In art circles, the term 'a Rosen building' is a familiar one. If there is such a thing as a marriage broker of buildings, it is David Rosen, 50, senior partner at Pilcher Hershman. Technically an estate agent, Rosen has found his niche among the disposed, unwanted and un sightly buildings of London. He sometimes waits years to get access to a building and then transformsit into a gallery, museum, office or home for Louise MacBain, the Beatles, David Bailey, Nick Jones, Charles Saatchi, Jay Jopling, Larry Gagosian or Vivienne Duffield in a neighbourhood normally more familiar with street muggings than sharks floating in formaldehyde, ' He is really more of a detective than an estate agent,' says art dealer Simon Lee, whose new space in Howick Place, Victoria, is a former Royal Mail sorting office Rosen found for him.
Rosen is fast-talking, energetic, flirtatious; a caricature of an estate agent - except that he never drives a graffitied Mini, has only A-list clients, and wouldn`t touch a wide-lapelled pinstripped suit. I am in a taxi on the way to Shoreditch, where Rosen wants to show me the 200,000 sq ft Tea Building which he started converting into shops and offices five years ago. Every other building in this now trendy neighbourhood is under renovation, but when Rosen first came looking, it was still the East End where his grandparents grew up.
The security guard doesn
t know who he is and hesitates to let us into the main entrance, but Rosen storms through the barricades. The former Lipton Tea warehouse is now chock-a-block with Rosen clients, most of them waving us hello. The lift takes us to the fourth floor where builders are sanding a floor in a duplex that looks big enough to host several balls simultaneously. This is the new Soho House, Shoreditch headquarters, opening in June. The Polish builders greet Rosen by his first name and treat him like a visiting dignitary. Nick Jones didnt expect to end up in Shoreditch, let alone in a former tea building occupied by 60 other tennants, but Rosen persuaded him. The domino effect is clearly at work here. Pull in a Nick Jones or a Matthew Clark (co-owner of Mother advertising agency) and the others come pouring in. 'I`ll tell you whats important in the 21st century,' says Rosen, who sometimes sounds like Al Pacino. 'Architecture, architecture, Tube station. If the building is interesting enough, people will go anywhere.'
This is the case with Clark, whose agency is now 50,000 sq ft spread over two floors. 'I was looking for 25,000 sq ft and ended up with 44,000 sq ft in Shoreditch, but it took us two years to find this.' he says. When Mother came to Shoreditch, so did half a dozen trendy cafes and boutiques, though lunch with Rosen was a bagel with lox snarfed in five minutes standing at the counter at the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane.
The reason buildings acquire a Rosen stamp is because both landlordand new tennat have to agree to use one of his pet modernist architects from a roster including Eric Parry, Future Systems, Simon Dance, AHMM, David Chipperfield, John Pawson, Richard Rogers, DEGW and Nick Grimshaw, or they can kiss the deal goodbye.
'Im very black and white' says Rosen. ' I never get involved in rubbish buildings, not even during the recession.' Three hours into a tour of London with Rosen pointing at office buildings - Imaginatio, Broadwick House, the Soho Theatre Company - on the return trip, exclaiming, ' Thats mine, thats mine,' I dont doubt him. He points to the Tom Dixon sculpture and Jason Martin painting in the foyer of the Johnson Building: names that also came from the mammoth Rosen filofax.
Loft spaces and former factories have become mainstream, but when Rosen joined Pilcher Hershman at the age of 18, no one was thinking lateral conversion, bad neighbourhoods or urban regeneration. ‘I grew up with Blueprint and The Face,’ he says. ‘I was interested in architecture and design early on.’
The son of an East End clothing factory owner, Rosen grew up in Paddington and eventually moved to Maida Vale, where he still lives today with his sister, though in a converted modernist building. His interest in architecture was sparked at the Jewish Free School in Camden Town. ‘The school was the original factory,’ he says. ‘A modernist Sixties form with giant concrete slabs. It made a real impression on me.’ Within a few years, he was working with the Beatles who needed a new headquarters for their music publishing company Apple in Knightsbridge. Then came almost every big name in the arts. ‘He has no competitors,’ says Simon Lee. ‘He has it pretty much covered.’ This enviable position has landed him an honorary fellowship at RIBA, a compliment paid to very few members of his profession.
