The London Festival of Architecture has always proved to be a platform for vigorous debate – both about our theme and about wider issues affecting London. On our Views Pages we give space to a range of contributors including industry leaders, curators, academics, politicians and other less-heard voices to express their views and ideas. These are their opinions and not necessarily those of the Festival. We hope you find them in equal parts inspiring and challenging.

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Charles Holland on Boundaries

 

  • Charles Holland is an architect and lecturer who was one of the leading partners of the seminal collective FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste). In this essay, Charles shares his thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

 

My former practice Fat was known as a cross-disciplinary practice, meaning that we worked across the boundaries of architecture, art and design. The urge to transcend categories and dissolve boundaries reflected an institutional critique of architecture, an idea that it had become closed, hermetic and disconnected from wider culture. There was also a sense that discrete disciplines represented a form of privilege in themselves and that maintaining them also propped up certain forms of social and cultural vested interest.

 

Today, when architects are increasingly marginalised from the processes that shape the built environment and when – infamously – society has become suspicious of ‘experts’, such an internal critique seems less pressing. The body of knowledge and the specific skills that architects bring appear to me to be underused but absolutely vital. Once we laughed at the protection of title and celebrated projects called The Death of the Architect. Now I feel that a post-structuralist deconstruction of institutional privilege feels suspiciously like a hollow victory.

 

How can one respect disciplinary boundaries and yet avoid conservative re-trenchment? I don’t wish to swing the pendulum back to a form of cosy establishment. But architects have become perhaps too comfortable writing their own obituaries. In architecture school we often encourage a level of ambition that extends way beyond anything an architect might genuinely hope to influence. And we encourage the trying on of roles: politician, planner, fiction writer, outer space explorer.

 

The writer and teacher Mark Cousins once labelled architecture as a ‘weak discipline’ meaning that it frequently looks outside itself for ideas. It sometimes defines itself through an appropriation of what it is not. But right now it feels important to try once again to define what architecture is and what it is important about that. Disciplinary boundaries can be a trap. But they are also ways to hold onto forms of knowledge and protect things that we value. Whilst being alert to privilege and alive to possibility, we should also reassert forms of knowledge that no one else brings. Viva architecture!

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Sainabou Jack on Boundaries

 

  • Sainabou Jack is an architect at BPTW, one of our Festival Club members. Her piece was one of two chosen entries selected by the practice following an internal ‘Boundaries’ competition run for its staff.

 

“‘Boundless’ is a poem inspired by some of my personal experiences studying and working in architecture as a BAME woman. The intention of the poem is to highlight some of the limitations and struggles faced by minority groups within the construction industry; issues which have recently been highlighted through campaigns such as the LFA’s own Elephant Campaign, and brought to light in Building Magazine’s recent diversity survey published last month. I hope to draw attention to the need for a more inclusive environment in which people do not feel disadvantaged or discriminated against based on their race, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation” Sainabou Jack

 

 

‘Boundless’

 

I am not defined by the boundaries

Set to exclude rather than include;

The boundaries that are designed

To keep out my class, my gender, my kind;

The boundaries so constricted that

They only allow room for a few;

The boundaries that only let in the (stereo)typical member of the Club

Where most look a certain way and in turn look at me a certain way;

The boundaries that constantly remind me I’m different

Even when I try to fit in;

The boundaries that make it okay

To be observed, touched and poked as though I was alien;

The boundaries that make it not okay

For me to express myself, my culture, my ideas…

 

I am not defined by the boundaries

That separate instead of unite;

The boundaries that make me stand out

As the odd one out;

The boundaries that see me as emotionless enough

To warrant the stares and inappropriate comments;

The boundaries that deem my name

Too foreign to be hired;

The boundaries that acknowledge and reward

Based on intrinsic identity instead of skill;

The boundaries that put me back in my place

Whenever I strive to progress;

The boundaries that make me think twice before writing these words

For fear of being further sidelined…

I am beyond these boundaries.

 

Image: Boundary sketch by Sainabou Jack

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Emily Gee on Boundaries

 

  • Emily Gee is Regional Director for Historic England,London & South East. In this essay, Emily shares her thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

 

At Historic England we talk a lot about how London’s cherished views belong to everyone, whether they are rich or poor, local or visiting, in the heart or on the outer reaches of the capital. There are no boundaries to taking in the free and magical views of London’s landmarks from surrounding hills, public parks and bridges. It is a heart-lifting message: that glimpses of our diverse places of worship, learning, civic and royal power can enrich our souls and connect us to the city. But this is not a wistful allusion to the opening scenes of Mary Poppins, it a call to safeguard what is fundamental to London’s specialness and to what opens London up to the world.

