Views

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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Which Way to Display?

White cube or blank box? Listed building or reused space? Is there ever an ideal setting in which to view artworks?

Wednesday evening’s event ‘Art Galleries in Reclaimed or Listed Buildings’ brought together four creative industry professionals to discuss various approaches to artistic display. Over the past 50 years the White Cube has dominated the art world as the primary method in which to display modern and contemporary artworks. However, while the simplicity of a white walled space creates a pure and focused environment, considering heritage and listed buildings as gallery space brings about some interesting debates.

Cromwell Place was presented by Paul White of BuckleyGrayYeoman as a project which presents a new type of gallery model. When complete, the project will combine five listed buildings to create a modern, multi-levelled co-working gallery space. Director Paul White described the project as a ‘new gallery hub’ in which artists, curators and gallerists can share resources, ideas and space. While co-working gallery spaces are not a new concept, it is arguably the generous Victorian architecture which will create the unique yet highly functional collaborative gallery space.

Marlene von Carnap, Associate Director at Michael Werner Gallery, also presented her views on art placed within antiquated buildings. Her gallery space, set in the heart of Mayfair, makes use of tall ceilings and an abundance of Georgian wooden detailing. While the dramatic setting could be viewed as distracting by some artists, Marlene said that more often than not, the history of the building responds to the thematic diversity of their collections.

Both examples present positive alternatives to the hyper-modern White Cube display. However, there does exist undoubtable conflicts between the unification of contemporary art and listed buildings. Vanessa Norwood, Creative Director of the Building Centre, discussed the love/hate triangle between artists, curators and architects. While listed and heritage space is famed for its beauty, the tall ceilings and sweeping windows make environmental control difficult. The artist and curator, she argued, will tend towards more White Cube spaces to enable air, light and temperature to be properly controlled, while the architect is more focused on preserving architectural history.

White Cube spaces are undoubtedly beautiful, but also have a tendency to be create lifeless and dry exhibitions. Perhaps the natural antagonisms and alliances that come with showing contemporary art in historic and listed buildings is one way in which to strengthen exhibition design.

 

 

 

 

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The Identity of the River

As the Thames flows through the heart of the city, it takes with it decades of architectural history and industrial heritage. Whilst once acting as London’s superhighway for coal and power, it now exists as a pathway for development, infrastructure and culture. A closing event for this year’s LFA was an architectural boat cruise along the Thames hosted by Simpson Haugh. The aim, to uncover and explore the connections between the city and its iconic river.
Boarding the mighty Jupiter Clipper, we cruised through London’s docklands where the landscape changed rapidly from post-industrial ruins to modern masterpieces to future skyline shapers. The winding meanderings of the river highlighted the volume of contextual contradictions dotted along the banks. The final destination, the monolithic Battersea Power Station. Moving from land to sea, discussions shifted onto the cultural identity of the river and the impact of current riverside developments on the wider cityscape.

WilkinsonEyre Director Sebastian Ricard shared his thoughts on Battersea Power Station, where we are working on developments of Phase 2. As a key part of London’s skyline, the space has posed a huge test for developers and designers alike.

During the early 20th century when power production was as its peak, the station was generating twenty percent of London’s electricity supply, until it ceased altogether in 1983. The challenge for WilkinsonEyre has been to bring the Power Station back to the river while respecting its industrial heritage. Original features of the building, the iconic chimneys and complex brickwork have been sensitively and painstakingly restored, reviving its architectural identity. More widely, the building’s public spaces have been reopened for the first time in over 50 years, further adding to the urban grain of Wandsworth. When complete, the development will provide a new narrative for a section of the river left unoccupied for years.

Throughout the evening, debate moved away from development and towards the burgeoning cultural potential of the river. Sarah Gaventa, Director of the Illuminated River project argued that ‘while the Thames is London’s largest open space, we have very little access to it’. At points the river banks can be uninviting places to be, especially at night. Introducing cultural capital to the banks of the Thames aims to increase public space and reverse current disconnects between land and water.

We ended discussions with Publica’s Victoria Wagner. She argued that while the river was once industrial, we should now view it as a shared and communal cultural space. There has been a huge amount of growth along the Thames at an unprecedented scale, marking this as a critical moment for the river’s social and political history. While integrating physical infrastructure, social infrastructure should be as important in bringing about positive changes.
The event was both enlightening and insightful, offering key lines of debate on the status of London’s Thames. With ambitions and opinions on how we should be using the river differing widely, we need visionary and collaborative planning to allow the Thames to reach its full potential.

