Travelling through a city in the company of Mark Davy, founder of Futurecity, is an eye-opener. Not only does he have an opinion on just about every piece of architecture and art that whizzes past, he sees buildings, walls, hoardings and lamp posts as hard cash – to him, they’re all cultural currency.
Futurecity is a cultural consultancy, but Davy speaks the language of business, with a fervent belief in the UK as an ideas economy and that culture and art should be embedded in the business world. ‘If we want society to take art seriously, it has to be more ingrained in things that go on in our lives on a day-to-day basis,’ says Davy.
Even though he believes public-sector art funding plays an important role, Davy deliberately chose to avoid it. ‘I tried to create a business model that was recognisable [to developers] in the delivery structures and language it used,’ says Davy. ‘We work with engineers and designers, and if we present a major arts project we use CGI, we talk about delivery, values and the business case.’
Remembering developer board meetings from the early days – when he would introduce himself as the ‘art consultant’ – Davy says, ‘There would be this deathly silence, with tumbleweed blowing past. I realised that art is seen as an add-on, as a piece of puff.’
Those days are long gone. Today, Futurecity is working on more than 100 projects, including the Spinningfields district in Manchester, cultural masterplanning for the Ebbsfleet Valley, including the Landmark commission of Mark Wallinger, and the ongoing development of Grosvenor Waterside in London. It has also just been appointed to devise a cultural strategy for the Battersea Power Station site in south London – news that makes the exuberant Davy smile like a kid in a cultural candy store.
As varied as the projects are, they always follow three simple steps. Futurecity starts with cultural masterplanning, to identify the cultural DNA – the uniqueness, identity and brand – of a site or development. Then comes the strategy stage, followed by the implementation. Futurecity’s knack of identifying the cultural currency in unusual places is key. Maximising the substantial cost of a 200m-long wall in a Birmingham development by getting artist Liam Gillick involved, taking the glass and lighting budget on a leisure centre development in Lewisham, London and adding Phil Coy to create an interactive multi-hued exterior, or having Clare Woods work on the facade of the new Grosvenor Waterside building are some examples.
And it doesn’t have to be large-scale, adds Davy. ‘Even in very cold marketing situations we’ve got very good creative ideas,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a slightly leftfield approach, but grounded in reality.’
The impressive portfolio means that, finally, developers are taking the idea of embedding art in their business on board. Hines, for example, is trailing its developments for opportunities to make art part of its cultural DNA, and Futurecity is increasingly involved in projects from the earliest stage, ‘when budgets are being set and you can influence the feel and look of the place’, says Davy.
Next week also sees the launch of Future Editions, an online gallery of limited editions developed with artists and designers (‘Our very own Audi showroom,’ says Davy). Skystation, a seating sculpture by Peter Newman, is the first product. It is part of a public seating project to be rolled out across 100 locations internationally.
Collaboration is at the heart of Futurecity’s approach – bringing together painters, typographers or carvers with designers, architects and developers in unexpected ways. Davy, who studied painting at Canterbury College of Art, but was equally drawn to its architectural and graphics department, realised that ‘what I’m really good at is getting lots of people dancing around and working together’. ‘I learned not that I would be the next Jeff Koons, but that I had an enthusiasm and energy for making things happen,’ he says.
When asked where all the ideas come from, he simply says, ‘It’s me.’ He’s quick to credit his team, the wider circle of mentors from the design industry, such as The Partners founder Aziz Cami and Hat-Trick Design, and the strength of the Futurecity brand. But Davy’s interests and enthusiasm, his rigorous pursuit of quality and self-confessed magpie tendencies of cherry-picking collaborators he likes, are the consultancy’s ebullient heart.