 

This translates into policy by reminding authorities to consciously value London beyond their own borough boundaries. The London View Management Framework encourages a strategic approach to managing the capital’s skyline for our collective benefit. For example, people climb to the top of Parliament Hill – from where Sylvia Plath observed “the city melts like sugar” – to spot the places that mean something to them. In views like these we get a sense of London belonging to everyone.

 

We all have local scenes that mark our own London boundaries and while church spires historically signified the bounds of each parish, we now have a broader architectural tapestry to define our urban neighbourhoods. I know I am leaving Somers Town when I check the time on the British Library’s elegant clock tower, and know I’m entering the City when the silvery dragons and crests tell me so. These kinds of boundary structures mark our own geographies – and remind us how history and architecture can define London places. This is why high streets are so important to the identity of neighbourhoods, they form a central spine, drawing people to gather, interact and participate in civic life. Places also mean more when they respond to history and take their name and their route from historic field boundaries, rivers and earlier settlements, as told in Gillian Tindall’s The Fields Beneath.

 

One of our roles is to advise on what is officially ‘of special architectural and historic interest’ via the National Heritage List. We explore the boundary between old and new history with the listing of special modern buildings that capture the very best of London’s recent past, and we seek to broaden the narrative of historic interest through recognising stories of diverse communities.  We also work to ensure there are fewer boundaries to the List by making it accessible online and encouraging a range of contributions. A project with the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust has young architects adding deeper meaning to List entries by illustrating later uses and broader histories. And when we resist boundaries and broaden access – to views, history, understanding of significance and good places with history at their heart – London is a richer place for us all.

 

 

 

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Ros Morgan on Boundaries

  • Ros Morgan is Chief Executive of the Heart of London Business Alliance. In this essay, Ros talks about the important challenge of choosing which boundaries to celebrate and which ones to obscure.

 

The Heart of London Business Alliance is defined by geographical boundaries. It is located in the City of Westminster and spans the neighbourhoods of Piccadilly, Leicester Square and St James’s as well as the edges of Chinatown, Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall. Among many famous streets in the area are Piccadilly, Regent Street St James’s, Haymarket and Jermyn Street, which all have long, rich histories. To some extent, the definition of our patch is instinctive – it feels about right.  As with many boundaries, it is also pragmatic. Its boundary has been set based on the property locations of current Heart of London Business Alliance members, including an extension beyond the current BID area to the east of Charing Cross Road. The area is also defined and divided by countless – often overlapping –  boundaries: physical boundaries such as pedestrianised zones and vehicular and public transport routes, but also the thresholds between different land ownerships, different uses, historic character zones and different development projects.

 

Some, like the threshold between two historic neighbourhoods, are fundamental to our enjoyment of the city.  They highlight its richness and its history; celebrate its complexity and contrasts: the area is notable for its contrasting characters, from the formality and gravitas of Regent Street’s Portland stone facades to the ‘Piccadilly Lights’, projecting its animated collage of advertisements throughout the day and night. Others, such as the boundary between different landownerships, may not contribute anything at all.

 

Heart of London has been working with public realm consultants Publica over the past year, to establish the principles for a long-term programme of improvements to the public realm to ensure that we retain and enhance the qualities which give the area its unique urban character and world-class status at the heart of the West End. A key concern is to ensure that the boundaries – both within and around – our core area are carefully considered; that we celebrate the boundaries which enrich our understanding and experience of the city, but obscure those which don’t. We have extended our area of interest to one or two city blocks beyond our patch – taking in connections to Covent Garden, Mayfair, Whitehall, Soho and a larger portion of St James’s – to ensure that thresholds with surrounding streets and neighbourhood are given the attention they deserve. We are working hard to ensure that boundaries within the Heart of London area, particularly between discrete development projects, are not perceived as boundaries at all, but rather as part of a rich, coherent, seamless public realm.

 

These are the areas which can all too easily become the most impoverished corners of our city. Sudden changes in, say, street furniture or signage or paving treatment or management regime, can simply add to the sense of disorientation or clutter. There is a very fine line between an exciting juxtaposition and an inexcusable mess.