By Lauren Hawkins, Wilkinson Eyre

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Art Galleries Reclaimed

After sitting in an office without air con on a warm day your enthusiasm for events can sometimes wane. This one was touch and go – it was fully booked, I hadn’t registered, a cold glass of wine by the river appealed. But I’m delighted to report that this one was a real winner. ‘Art Galleries in Reclaimed or Listed Buildings’ was a discussion on the architecture of exhibition spaces and how spatial design changes our interaction with art. It was held at The Old Operating Theatre Museum, in the attic of the old St Thomas’ Hospital. We entered through a small door and climbed a 52-step spiral staircase that led us to the museum which is quite magical. Amongst the rafters are display cases of historical surgical equipment – the place is ghoulish and charming in equal measure. The talk itself was conducted in the museum’s operating theatre, built in 1822 it is the oldest surviving surgical theatre in Europe. It was such a spectacular start that the audience were already engaged and talking before the event began.

The event was chaired by Vanessa Norwood, The Building Centre’s new Creative Director and co-curator of the British Pavilion for the 13thVenice Architecture Biennale. Paul White of BuckleyGrayYeoman talked of Cromwell Place, a fascinating project to redevelop five listed buildings to create a collaborative hub for 30 galleries. Sir Charles Saumarez-Smith of the RA shared his experience working for some of the most prestigious art establishments as well as commissioning architectural spaces for art. Marlene von Carnap of Michael Werner Gallery focussed on the impact of architecture from a curatorial position.

The consensus was that the galleries benefited from the added character of a listed building, this wasn’t a huge surprise as all three speakers are working with listed buildings but it was interesting to hear about some of the contemporary considerations they needed to think of. Marlene talked of using the space to make Instagramable moments as part of the curatorial process, an increasingly important part of a visitor experience. The speakers also discussed a wider change in the way we visit galleries with Sir Charles explaining that architectural commissions for galleries have changed enormously in the last century, with greater emphasis on cafés and socialising spaces. Vanessa pointed out that even in the last twenty years there has been a significant change in European gallery design with a move away from ‘buildings with an ego’. The speakers agreed with Paul explaining that sensitivity was essential in their design approach and Sir Charles describing how the Chipperfield extension was attentive to the existing building and its access to light.

During the Q&A the speakers discussed their favourite art spaces which included a mix of contemporary and historical buildings. Sir Charles pointed out that on a US tour of major galleries he felt that many were super-efficient but machine-like, designed for logistics not people – he said ‘there is something important about the character of a space.’ And I don’t think we could have argued that, sat in a historic wooden surgical theatre with original operating tables holding the projector and laptop

– Jenny Watt

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Living Above the Shop

Battling past hordes of after work drinkers and summer sun seekers, I found myself in front of a beautifully gilded shop front, one of the many along the West End’s Sicilian Avenue. This was to be the setting for Hutchinson and Partners LFA event, Living Above the Shop.

The previously empty space has been commandeered throughout the festival for use as a pop up venue. It served as an ideal setting for a talk exploring the changing nature of the mixed-use building typology. Mixed-use has changed dramatically over the past few decades, as conditions of labour have changed, so have the way in which we inhabit our sprawling city. With urban density a hot topic and young professionals being priced out of inner city areas, how do we negotiate living and working within the capital?

To clarify our contemporary condition, the event looked way back to the Victorian era as the start of mixed-use buildings within our cities. Factories and shops both employing and accommodating their manual workers went hand in hand with the industrial boom in population, trade and power. While the Victorians had industry to change the lives and homes of London’s workers, the dawn of the Information Age has greatly impacted the public realm and building typologies of the 21stcentury. Shifting from the past to the present day, this is where mixed-use steps up as an interesting sector to consider.

The gig economy, info-workers and zero hours contracts have all shifted the relationship between living and working. All around us, the coffee shop, the living room and even the brewery have become spaces within our cities which shape our personal and work lives. Properly considering mixed-use greatly complements the huge shift in our urban paradigm. To allow the creativity which keeps London afloat, to thrive and flourish communal and co-working spaces and a reunification of the high street’s residential and retail spaces should be important factors in present day design strategies.

