Harry Handelsman

The pioneering property developer is setting his sights on Stratford, east London, and launching a limited-edition art collection

Harry Handelsman is arguably one of London’s great commercial entrepreneurs. While he may try and dismiss any labels, his career seems to be about more than just making lots of money from the capital’s pumped-up property market. Handelsman is a champion of London, using his powerful role in the built environment to positively influence London life and society.

‘We are now living in probably the greatest, most interesting city in world,’ he says. ‘So what can we do to extend that? I find that idea incredibly rewarding, a totally different kind of aim or ambition. I like to try and make a difference. My intention isn’t how much I can get, my interest is to get value.’

Much of Handelsman’s work sets precedents not only within the property sector but also, arguably, in society, by revitalizing neighbourhoods and raising the bar in terms of ideas and investment.

The St Pancras Chambers apartments and Marriott’s St Pancras Renaissance Hotel are perhaps his greatest achievement in architectural ambition and personal risk.

‘Naivete was my biggest forte,’ quips Handelsman drily. ‘I am probably a bit of a perfectionist. I like to pay attention to detail. Commercially it was a folly. Honestly, I don’t know anyone who would have wanted to take on the project — I wouldn’t have if I had known what I was taking on. It was an impossible task so I think there is a sense of accomplishment. For me it represents a complete project of determination, love and respect of the architect [George Gilbert Scott].’

Handelsman’s initial involvement in St Pancras Chambers was to develop 67 apartments but he and his development partner LCR (London & Continental Railways) also inherited the hotel project when Whitbread, the original partner, pulled out.

Handelsman clearly relishes a challenge and likes to ask questions — of himself, of his clients, of the people who choose to live and work in his buildings and of the population as a whole. His conversation is peppered with verbal challenges: ‘How do you create change? How do you create a different perspective? What can you add that isn’t already there? Why does it make sense?’

The results of this enquiring approach are perhaps most clearly seen in the scope of the residential projects for which he is best known. He founded the Manhattan Loft Corporation with John Hitchcox 1992. It has built and redeveloped many iconic buildings around London, starting with a printworks on Summer Street in Clerkenwell. Handelsman has a good eye for a building’s potential, preferring those with an industrial feel, and understands the value of their location. As well as at St Pancras, other MLC projects can be found in Soho, Bankside, Shoreditch and West India Quay.

‘MLC introduced the public to loft living — an explosion in the residential market that has taken place in the past nine years,’ says Handelsman. Buoyed by the success of St Pancras Chambers, he is keen to take on more projects, including a new development in Stratford. ‘It has given me courage to undertake developments that might not be as obvious,’ he says. ‘And the more interesting a project becomes, the more meaningful it becomes. I’m a visual person and in my own projects I can be slightly more speculative. Every building has its own story. I’m not an aggressive developer. I want what’s right for the site.’

Handelsman is also involved in culture through his stake in Ealing Studios and through his art collecting. He was keen to include art in St Pancras Chambers and his latest project will take certain pieces from his collection and release them as limited-edition prints. The collection launches this month and the first work featured is a portrait of actress Jean Harlow by artist Gerald Laing. This latest venture is another demonstration of how Handelsman combines a strong visual sense with commercial acumen in projects that find success on more than one level.

This article was first published in idfx Magazine.

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