 

Heart of London Business Alliance is a 2019 London Festival of Architecture (LFA) festival hub. To find out more please visithttps://heartoflondonbid.london/events/lfa-2019/

 

 

 

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Rob Fiehn on Boundaries

Rob Fiehn is a London-based freelance communications consultant, working within the built environment industry. In this essay, Rob shares his thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

 

 

 

The more I think about the abstract concept of boundaries, the more I become confusingly ambivalent. I’ve always thought about them as wholly negative. A boundary is like a border or a wall (concepts which have been widely covered in global press recently) and they are divisive and unhelpful. Often boundaries separate people and places, with the impression that one group is not welcome in a neighbouring zone. As a child of the 80s, the Berlin Wall seemed to be an ever-present backdrop to the world’s problems, representing a schism between families, culture and national identity. Even at a young age I was aware of it as a violent political act and the day that this particular boundary was brought down was a symbol of liberation that reverberated around the world. Unfortunately, it seems that humans rarely learn from our collective mistakes and walls are back on the agenda.

 

Within the city body boundaries are a part of everyday life. Invisible lines delineate boroughs which are almost imperceptible to the average Londoner but they have massive ramifications in terms of planning and regulations. We also unwittingly run up against mental barriers all the time, often linked to a sense of privilege and ownership. The recent segregated playgrounds that have become a national scandal throw this into stark contrast although few of us were genuinely surprised. The housing crisis is another daily reminder that economic boundaries control our lives in cities and London is possibly one of the worst offenders in a world of inequalities.  In architecture, we regularly discuss the chasm between education and practice and this seems to set up an unnecessarily antagonistic boundary between universities and commercial organisations.

 

We’re attempting to tackle all of these issues in the upcoming series of the Negroni Talks as part of LFA 2019 and despite the doom and gloom we are hopeful. For instance, once you identify a clear boundary it becomes possible to bridge the gap or even smash right through it. We can empower architects to demonstrate to the rest of society that there are no hard boundaries and many solutions to everyday problems arise when we cast them aside. Not only that but the interstitial space between boundaries is often where the most exciting things happen. The borderlands between local authorities is one visceral example where visionary buildings can be created in the spaces where control is in doubt. The profession must use the tools in their architectural skillset to investigate boundaries and then demonstrate why they’re irrelevant in the bigger picture.

 

 

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Fluid Boundaries – community contemporary dance performances responding to architectural landmarks

Clare Richards is the founder and director of ft’work (Footwork Architects), a non-profit organisation, working to help create thriving communities and ensure clear social principles underpin development within the built environment. She is also a patron of the London Festival of Architecture. In this essay she shares her thoughts on our 2019 theme of boundaries.

LFA Patron, ft’work, is partnering with leading contemporary dance company Shobana Jeyasingh Dance in a public dance response to the Festival’s theme of ‘boundaries’, bridging the gap between physical, social and cultural barriers.
Here’s our first update.

 

SJD has now recruited dancers from schools and community groups. Secondary school students from Oaklands School and Mulberry School will be taking part alongside senior dancers from Green Candle Dance company. Under Shobana Jeyasingh’s guidance and using her hallmark creative process, they’ll shortly begin work with the company’s dancers, producers and an architect to create a short intergenerational, site-responsive performance. The final work will be performed in two outdoor locations in central London, as well as in the participants’ schools and local communities.

 

The first site has been selected — Aldgate Square. It’s ideal for several reasons. The backdrop of both old and new buildings reflects the rich social and commercial history of the City: a church, a school, a public square, shops and office blocks. The physical form of the renovated square, with a sculptural stone boundary, seats, pavers, flowerbeds and lawn, provides a range of levels, textures and surfaces. It has a large footfall, with a new café at one end and with people enjoying the space for their lunch breaks.

 

Our amateur dancers are looking forward to creating their own dance movements and to explore the architectural landmarks. It will allow the young people to dance directly with older dancers, to benefit from a truly creative approach to making movement and to work with their bodies and minds. By also performing in front of their peers, they’ll have a unique opportunity to bring contemporary dance to new audiences. As one of the teachers remarked: ‘This is a great project with huge benefits for participants and the public’.

 

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Boundaries Change…

Chris Dyson is the principal of Chris Dyson Architects. In this essay, Chris shares his thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

Living and working in Spitalfields, I have seen the boundaries of time change a neighbourhood for the better. Commercial Street used to be a major division between the City of London and the poorer parts of our neighbourhood, carved out by Act of Parliament in 1825 to improve the safe passage of goods from the Thames to the West End. The Spitalfields that I have come to know and love is now a cosmopolitan place with a great tradition of accepting people and affording them places to live, such as French Huguenots, Russians, Irish and most recently Bangladeshi. Being open in spirit as place and people has, I think, made Spitalfields what it is today: long may it continue to thrive.