So what does the future hold? One thing is for certain, in our ever changing social and political landscape, the way we live and work within urban spaces is progressing quicker than ever. As an architectural community, we need to build spaces which are capable of change, that are permanent, not temporary and that move to work with the future of our cities, whatever that may be.

Lauren Hawkins – WilkinsonEyre

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The Future

  • This essay from young people involved in Leap Confronting Conflict is part of a series of essays on identity and architecture commissioned by the LFA.

Leap Confronting Conflict is a national youth charity that provides conflict management training and support to young people and the professionals who work with them. This essay shares the thoughts and ideas of five Leap graduates around the theme of ‘Identity, Architecture and London’.

They interpreted ‘architecture’ quite loosely: mostly as a space where people have created some kind of meaning or value. Through interviews, it became clear that for these young people, identity and space have a mutual relationship. They create the identity of a space as much as it creates their identity in return.

So, in this essay, London’s ‘architecture’ includes any spaces that give people meaning and identity and into which they pour their own meaning and identity. It is about far more than the city’s buildings or infrastructure.

We hope that it will spark debate on how best to include young voices in London’s architectural agenda. Young people deserve to be listened to when it comes to how they want the spaces in this city to be designed and used. After all, the future of London is in their hands.

 

Fatima, 19 years old

I have lived in Bethnal Green my whole life. The buildings aren’t the greatest. In East London there is no luxury. You would need to refurbish the whole of the East: but then East wouldn’t be East. It is what it is. It’s how we manage, that’s what makes us. Everyone looks out for each other.

If I am stressed I go to the mosque. I go to think and worship and it helps me clear my mind. I take my own corner in the women’s section. It is a big building but I like the second floor. There is something about the layout of the room. It feels different, I feel relaxed.

There are so many new builds in the area. I would like to see more youth clubs but funding is short at the moment. If you want to build businesses and apartments, that’s fine: I know that people need to make money. But you also need youth clubs to occupy young people. They need life skills and we need things that benefit people. Not just five apartments, maybe three apartments and then stuff for the local area. The new generation needs guidance for a better future. And in the future, I want to do something that changes lives. Not just for money. I want to help someone.

 

Junior, 17 years old

An important place to me is The Rainbow Theatre, which used to be a cinema and has since been remade into a church. It’s like my home away from home, a safe space for me to just relax and be me. It’s the place where I found happiness, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

Before I started with Leap, I came to this place and the people here are the ones who offered me the chance to change my life around. I guess it’s this place that gave me the platform to start my own self-improvement. Ever since the church has been going, it’s helped countless people. It helps people with the well-being of their lives in general, financially, mentally, physically, spiritually…

 

Jhanzab, 23 years old

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA) is a community centre in Brixton’s Russell Square. And it is a space that holds some of my dearest memories. It was in this place that I first shared my poetry at an open mic night. I feel safe and welcome in this environment. It’s become a second home and I always see a familiar face. The community outreach work the BCA does with young people by creating safe spaces and giving us a platform to have conversations makes me feel like there’s hope. That our voices do matter.

I would like to see the Government investing in more safe spaces like this. The events the BCA puts on are both educational and inspirational. I’d like to see more programmes in this place that teach young people about entrepreneurship so that they can become entrepreneurs and learn how to invest in their community.

 

Dionne, 17 years old

My church building is important to me. The building is small, but great. It makes me feel safe and at home.

“This place has completely changed me as it’s where I became a Christian. It has made me see life differently. It makes you consider kindness, love, generosity and other qualities. The building has made me a better person. It helps me to respect my family and see community in and outside of the church.

 

Hasna, 19 years old

 

When I think about a building that has importance to me and feels familiar, it has to be Pastures Youth Centre. Growing up, I remember so much investment went into youth centres, and Pastures was one of them. It was a place where young kids, like me, could go and take part in extracurricular activities and where the community would meet for events. It holds a lot more significance because it was where my dad worked as a youth worker for almost 30 years and it was where I went as I was growing up.

Looking back, I could feel that there was life in that space – happiness, and community – which filled my heart with love for where I live. But over the years as cuts were made to youth services, projects that were being run in the space became scarce because of funding cuts, and people stopped coming. As a result, young people started hanging out on the streets because the one place they could go to spend their extra time, to relax and have fun or to simply escape a difficult life at home, was being taken from them. As I visit the place now, it feels empty. It feels like there’s something missing, and it brings sadness to my heart.

