Art and London psychogeography: Louise T. Blouin finds herself in Frestonia.

It is quite possible that the fragrant Louise T. Blouin MacBain, Quebecois multi-millionairess founder of the new £20m cultural institute in West London that bears her name, knows all about the Free and Independent Republic of Frestonia. Certainly some of her underlings have heard of it. The point is, the chillingly impressive Blouin building stands at the heart of a part of west London that, in the late 1970s, declared independence from the United Kingdom. It lasted several years, a community of cheerful squatters in PR terms if not always in actuality. Without that episode, Blouin could never have had her building. And I doubt if the current revival of this gritty corner of the capital would have happened either.

It was, in hindsight, a beautiful stunt, inspired by all kinds of eccentric things: by G.K. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, by the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, by the Marx Brothers’ Freedonia in Duck Soup, by the still-existing “free city” of Christiania occupying a former army base in Copenhagen. Frestonia was in fact nothing more than a clutch of condemned squatted houses on Freston Road, W10. Fences were removed to form a communal garden, an urban Eden worthy of William Blake, where stoned hippies wandered naked. I have respectable friends in Paris today who were among those butt-naked anarchists, and have the photos to prove it.

In truth it was squalid – this was a squat, and squats always attract the damaged and the freeloading as well as the principled – but the press loved Frestonia. Even the incoming Tory government rather admired its spirit, with chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe lending his support against the villain of the piece, the (then also Tory) Greater London Council which wanted to raze the area to build an industrial estate. Howe, you see, had read Chesterton.

The lovely idea, coupled with the dull reality, eventually fizzled out into a boring housing co-operative and the republic was demolished in the 1980s to be replaced with dull-as-ditchwater, if better serviced, new homes. But homes, note – not distribution warehouses. Had the GLC succeeded in its remarkably unimaginative aim, this would not have been anywhere with any cultural value whatsoever. As it is, the music industry moved in – the Clash recorded here in the 1902 “People’s Hall”, Aztec Camera named an album after Frestonia, Chrysalis Records established its HQ here.

Close by you will find Redfern’s Music Picture Gallery, fashion photographer Mario Testino’s studio, and the Monsoon fashion chain, busy building a new HQ by architects AHMM. A link is being made beneath the M41 motorway spur, connecting to the huge new shopping mall and BBC “media village” at White City, with vast amounts of associated developments pencilled in round it. There’s even a global superstar architect, Rem Koolhaas, involved in masterplanning over there. You get the sense that an ailing part of the city is finally undergoing official treatment. But that official stuff – as opposed to the stuff that just happened over the years in and around Frestonia – is being done on much too coarse a grain. It lacks charm and incident. It is not organic.

Blouin’s Institute on Olaf Street sits somewhere between the two conditions: charm with added sterility. On the one hand, it inhabits a fine old industrial building, the former Barker’s coachworks. Here they made royal carriages and bodies for Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Daimlers. In the mid 1980s, in the aftermath of Frestonia, it was converted into design studios by up-and-coming architects Troughton McAslan. Blouin has ripped all that out. Her architects, Borgos Dance, are good – Etienne Borgos and Simon Dance previously worked respectively for Norman Foster and John Pawson, and this is their biggest independent project to date. They have done more rebuilding of the outside than you might imagine, lining up windows, making it much more regular. This suits the permanent James Turrell lighting installation, whereby the whole building becomes an eerily glowing, colour-shifting artwork at night.

Inside, there are two big architectural moves. The first is to carve a vast triangular entrance lobby at one end, using the full 35-foot height of the building. That’s impressive, and will itself make a good exhibition space. The second is to sweep away columns on the ground floor by hanging the upper floors from two giant steel trusses. This has resulted in a great gallery which at present you can’t see at all – it’s been compartmentalised for the black boxes of the temporary Turrell exhibition. In that sense, this was entirely the wrong show to launch the building with. It is also odd that the exhibition is divided between ground and second levels- you have to by-pass an office floor in the middle, which is bizarre. Moreover the top level – drenched in natural light through the roof – again works against Turrell’s projection-booth approach to art.

As a whole the building is good architecture, hampered by ambiguity. What is this place – an art gallery, a more general arts centre, or the administrative HQ for Blouin’s global interests? When you wander around, only to be brought up short by locked doors and signs saying “meeting in progress” you don’t exactly feel welcome. Even though the staff are unbelievably friendly. Happy to see anyone there, I got the impression. Especially with a £10 ticket price.

It is all far removed from the Frestonian idyll. It is in the neighbourhood, but is not of it, or not yet. Fortress-like in appearance, it is every inch the ivory tower. The hammering and clanking of sites for other very expensive buildings surrounds it. How strange to think that without a brief, colourful burst of alternative-society activity at that tectonic moment when Callaghan gave way to Thatcher, none of this would have happened.

Louise T. Blouin Institute: http://www.ltbfoundation.org/ltbi_institute.html
Borgos Dance, architects: http://www.borgosdance.com/
Morley von Sternberg, photographer: http://www.vonsternberg.com/

Text © Hugh Pearman. Photos © Morley von Sternberg, http://www.vonsternberg.com/. First published in The Sunday Times, October 29, 2006, as “Hail, hail, Frestonia!”