For good or ill, Commercial Street is still the main artery – lined with 4 and 5 storey warehouse buildings with episodes marking places along what is becoming our high street – no longer a divide but a place in itself. However the traffic and pollution is atrocious and I hope one day the artery of vehicles can be restricted to the bare essentials and cyclists will have a safer passage along its length.

Our practice recently relocated to the junction of Fashion and Commercial Streets, giving us a corner profile and great address – where much like a department we offer the visitor coffee, bespoke tailoring and architecture! Just as Harry Selfridge first did in 1908, the department store in its finest form offers no boundaries, drawing people to visit and marvel at wonders sourced from all over the world. Our Cobb Street project, now on site on the edge of the City, is an artist’s studio and residence reflecting this ongoing process of change. The mixed use development will offer much back to animate the local streets, hopefully creating a new artistic quarter in this part of Spitalfields.

Youth knows no bounds on the streets here, enjoying the cafes, gyms, yoga centres, clubs and all the independent retail experiences the place has to offer. Old Spitalfields Market is a great model of private development for public good – formed like a donut with shops lining its perimeter and a covered piazza style space within with myriad small independent food outlets. As a building form it has obvious boundaries with gateways, but is essentially open and inviting, providing a heart to the neighbourhood. Here I can walk my dog Milo and visit my favourite bike shop for coffee and feel at one with the place. Much like Halifax Piece Hall, it provides a sense of place – open and inviting and quite the opposite of an Oxford or Cambridge college quadrangle.

As architects we can draw upon these successful urban models as we create new masterplans for the expansion of our city. Tall buildings and increased density work well if designed alongside green open spaces for interaction – something we do miss around here, although I’m hopeful that the redeveloped Bishopsgate Goodsyard and nearby Allen Gardens may offer this in the future.

Like so much of central London, Spitalfields is a palimpsest of people, places and activity where boundaries constantly change. Recognising that old ways are no longer relevant is not a negative act: it I can be a positive one that offers new hope and relevance for the neighbourhood. We must learn to embrace change and throw away the boundaries we impose upon ourselves.

 

 

Inspiration for our place …“Changing Place, Changing Time, Changing Thoughts, Changing Future” artwork by Maurizio Nannucci (2003).

Neon light. Private collection Stetten, Germania. Courtesy Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

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Vanessa Norwood on Boundaries

Vanessa Norwood is the creative director of the building centre. In this essay, Vanessa shares her thoughts on our our 2019 theme of boundaries.

Boundaries shift. Architecture is often viewed with a sense of permanence but time brings a fluidity to the physical fabric of our cities. Boundaries are not erased with each new community that settles but reclaimed, repositioned and repurposed. Architecture adapts.

Boundaries are the result of many forces that push and pull the city and its inhabitants; the political zeitgeist, the will of developers reacting to the financial opportunities of a place, the need for growth and modernity often at odds with our desire to keep the familiar. ‘Gentrification’ shifts boundaries and large areas of the city that once housed artists and students become unaffordable. We ourselves are shifted by boundaries.

 

London has faced recent criticism for becoming a ‘property portfolio’ where booming prices and government policy has led to a social apartheid within the city. London is home to anincreasing number of  ‘ghost towers’ as foreign investors, deterred by tightening regulations and a looming Brexit, find the glut of luxury developments less appealing.

 

Writer and activist Jane Jacobs led a campaign in the late 1950s to save what we consider today to be quintessential New York, Little Italy and Soho, from Robert Moses and his developer’s scythe. Jacob’s 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities celebrated the active sidewalk; ‘Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves’.

 

Truly democratic public space is of vital importance to an activated city. George Monbiot in his 2017 book How Did We Get Into This Mess? warns against the semi-privatisation of public space noting that UK city centres ‘are being turned by the companies that run them into soulless, cheerless, pasteurised piazzas’ where street life is ‘reduced to a trance-world of consumerism, of conformity and atomisation.’ The UK Government has recently appointed a Minister responsible for ‘loneliness’ while the co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission for Loneliness reports ‘When the culture and the communities that once connected us to one another disappear, we can be left feeling abandoned and cut off from society.’

 

Good architecture is a key protagonist in the story of a successful city. When Lina Bo Bardi designed a building having been set the conditions that it must not obstruct important views of the city beyond or destroy a valued ground level gathering space she pulled the building in two making the elevated form of the Sao Paulo Museum of Art completed in 1968 one of the 20thcentury’s most iconic works.

 

The London Festival of Architecture offers an opportunity to celebrate the city and to bring us together to consider what we must cherish and what must be challenged.