My experience of growing up in that space shaped my vision of what I wanted to see in my future and in my community. My vision is to create a space where the community can come together, and the youth can have a space to relax, gain opportunities and allow it to shape them, so that they realise that they are far more capable than they realise, and become far more than they ever hoped.

***

This essay was facilitated by Matt Bell – a trustee of Leap, group head of external affairs at Berkeley Group, and a member of the London Festival of Architecture advisory board, who summarises:

SAFE SPACES

Our young graduates’ important spaces in London were all places where they felt relaxed and safe to be themselves. They hold familiar faces and rituals and gave the graduates a sense of belonging. Many of them were linked to religious worship and a feeling of faith and peace as well as a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

COMMUNITY

All of our graduates stressed the importance of community spaces in their local area. The spaces seen as having the greatest value were those where they got to share and create the space with family members, friends or neighbours. This gave spaces meaning and created an emotional connection. They also highlighted the pressing need for more funding for places where young people can go to feel part of the community, develop skills and explore ideas for the future.

RESILIENCE

There is a resilience that emerges from living in and experiencing certain spaces in London, and from this comes a desire to create change. All of our graduates looked for opportunities within the architecture and places around them to create new meanings and develop the identities of these places, their communities and themselves in return. Clearly, architecture can be a source of inspiration and resilience and lead to change and improvement.

FINAL THOUGHTS

“If I think of how architecture and identity interact in London, I would say that it gives people a platform to seek opportunities. The interaction between a space and a person can provide a safe haven, giving that person the chance to develop and strengthen their skills or achieve their goals.

“It is not just that a space shapes an individual’s identity: it is that an individual’s identity can help to shape that space,” Hasna.

 

 

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Never mind the self-build, where’s the punk in architecture?

As the day finally started to cool down, a small group gathered on a Venetian-inspired Altana and looked out over the Regents Canal and the buses sliding past along Mare Street. We were reflecting on an evening of heated debate about architecture’s connection to the punk movement of the 70s and 80s, or lack thereof.

The Negroni Talks series was set up by Fourthspace to create an informal backdrop to discuss issues affecting the profession as part of the London Festival of Architecture. Inspired by the café culture of the late 19thcentury, the aim was to get speakers and audience alike to feel comfortable to properly engage with one another in a fiery debate, and this was the first talk that really tapped in to some rebellious spirit.

Led by chief agent provocateur Tim Abrahams, the heady atmosphere of Campari and summer sun soon led to some strong opinions. Charles Holland saw the true feistiness of architecture in the opportunities brought about by the post-punk era, while Piers Taylor drew on the illicit elements of self-build (derided as more hippy thank punk by some in Ombra).  Caz Facey announced that punk was inherently amateurish and so architecture would always be out of reach, and Shumi Bose was more interested in the DIY projects she saw in Calcutta that could be a fusion of the two. The audience had their own opinions, with Sean Griffiths making the important point that punk was a working-class movement while architecture remains the arena of the privileged few.

There’s still a lot of doubt if buildings can allow for unbridled rebellion of the status quo but for a brief moment on a Monday night there was a little anarchy in the UK.

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The Great Architectural Bake Off: The Inside Scoop

Last Saturday saw the return of the Great Architectural Bake Off! Now in its fourth year, the annual event is an opportunity for those working across the architectural and design worlds to don their aprons, dust off their cake tins and fire up their ovens. The likes of Farrells, Make, Stride Treglown, Zaha Hadid, Squire & Partners and our very own WilkinsonEyre team were all worthy competitors in the race to be crowned winner.

While normally participating in competitions to design buildings, the event challenges teams to instead, design and build the most architecturally impressive cake! In line with this year’s LFA theme of Identity, the brief called for teams to construct an ‘iconic’ building from nothing more than sugar, eggs and flour (and anything else which can be passed as ‘edible’).

The day got off to a roaring start as Team WilkinsonEyre set about the construction of a miniature Gasholders London, complete with the iconic guide frame structure. But, I hear you cry, how can those all-important Gasholder guide frames be both edible andfree standing? With the help of our in-house model shop, edible silver spray paint, modelling paste and edible glue, our team constructed over 180 components to be affixed, glued and slotted into place.

