As I wander around London’s edgy, creative Shoreditch neighborhood in the city’s East end, I spot four train carriages jutting out from atop a railway viaduct. No, I’m not dreaming, and I haven’t been popping pills. I am here to check out Village Underground, the brainchild of the ambitious 29-year-old furniture designer Auro Foxcroft. The retired subway cars are part of a project to create a new type of studio and office space: one that is eco-friendly, brings together people from a variety of trades, above all, offers a low-cost alternative in a high-rent area.

Foxcroft meets me at the bottom of a precarious-looking, three-story scaffolding ladder (due to be replaced by a proper staircase soon) and leads me into a ground-level warehouse. Built into the viaduct, its 5,000 square feet have been restored to give it a light, airy feel. 

“This is the cash cow of the project,” explains the amiable and laidback Foxcroft. “We rent it for anything from £600 to £5,000 a day.” So far, it has hosted exhibitions, workshops, video and photo shoots, and private parties.

The real fun begins up the ladder and on top of the viaduct. Four former subway carriages and three shipping containers have been positioned, secured, and painstakingly transformed into open-plan working spaces. By painstaking, I mean 40 tons of metal and wiring were ripped out from the trains’ underbellies on a shoestring budget with no staff. And that’s just for starters.

Foxcroft was 25 and by his own admission “green” when he decided to take on this mission. He was looking for cheap studio space, but couldn’t find one. The idea to use subway trains came to him during a funicular train ride in Switzerland. After unenviable amounts of paperwork, he got hold of some retired subway cars (the trains were free but he had to pay £25,000 to transport them), found a site, and obtained planning permission (he now has a low-rent, 10-year lease).

When the subway carriages finally arrived “it was like all my Christmases rolled into one,” Foxcroft says with a smile. A short movie on shows the trains being hoisted up in the air by crane. As you watch it, it’s impossible not to feel awe-struck. “Wouldn’t it have been quicker just to keep on looking for cheap work-space?” I wonder aloud.

“I got so much help from other people that I was obliged to pull it off,” Foxcroft laughs.

In fact, his unabashed strategy of “begging, borrowing, and stealing” was matched only by other people’s generosity; a number of architects, engineers, expert consultants, and friends provided their professional services and equipment for free.

Next to its affordability, the other great appeal of Village Underground is its eco-friendliness. For example, one side of the shipping containers is lined by six-wall polycarbonate panels that let in light but that are also “recyclable and very insulating.” The subway cars and containers are insulated with fireproof, sustainable, and recyclable mineral wool. In addition to using solvent-free paints and, when possible, reclaimed timber, Foxcroft is also installing PV panels on top of the warehouse and building a solar water heater. He plans to grow a garden outside the carriages.

Though not all of the workspaces are finished yet, some occupants—a mix of architects, graphic designers, jewellers, garden designers, film-makers, and photographers—have already moved in. In keeping with the social ethos of the project they only pay £30 (or about $60) a week for a generous desk-cum-work space. The offices are highly original, too. The trains have retained many original elements, such as the slightly scuffed tube maps, old-style grab poles hanging from the ceiling, and a driver’s cabin and seat in two of the trains that occupants use as meeting rooms.

One of the subway cars will be left free for hot-desking, a pay-as-you-go system for workers in need a temporary office that will bring “as diverse a mix of people as possible” into the space, explains Foxcroft.

The London venue is only the beginning. Foxcroft says he is looking at sites in Berlin right now, with an eye toward expanding to Malmö, Sweden and Barcelona, Spain. Eventually, he wants the village to become truly international—while remaining environmentally responsible and affordable, of course.

Story by Giovanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Model trains
Retired London subway cars are recycled into low-rent studio and office space.