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Clare Richards on Boundaries

Clare Richards is the founder and director of ft'work (Footwork Architects), a non-profit organisation, working to help create thriving communities and ensure clear social principles underpin development within the built environment. She is also a patron of the London Festival of Architecture. In this essay she shares her thoughts on our 2019 theme of boundaries.

I did two things this week in preparation for LFA 2019. The first was to visit a hospital-based project in Waterloo that intercepts young victims of gang violence and then works with them for 6 months back home. The second was a meeting with a leading contemporary dance company which, as part of its outreach, creates choreographies to bring together people of all ages and backgrounds.

So what do knife crime and dance have to do with a festival of architecture, or the built environment for that matter? The stark picture of London, as it sets about addressing a housing crisis and failing high streets, is of growing inequality, intolerance, child poverty, homelessness and isolation. Rather than improving people’s lives, many communities see regeneration and development as something that is done to them, not with or for them.

I happen to believe strongly that it’s the collective responsibility of those of us shaping the city’s built environment to rise to the social challenge that this represents. The question of how to value and bring value to London’s existing communities is at the heart of this, yet our preoccupation is with the red line that marks the boundary of a site — whether as a physical constraint, a design challenge, or an economic opportunity. Behind physical boundaries there are invisible social boundaries, yet they only feature in development currency to the extent that we choose to identify them, reveal them and respond to them.

In fact I’m an optimist and I think we’re moving in the right direction. I was heartened at the launch of the RIBA’s current exhibition, Making it Happen, New Community Architecture, to hear curator Pete Collard describing a growing interest among students and young architects in “designing for public good”. This isn’t just about being more socially aware, it also makes good economic sense — thriving communities add value in every sense.

That’s why, for this year’s festival, I am working on two projects exploring how physical and social boundaries overlap. The first is a series of short films, one of which will trace an apparently innocuous postcode boundary, with a voice-over of comments by the young victims of violence for whom this boundary has a very different meaning. The second is a cross-cultural and inter-generational dance project on the theme of ‘boundaries’, culminating in two site-specific public performances.

The Festival is now so well-established, its reach so impressive, that it can call upon London’s huge pool of design talent to come up with ambitious events responding to all manner of boundaries — social, cultural, technical, material and physical. The LFA not only shows the world what London’s designers have to offer, it’s an important showcase for what we can offer our city, which is why ft’work greatly values being a Patron.

I see this year’s theme as an opportunity to push the festival’s own boundaries, to reach outside the design world to all Londoners.

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Peter Murray on the streets of London and boundaries

The West End Project is a splendid thing. It involves widening the pavements of Tottenham Court Road, excluding all motor vehicles except for buses. Gower Street will revert to two lanes for traffic and will be enhanced by a segregated bicycle route.

The first phase of the project will be completed in spring this year in plenty of time for the delayed opening of the Elizabeth Line which will spew over 200,000 pedestrians a day onto the pavements around the new station.

High-quality new paving is being installed. Elegant and smooth, it aspires to the sort of placemaking one finds as a given in European cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Milan. But why on earth is there an untidy line of mortar which straggles down the middle of the sidewalk, spoiling its pristine appearance?

It’s a small and often unnoticed boundary that is a characteristic part of the London street scene.

New paviors butt uncomfortably against panels of glazed blocks that allow daylight into the basements of the buildings fronting the street or panels that allow smoke out in the case of fire.

It’s not just a problem for Tottenham Court Road, but many of the public space improvements of recent years. Look at the impressive work that has been carried out in Bond Street recently and you’ll find the same thing happens where there are basements which run out under the highway.

In some cases, it has been possible for designers to negotiate with the building owners to extend the paving treatment over their private property, but not where there are glazed blocks. In some areas, it was not possible pave over private property because it would have meant the local authority taking on liability for any structural damage – something that it was understandably unwilling to consider.

The project was made considerably more complicated by time-consuming negotiations; even where there was a willing property owner, lawyers ensured any agreement was hard won. Sometimes tenants wanted a seamless sidewalk, but property owners weren’t interested.

These little boundaries, these untidy lines between public and private city reflect the primacy of property ownership in the capital. The problem has been overcome where the historic estates are funding street improvements, and since they own the freeholds of all the buildings, they are able to extend paving up to the building edge.

So do we seek a way to recreate the seamless sidewalks of our continental neighbours or do we accept London’s untidy, pragmatic way of responding to physical change? It’s probably the latter, although it would be nice to think that contractors could come up with a more elegant solution for joining the public and the private elements of our pavements than a smear of mortar.