While battling to keep the guide frames upright against gravitational forces and the rising heat in the tent, the other half of our team were busy applying and smoothing copious amounts of buttercream icing to layers of espresso and mascarpone filled sponge. In true architectural style, the cakes were carefully measured and cut to a 1:200 scale (who said architects are sticklers for detail?!), with onlookers photographing and Instagramming our every move.

After 2.5 hours of shaky hands, drooping guide frames, artistic details and a few glasses of prosecco, it was time to put the frames around the cakes. With the addition of clear vanilla jelly to mimic the roof lights, edible glitter and even some foliage harvested from our office garden, it was time to put the palette knives down and step away from the cakes.

While awaiting the all-important results, this year judged by a range of industry experts including Peter Murray, Founder of the LFA, Tom Hetherington, Architect and star of Great British Bake-Off and Jane Duncan OBE, 75thRIBA President, we had a look around the tent to see what everyone else had cooked up. Squire & Partners reimagined Gaudi’s Park Güell from rice crispies and marshmallows, Make built bridges with their ginger bread construction of Tower Bridge and Fielden Clegg Bradley Studio created a dystopian vision of The Southbank Centre, complete with a sugar moulded roof.

The overall winners were Benoy with their brilliant construction of one of London’s most iconic cultural landmarks, “The Barbicake”. Congratulations to all the teams involved, we’re looking forward to next year already!

– Lauren Hawkins, WilkinsonEyre

 

 

 

 

 

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A slow start. Saved by a mermaid

Firstly, I must apologise to the receptionist at KPF. I was rather perplexed when I rushed over to see the Iñigo Bujedo-Aguirre exhibition ‘castles in the air’and was told to wait while they found out if it was open to the public. It didn’t feel in the festival spirit, but I got the impression she was new and admittedly I looked a bit manic after marching across London on a warm afternoon – it was probably wise of her to be cautious. The exhibition images were stunning, colourful shots of brutalist housing projects which spoke more about the people within the buildings than the architecture itself.

Next up was a wander to see one of the ten permanent benches installed as part of the London Festival of Architecture. These unique designs will leave a festival legacy and help showcase the work of emerging designers. The Giants Causeway bench wasn’t in the most welcoming spot, within a small walkway and opposite a line of restaurants, but it looked great with integrated planting and a terrazzo finish that was pleasing to touch. I will visit all the benches, they are tangible, useful installations that engage the public and promote the industry – it is what the festival is all about.

And then I got saved by a mermaid, well, sort of. The festival blurb for Building Site talked of ‘changing perceptions’ and ‘questioning ownership of the city’, honestly I had low expectations because sometimes these things just underdeliver. But it was a real spectacle. I peeked into the small doorway of plain hoarding in Carter Lane Gardens opposite St. Pauls Cathedral to find a mermaid in a mirrored forest, speaking Lithuanian poetry with smoke machines for extra effect. Changing perceptions of the city and questioning ownership? Well, that space was certainly owned by a mermaid and she changed my perception of the city for a wonderful few moments.

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Identity, Architecture and London

  • This essay from Emma Dent Coad, MP for Kensington and Chelsea, is part of a series of essays on identity and architecture commissioned by the LFA.

It can take me half an hour to buy a pint of milk from my corner shop. It’s not a long way. I don’t have limited mobility. But I live in the kind of neighbourhood where you get into several conversations on the way there, in the shop, and on the way back. Some days this can get annoying, but on the whole there’s nowhere else I’d rather live. If your car breaks down, if you seem fed up, if you’re unwell, there’s always someone friendly you can ask for help. Welcome to North Kensington.

There are places like that around Kensington and indeed across Kensington and Chelsea. And when constituents come to me to fight some local planning application, it is often the loss of these connections, this microcosmic living in their urban village, which they fear the most.

What we’ve seen and heard recently from the Grenfell survivors is precisely that umbilical connection with their neighbourhood. They knew each other. Their children played together, in the walkways, on the landings, up and down the building. Many had lived there a long time. The Tower, and the estate surrounding it, was a neighbourhood of families, not only blood family – which can often disappoint – but those they chose to adopt as family. Many were my friends too.

Lancaster West wasn’t perfect – and some of the facilities planned at the outset were never delivered. There should have been shops, GP surgery, and all the other daily essentials. But they were available nearby. There was open space, grass and trees, kickabout spaces. Then over years came the gradual erosion of the original concept. Green lung built over. Sports pitches moved away and monetised. No caretakers. Anti-social behaviour. Management and maintenance done on the cheap. Then finally, the refurbishment of the Tower, done to make it look better for the benefit of planned future neighbours, and decidedly not for the benefit of the Tower residents.

