A city’s architecture often contributes as much to its culture as the residents who dwell within it. Community gathering places, artistic performance spaces, restaurants and cafes all provide the forum for creative interaction, cultivating a city’s culture and character. John Macdonald, 39, has long known the importance of a great space in fostering a sense of community. Six years ago he opened Lightspace – a boutique event and exhibition venue and coworking space housed in an old Fortitude Valley warehouse. Having now become a favoured gathering place for the local creative community, Lightspace is well on its way to becoming a Brisbane institution.
John Macdonald spent much of his childhood milling around the workroom of his family’s clothing alterations business, Doree, which was perched on the corner of the heritage building that once stood in place of QueensPlaza.
The charm of that beautiful old building was never lost on John, even as a child. “People in Brisbane remember climbing up the rickety old stairs there and my grandmother would be waiting at the top,” he says. “She ended up working in the business for 55 years, which is pretty incredible.” The view from the workroom looked down over Queen Street and John recalls climbing out onto the corrugated-iron awning for the city’s best view of Anzac Day and returning-Olympian parades. He also remembers his family being the very last tenants to vacate prior to the building’s demolition. “The rest of the building was kind of derelict and spooky, but we were there until the bitter end,” he says.
As the eldest son, John was always destined to play a role in the family business, but, following university, he decided first to set off to see the world. Almost six years ticked by while he attempted to satiate his wanderlust. Much of his time was spent fulfilling the Australian rite of passage, living in London – where he worked in bars and clubs and occasionally ran warehouse parties in Brick Lane – followed by a stint in Barcelona.
Upon finally returning from his travels, John resumed his post at Doree, while also nourishing his brain with a post-graduate degree in philosophy. Then, about seven years ago, John received what he says was a wake-up call. His father had a stroke, meaning John had to take over the running of the family business and all its properties.
Prior to Brisbane’s real estate boom, his father had purchased several warehouses around the Fortitude Valley area. When the downstairs of one of them – which housed a smash repair garage – came to the end of its lease, John saw an opportunity. Inspired by the warehouse parties he’d helped organise in London, as well as shared coworking spaces he’d seen while living in Barcelona, he dreamed of creating a similar space in Brisbane.
“It was just this amazing space,” he says of the old warehouse. “There were these incredible character features like iron girders and timber floors. Initially I just thought it would be a great space for a warehouse party, but then the idea kind of evolved from there.”
When the downstairs tenants moved out, John set about renovating the warehouse into a venue space. A few months later when the printing company upstairs gave its notice to leave, he began converting the upstairs into shared coworking studios. “I think I was kind of naive in the beginning starting out,” he admits of his grand plan. “But if you do something with passion, it usually works out well.”
The usual challenges of financing, council approval and starting a business from scratch popped up along the way, but they only strengthened John’s resolve to succeed. “You start a business and you don’t have any customers and nobody knows about you – it’s kind of an ‘oh my god’ moment where you realise that you’ve got to make this thing work. And a lot of blood, sweat and tears later, it’s turned into way more than I ever could have envisaged.”
These days Lightspace’s spacious downstairs dwelling plays host to many of Brisbane’s most creative events, while upstairs is home to exciting young entrepreneurs nurturing their fledgling businesses to success. “All of our tenants have become great friends and we’ve even had a couple meet and now they’ve had a baby,” he says of the small community that has grown under the Lightspace roof. “It’s just a fantastic atmosphere upstairs in the studios. It’s really about creating atmosphere in these sorts of spaces. Without the right mix of people and a great space, the magic doesn’t really happen.”
On why he’s so passionate about cultivating a community spirit, John says he’s just one of many doing their part. “It’s about fostering a creative culture in Brisbane, and we all have to contribute to that. It’s a bit of a collective effort. I want Brisbane to be an interesting place to live in. I’ve lived in London and Barcelona and seen the incredible character and charm and creative buzz in these places, but Brisbane has also come so far in the past 20 years that it’s an almost unrecognisable transformation. That’s a beautiful thing to see and there’s a fantastic culture here already that is buzzing, but there’s always more that can happen.”
With one of Brisbane’s heritage buildings woven into his own family history, there’s little wonder that John was inspired to head up a recent campaign to save the 100-year-old Bonded Stores building on Margaret Street from demolition to build a new dog park. John and a team of volunteers rallied passionately behind the cause, petitioning the council to recognise the importance of the ageing architectural beauties to Brisbane’s cultural character. Despite the fact that the demolition is likely to still go ahead, John is buoyed by the passionate community who helped support the cause.
“I believe every citizen has a right, and a personal duty, to help shape their city in a positive manner,” he says. “Owners come and go, and in the meantime they’re only custodians of buildings. It’s great to make a profit, but we should also preserve the city’s character for future generations, otherwise Brisbane will become just another concrete jungle. Old buildings have a special quality, a uniqueness, a certain charm that cannot be replicated. Hopefully more developers in the future will embrace these precious buildings as incredible assets and not hindrances.”
John’s determination is testament to the influence of his parents, who he says are still his biggest inspiration. “My parents really inspire me. They work hard, and they’ve worked hard all their lives – and they’re also just really nice people.”
He also finds his inspiration travelling as much as possible – despite a dislike for flying – and losing himself in a good book. Happily, he borrows his life philosophy from one of his favourite authors, Henry Miller. “The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware –joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”