its kind of symbolic” Steph explains, “its supposed to represent our presence in the house”. The plan is to have a megaphone attached to the mouth – so residents can receive house news straight from the horses mouth. Upstairs, a fire place has a giant paper Mache whale’s tale protruding from it’s hearth. The balcony may not be adorned with a golden eagle, but it does have a collection of ceramic parrots with tinsel feathers.

Despite the Beyonce lyrics and other tell-tale signs of immaturity, conversation in the house focuses more on art and politics than celebrities and partying. Some aspects of the house border on the pretentious; there is a discussion on whether destruction can be art and countless books on anarchism and socialism fill the bookcases. I find a copy of Nostradamus’ predictions in a toilet. In such a free form environment, composed of radical young people, I suspected Big Brother style tantrums would be rife. “As long people are respectful of other people’s use of the space there isn’t a problem”, Tom say.

The lack of hierarchy or structure does create some problems. The basement of the house remains unused and some rooms are still without electric power. How the use of power is paid for has not being properly discussed. Food preparation and cleaning up is improvised when the need arises. For dinner, I’m treated to a free vegan feast, leftovers from a restaurant were one of the residents works. Desert is a surprise; many of the people who visit the building practise freeganism (making meals from perfectly edible food that has been thrown away ) and someone has managed to find a undamaged birthday cake, still in it’s box, in a skip. It’s unbelievable, but the finders swear they found it. “Lots of people that come here try skipping or reclaimed food”, Tom explains, “there are some people that enjoy doing that, some don’t, but there has never been any trouble with food or anything like that. There has been this ethos of group building and communal help but you are as involved as you want to be. Maybe its because of the amount of people that use the space, but there has never been any argument about the washing up or tidying up.”

The house may seem hippie, but a poster on the wall tries to impose some order: “This House Operates A No Drugs Policy and No Smoking Inside”, it reads – the second command being rather more tongue in cheek than the first. “We don’t tolerate drug use, because in these sorts of circumstance it could get really out of hand”, Steph explains.

This attitude of not letting activities cross such boundaries has been – for the most part – warmly received by neighbours. The house enjoys wi-fi provided by the house’s next door neighbours and people are free to come and go as they please. The house could confidently declare itself the busiest and most inclusive building in Mayfair. “None of us actually like living in Mayfair. It sounds stupid but its not that great for us. Its stuffy, its ossified, there’s no culture here, no night life. There is no community. Half of these places are owned by people who have other residences”, Tom tells me. Walking around the area, where tour groups and exclusive bars form the closest thing to a community, you can understand what Tom means.

T he Da! House hopes to follow in the tradition of ‘social centres’ that have stimulated radical communities across London. The 491 Gallery in Leytonstone, east London, managed to secure a seven year lease for their gallery after making significant improvements to the abandoned Transport for London building. The RampART community space in Whitechapel offers workshops on radical politics and regularly hosts talks on current political issues. One of the most successfu community centres turned sqauts is The Spike in Peckham. The Spike was originally a ‘doss house’ – a state centre for unemployed and homeless people. Legend has it that George Orwell stayed in the building. In the 1980s it was abandoned and was frequently used for fly-tipping. The current occupants arrived 10 years ago, cleared the building out and have been developing it ever since. Now the building features a bread oven, a wood work centre, a spacious gig venue, a recording studio and a video editing suite. Murals and graffiti adorn the area. The Spike has also recently begun to produce bio-fuel to sell to local businesses.

There are countless other smaller social centres dotted around the country, and there could feasibly be one in every community. The EmptyHomes Agency, which campaigns for abandoned properties to be used for and by local communities, estimates there are 840,0000 unused sites across the country. “I’m sure you could have something like this – a free and open space where people can try to have a community – in every town. Young people might think what we are doing is wishy-washy but if actually come here they see its not what they may think it is. If there were places like this in every neighbourhood, young people would understand it’s more about having a space for themselves – like a youth club”, Tom says.

It seems that young people are not the only ones who see the work of squatted social centres as “wishy-washy”. RampART, The Spike and The Da! House all face eviction by local councils. Squatting is a civil matter that becomes illegal only if the squat develops into a source of crime or if the owner of the squatted property decides to evict the squatters. In the case of The Spike, the local council owns the land and want to make a tidy profit from it – The Spike needs to raise £450,000 if they are to keep the land. The Spike claims no one from the council has visited the site, and an independent valuation of the property placed it’s worth at £375,000 – significantly less than the £500,000 the council originally asked for. As for the Mayfair house, media coverage has caused the owners – a firm registered in the British Virgin Island – to request the council evict the squatters. Their court appearance is due the 25th November. “We can buy some time with technicalities. But really we wont have a leg to stand on”, Tom says, with little optimism in his voice.

Considering the councils seem to be enforcing public sentiment, Tom is right to be apprehensive about the Mayfair house’s prospects. The Sun’s report on the Da! Is headed “Dossers trash 6 million mansion” – even though The Da! Is compiling a list of repairs it has made to the house. Public comments on The Daily Mail’s report declare them “free loading parasites”; “kick them out and let them get a job… fed up with keeping these layabouts.. that think its there right to sponge of other people”, one user writes. “Its not like we are trying to jump the housing queue or anything”, Tom says in the Da!’s defence, “this place wasn’t being used, and we’re using it. We’re not seeing this as a housing option”.

Interestingly, no cynicism has been directed towards the company that left the listed building derelict. Nor is there any anger at the council for ignoring the building for so long. It seems the preference is to let the building remain empty, or sell it to a profit-driven developer. In an ideal world, Jack Keuro, John Steinbeck, and Jimi Hendrix would move in to the Mayfair squat. The artistic vibes may have gone to my head, but surely something is better than nothing.