So what was being planned for the neighbouring SIlchester West estate which necessitated this cheap and deadly façade upgrade? Total demolition of cc500 homes to be replaced by ghastly supposedly neo-classical high-rise blocks, with narrow sunless courtyards.  So, we asked, at the so-called consultation meetings, are those new blocks right up against the Westway the affordable blocks? Do you know how bad the pollution is around here? Oh, they told us, we haven’t decided who will live there yet.

Because the Council and their overpaid planning consultants really think people are that stupid.

They said ‘North Kensington is the future South Kensington’. And they meant it. But these vapid anti-community aspirations tragically went up in flames, along with 72 of my neighbours. Silchester stays. It will now be refurbished.

Good planning and architecture should allow people to flourish, to stamp their own character on their neighbourhood. It should be the backdrop to the lives they wish to live. It should not control, define or impose certain lifestyles. But just look at some of our new developments, with floor to ceiling windows, curtains closed all day. Airless and windowless kitchens. No intermediate space outside. Why not think about how people live?

So how do we resolve these issues in a post-Grenfell Britain, and post-Grenfell London? The fire changed everything forever, and we must make sure it does. Let’s stop using that horrible word ‘regeneration’, which for social tenants means demolition of their homes and neighbourhoods, and wholesale decanting or forced removal to cheaper areas. Let’s look at where neighbourhood restoration, in all its many guises, comes from, and how it could be made to work for people.

We have neighbourhood plans, local authority Local Plans, and we have the London Plan. For all their fine aspirations, and after painstaking consultation, our Kensington and Chelsea Local Plan is ‘ok’ in many aspects. But then it is subjected to a reductive process by overpaid planning consultants, to squeeze out every last percentage point of profit for their clients. Residents are reduced to economic units. The finer aspirations for community living are deemed unviable to deliver. The lush parks of the visuals – with omnipresent child and red balloon – are reduced to narrow feature-less paved deserts with a few sad planting troughs. The promised new primary school goes private. The community centre goes out to tender and no GP can afford the rent on the health centre, so they turn it into a private gym.

The guilty parties here are the political class which, through ignorance, greed, or a genuine and malign intention of displacing low income families, have bought the protestations of developers.

The humanity has been sucked out of the planning and development process by the voracious demands of the international financial market, and the often sinister intentions of social engineering.

Frankly, the wrong people are in charge. Development Control has become Development Shock Troops.

I have just spent a few days in Barcelona, which I’ve been visiting since the early 1970s. Yes, some mistakes were made. But throughout the 1980s I was in contact with David Mackay, Barcelona’s City Architect. He told me over and again, that his job was to give the city back to the people. The little neighbourhood parks every couple of blocks. The pedestrianised Gothic quarter. The transformation of museums and art centres. Barceloneta with its beautifully restored warehouses. And most exciting of all – the gave the people the sea. Where once railways and industrial areas filled the space between the city and the water, there is now the Olympic Village, miles of promenade, and miles of man-made beach. It was a spectacular and generous gift to the people of Barcelona, which has paid back millions of times over.

So who has the power to deliver such a powerful vision for London? No one. Our dreams have been sold off to the international financial market, and replaced with plans for overpriced vanity bridges, and a competition for the most outrageously anthropomorphic or toy-like tower.

We have a planning process focussed on delivery, where we are the slaves of highly questionable viability and profit margins.

God help us – planning consultants are in charge of the future of London.

So who now will deliver the sublime civic spaces, the new or refurbished people-friendly neighbourhoods, providing housing for humans and not people warehousing? Who will demand that new schools should serve the immediate neighbhourhood, and that our elders should not – as we are seeing in Kensington and Chelsea – be forced into an elder warehouse in industrial estates? Who will monitor construction quality? Who will stop greedy developer partners building a generation of frankly shitty buildings?

Planning development has become an abstraction, a branch of the international financial market divorced from its purpose. And this has been revealed in horrific reality, with the fire at Grenfell Tower that should never have happened.

Enough.

I have written elsewhere about how to get the balance right between human need, architectural design, and neighbourhood or building management. I call this theorem ‘Soft, Hard and Plastic’.