When Jay Jopling queried Rosen’s fees (which, says his partner David Jackson, are lower than some agencies) and refused to pay up for White Cube² in Hoxton Square – a Rosen find that put him on the cultural map – it could have got ugly. ‘Everybody watched to see what would happen. In the end Jopling paid up but lost the services of Rosen for good,’ says another client. As Rosen says, ‘It’s a very small world I operate in. I’m not one for mud-slinging. If someone doesn’t behave properly, I walk away.’ ‘Jopling paid up under duress,’ says another client, ‘because he had to.’ Gallery spaces are hard to come by and no top developer or London landlord can afford to get on Rosen’s bad side.
Seated in his Savile Row offices, there is a smugness about Rosen that comes, I suspect, from having worked his way up the ladder. Invitations to almost every interesting event in London line the freshly painted shelves behind his freestanding Seventies desk and Eames chair with, noticeably, no computer. There are 18 employees in the office, but the secretary hardly asks who I am. It’s as casual an office as Rosen is a dresser. Trendy photography covers the walls in his office (Warhols and Motherwells line the walls of his home). His office is filled with drawings by his son Johnny, seven, and pictures of his wife Debra, a former board director of Lynne Franks and executive fashion editor of Arena. He had no fewer than five 50th birthday parties, which spanned the globe, starting with dinner at The Ivy and ending with a party in the Caribbean. ‘I have a few friends who started out as clients, such as John Pawson and Nick Jones, but this is very incestuous world and it’s important to make all transactions black and white,’ he says.
When your clients are Charles Saatchi, Larry Gagosian, Sadie Coles and Tim Taylor, you have to tread softly. This is business, but one in which the client is heavily emotionally involved. ‘When I found the new space for Saatchi (40,000sq ft in the Duke of York’s Headquarters), he came running over. Genuinely creative folk tend not to delegate this sort of decision. It’s really important to them.’ Most, in fact, sit patiently on a Rosen waiting list for years. Buildings such as York Central, a former British Legion poppy factory in King’s Cross where John Pawson now has his officers and David Bailey his home, took years of manoeuvring just to get a glimpse of them. Part of this involves walking through the doors of derelict buildings and asking why the lights are turned off. Part of it is convincing a property developer that by throwing in a few rent-subsidised art spaces, he can guarantee the bigger fish will come. Then he has to persuade the client that he really wants to move to Wapping.
This is his intention with Metropolitan Wharf, a 100,000sq ft former spice warehouse where Blueprint was first launched and which Rosen now has the challenge of filling up. One of his conditions was that the landlord offer a few spaces to artists at less expensive rates. This isn’t philanthropy: ‘Get some trendy people in, and suddenly the serious wallets come,’ he says.
Rosen buildings include most of the development in West London now called Notting Hill Village. This is where Mario Testino works and where the Monsoon headquarters are relocating. That done, several new restaurants are planning to open shortly. Two summers ago, Rosen stumbled upon the former Royal Mail sorting office in Victoria which he is now converting into the new Phillips de Pury headquarters and the second Simon Lee art space. Tim Taylor is presently working with Rosen, who found him his new site in Carlos Place, Mayfair, in a former bank. It wasn’t on the market but both partners decided it looked like a perfect state-of-the-art gallery. ‘I constantly walk around this neighbourhood and have an innate sense of when a building is sitting empty,’ says Rosen. ‘Walk down enough alleyways and back streets and a new London opens up to you. All my clients want volume and light, a lot of volume and a lot of light,’ he adds.
When B&B Italia opened in London, they wanted a gallery setting for their furniture. Rosen found the former Porsche showroom on Old Brompton Road and John Pawson converted the space. And it’s not just art dealers who hire Rosen. His latest acquisition is the former Mercedes showroom in Camden which Vivienne Duffield plans to turn into an enormous Jewish community centre opposite the Tony Fretton-designed Camden Arts Centre. ‘It’s an amazing site,’ says Rosen. ‘It wasn’t on the market but I approached the owner and we started a dialogue.’ It has already been subject of an international competition with the gods of architecture, including David Chipperfield and Rachael Vinoly, in the race.
Estate agents and property developers are often compared to bottom-feeding fish. Rosen seems to navigate this sleazy terrain without making too many enemies, though the current fashion for working in ‘property’ irritates him. ‘Whenever there is a boom, everyone becomes a developer,’ he says. ‘People think it’s easy money, but six months later there’s a recession and everything folds.’ He has avoided quick-build residential developments and retail for a reason. ‘Nothing changed for us during the recession. People still needed office spaces and galleries,’ he says. That buildings have his name on them now makes him visibly proud. ‘He’s a bit of a peacock,’ says Matthew Clark. ‘But he deserves the glory. He’s turned real estate into an art form. I can imagine that he wants some of the credit.’