Soft issues related to how people live, what provides a comfortable and convenient environment with everything you need close to hand, satisfying human need. Hard issues encompass the masterplanning and architectural design which delivers them, along with the construction quality which has become a huge concern. And plastic issues relate to building management and maintenance – so often an afterthought – where it should be forethought and planned into the project. Each of these elements should have equal importance.

I first wrote about this in relation to the original concept for Goldfinger’s Cheltenham Estate, the cradle to grave project with Trellick Tower at its core, plus nursery, GP, shops, family housing, sheltered housing, and a much cherished residential care home at its heart (shockingly demolished by the Council in 2009).

Without this balance between need, design and implementation, and after-care, we are lost. We are shoving people into units, and our elders into industrial estates.

If you want a stark vision of the future, as the impetus for change, come to Kensington and Chelsea and see just how wrong it can get.

We can, and must, do better. And that must be our legacy for the 72 dead, and hundreds displaced and traumatised, after the unforgivable and avoidable atrocity on my doorstep. The fire at Grenfell Tower must be a game-changer. And it’s our job to make sure it is.

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The capital’s story is told in the infinite variety of its buildings

  • This essay from Dave Hill, Editor of On London, is part of a series of essays on identity and architecture commissioned by the LFA.

London’s buildings tell compelling stories of the capital’s identity, not because they express some fixed essence of the city but because they reflect its lack of one. Like London, their variations are infinite and changing endlessly. Like London, they are both ancient and new, loved and loathed, dazzling and dreadful, stupid and stupendous, and often all of those things in the same street.

As is the case with London’s people, businesses and institutions, they tend to cluster in types, but also often form extraordinary mosaics. They can very uniform—regimented terraces and nondescript offices. But they can also be outlandish, innovative and timelessly inspiring as well as loudly quarrelsome, clashing in terms of ethos, aesthetics and aspiration as well as in their shape, function and size.

The discordance in London’s architectural landscape is matched in intensity only by the rows about London’s buildings that endlessly break out. London has been described as an ungovernable place, for all its blocks and layers of governance. Its architecture too speaks of an enduring state of creative disorder that works for some and not for others and of fractious negotiations between the longing for permanence and the hunger for change.

None of this is to say that Londoners don’t feel a sense of belonging. They do. Belonging in London, a recent paper on the issue from think tank Centre For London, reported that the large majority of people who live in London who think of themselves Londoners is of much the same size as it was 40 years ago, despite the fact that the proportion of Londoners born outside the city—either abroad or elsewhere in the UK—has doubled in that time.

Yet the paper also records that this unifying sense of London connection exists alongside stronger, highly localised attachments to, say, Battersea, Bermondsey or Bethnal Green and a corresponding lack of belonging to the capital as a whole. Evidence was also cited that many Londoners see themselves more as north, south, east or west Londoners than as Londoners per se.

London’s architecture and Londoners’ feelings about it sometimes seems to replicate those different levels and limits of affiliation. To pick a contentious theme, a 2016 poll found that significantly more Londoners thought new tall buildings enhanced London’s skyline and added to its “vibrancy” than took the opposite view and they were split in two over whether new tall buildings were “damaging what makes London special.”

However, the poll also found strong support for more limits on the heights of the very tallest buildings, for restricting them to certain zones, and for more public consultation about them, especially among inner Londoners, who have been more likely than outer Londoners to find a skyscraper sprouting in their neighbourhoods. Constructions of great height were, it seemed, seen by many as enhancing London’s global glory, but you might not want one casting a its long shadow over your backyard.

History has a lesson for us here too. Time has tempered hostility to London buildings that have broken height barriers in the past, from St Paul’s in the early 18thcentury to the Post Office Tower—now the BT Tower—in the mid-1960s. The same thing seems to be happening with the Shard. Walk south from Mount Pleasant down Farringdon Road and the skyline twinning of Christopher Wren’s dome and Renzo Piano’s spire really is a bit divine. That said, will future generations ever gaze up at the Walkie-Talkie and experience a sense of the sublime?

Today’s arguments about height are an aspect of a wider one about the built environment in London that also takes in character, heritage, housing costs, the preservation of state-owned assets—both buildings and land—and density levels more generally. Battles between conservationists and developers are very far from new to London, but they have lately risen in intensity and become increasingly politicised: Outer London Tories warn that Sadiq Khan wants to put condominiums in Havering’s back gardens; inner London activists campaign against “luxury flats,” even though often permitted by Labour councils as a means of generating more “affordable” ones at a time when everyone agrees the capital’s housing shortage is acute. Many Londoners, perhaps including planners and architects, are troubled by the pace and type of change taking place and feeling we lack control over what goes on.

That cannot be ignored though, again, it’s nothing new. One of the most famous tales of London politics, property and power is about how Joe Levy—bookmaker’s son, Blitz fire fighter and self-made post-war tycoon—got to build the Euston Tower. Levy once told it himself to Oliver Marriott, the then Financial Editor of the Times. In his book The Property Boom, published in 1967, Marriott describes visiting Levy in his office in Haymarket where the “small, jovial man” delightedly displayed how with a flick of a switch on his desk a pair of decorative alcoves rotated to reveal a miniature cocktail bar and a television set, on which Levy could watch his racehorses perform.

Levy related his dealings with the London County Council, which had told him that a one-acre site at the southern end of Stanhope Street, NW1 could not be developed because they needed it for widening Euston Road. Alas, the Council had forgotten that four years earlier it had granted Levy permission to build an office block there and could be looking at £1m in compensation if it used compulsory purchase powers to take the land. They ended up doing a deal—the first of many. The Tower and the Euston Underpass are its enduring and most conspicuous results.

But that was just the flashiest passage of a much longer and slower narrative. Between 1956 and 1960, Levy and his business partner had quietly purchased over 300 individual sites in the area between Hampstead Road and Osnaburgh Street—shops, houses, little factories, many of them tumbledown—covering some 13 acres, keeping their master plan concealed for fear of sellers getting wise and pushing up their asking price. Not until 1964 did Londoners learn that Levy’s company was the tip of an iceberg of connected firms that had, unnoticed, assembled the site that would host not just the Euston Tower but a whole Euston Centre too, a development theEvening Standard said amounted to “a miniature New Town.”

When we think of emblematic London buildings and streetscapes—parts of the capital’s built environment seen as symbolic of its identity, its character, its DNA—most of us don’t think of the Euston Road. But if in search of the city’s impossibly hybrid architectural make-up and how it has come about, that choked motor thoroughfare is an instructive place to start. It is an historically chaotic clamour of the speculative, the commercial, the municipal, the residential, three of London’s most famous railway stations—Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross, each of them subject to revision, refurbishment and debate about the need for them, and the red brick behemoth that is the British Library. To the south, Bloomsbury’s Georgian elegance rolls out. To the north, at the Pentonville end, the King’s Cross redevelopment scheme stands as a case study of a major modern regeneration done pretty well.

This story of so many strands shows that the web of relationships between Londoners and the buildings we encounter and inhabit is defined by another complex weave stretching back in time, one composed of public bodies, private interests, design visionaries and social idealists, all of them jostling to make their mark in bricks, mortar, steel and glass for two centuries and more. Much of what now stands is the product of combinations of competition and compromise, enterprise and regulation, demolition and renewal—the Euston Centre itself, including the original Tower, has since been refashioned as Regent’s Place.

It all underlines that much of London’s architectural environment emerges from a context of conflict, be that in the extreme form of the war damage that left so much of the city wrecked or those ongoing wrangles between different parties over its spatial development, with their differing definitions of what is best for the city and its people.

The recriminations and soul-searching that have followed the horrors of Grenfell might add a potent new dimension.

For some time now, the bigger picture has been moving. London’s current political climate has become less conducive to getting new stuff built. This was manifest in small but significant recent election results: a Labour councillor returned for the first time ever in Westminster’s West End ward, helped by local concerns about overdevelopment; five Green Party members taking seats in Lambeth, where opposition to housing estate demolitions has been energetic and well-publicised. But London politicians and planners have for some time encountered strengthening resistance to new building, be that from ideologues, Nimbys or preservationists with firm ideas about what constitutes good taste.

London is growing very fast. And if it is to grow well, building the homes, shops, offices and other workspaces it needs, the case for those things will have to be made more persuasively. Architecture has a vital part to play in this, by helping to demonstrate that higher densities need not mean lower standards or quality of life, that the new really can be an improvement on the old, and that local people, including those most directly affected by change, can play fulfilling parts in shaping it. London’s architecture has always been partly the product of the crucible where London’s many personalities meet, but it can be a crucial influencer too—a force for good in the unending evolution of London’s elusive identity.