My entry for the recent RIBA Forgotten Spaces competition, complete with accompanying text.
"A place does not have to be hidden to be forgotten.
The most forgotten spaces, and often those with the most potential, are those whose mundanity makes them invisible. This ‘Concrete Island’, a 40m long traffic island between two lanes of traffic on Old Street, could be in any number of locations in London. It is one of a common typology of spaces all of which are formed from ‘leftovers’ of automobile infrastructural consumption. Due to the nature of traffic flows and turning circles, parcels of land are left barren between lanes of traffic. The frequency of this situation means that our proposal for this island should not just be considered in isolation, but as one that illuminates further forgotten spaces across the infrastructural arteries of the capital.
The position of this island gives it a potentially strong urban presence: the junction between Great Eastern Street and Old Street sees a lot of traffic, both human and motorised. London has a rich tradition of congregating at junctions; whether it be for the sacred or for the profane. This site's strong tradition of the junction deserves to be marked with a building that revels in the automobile complexities of the context. That recycles and revitalises our aging roads for a more sustainable future.
We feel that this is not only a junction between lanes of traffic, but between communities, and so is an opportunity to invite the families that spread themselves around the area into its heart. We see a need for Old Street to not only cater for young people, but for its increasing population of young families.
Our proposal is that this Concrete Island becomes a haven for families. That it invites them across new pedestrian crossings, into its protection to eat, learn and play.
To make this family cafe we propose placing on this thin site: a cafe, an urban garden, playspace and space for learning. The programme is proposed in such a way that it is democratic, engaging and accessable to all.
We understand the need to retain the island’s roadside apparatus: to reassure drivers with the familiar, to protect and to inform. To this end the most vital objects will be integrated within our proposal. It is our intention to leave the existing objects to perform their roles (or to enhance them) and to add on top of them a strata of complexity that allows the island to reach beyond its borders.
View of the island down Old Street. London. March. 10.
Map of the island in context. London. March. 10.
Map showing how the island is positioned as a junction between areas of family activity. London. March. 10.
Proposed plan for the island [click for full image]. London. March. 10.
Proposed long section [click for full image]. London. March. 10.
Proposed Elevation [click for full image]. London. March. 10.
View toward the lookout. London. March. 10.
We propose for this Concrete Island a family cafe.
In simple terms this cafe is required to, architecturally, perform two principal functions. To protect the families using it, and to give them a comfortable environment within which they can socialise, relax, learn and play. We have symbolised these two functions as the castle and the barn. Our proposal is a synthesis of the two.
Thick, rough concrete walls made from recycled crash barriers encircle the long thin site. These protective elements are the castle in which families seek refuge. Between the walls are two comfortable, domestic and sustainable timber constructions, these are our barns.
Each timber barn is toplit to create a calm and light atmosphere, as well as to passively ventilate each room (the lanterns double up as ventilation stacks). So the units all feel both spacious and domestic, thanks to the relatively short walls and high roof.
The cafe sits beyond a small amount of open, decorated ground, inviting passers-by to venture off their route. The cafe is the largest volume, sitting beneath a LVL-panelled roof reflecting light down to the bar and seating. The cafe spills out into the courtyard, blending with the urban garden, which provides shade in the summer and is planted by after-school classes. The far side of this outdoor space are two smaller barns for learning and playing. These lead, as the site narrows, up a shallow slope toward a lookout. This affords views West down Old Street and allows for safe exploration or, simply, meditation."
Brixton Market has recently received a grade II listing. The BD article on the subject notes the then Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw's spokesperson as saying:
"The secretary of state recognises that none of the three Brixton markets could be said to have sufficient special architectural interest to merit listing,"
"The Brixton markets are the most architectural manifestation of the post-war Caribbean presence in Brixton and given the significance of black history to post-war Britain this establishes some clear claims to historic interest… The [minister] considers that all three Brixton Markets embody special historical and cultural value."
Firstly this is a great victory for black cultural heritage, and a worthy piece of campaigning by Friends of Brixton Market. To me, however, it raises some very interesting issues about the listing of historic buildings.
In this case it seems that it is not the architecture of the building that is being protected, which is Bradshaw opines not of "sufficient architectural interest". Instead it is the atmosphere, of the market: that is to say the character of the place and its social histories. It is inspiration for Eddie Grant, the site of infamous riots, where you pick up your yams or boutique pizzas. This raises interesting questions for how one would approach development of the market, as the developers who bought it in 2007 may well do. Would they be required by English Heritage to retain any of the architecture of the market? The stall dimensions, the size of the arcades, the character of the eclectic signage? Or perhaps those characteristics which need to be retained are not all physical, and in fact are all cultural and socialogical: the volume and genre of music, the attitude of friendly meat vendors, the plethora of peripheral hairdressers.
I think that this could spark an interesting project dealing with the constraints of an ephemerally defined listing. Perhaps the renovated market would look entirely different, but you'd get a sense of deja-vu.
With all the wonderful weather we have had over the last fortnight London has escaped into its parks. We too were gadding about on the sunny fields of Regent's Park (emptily pictured above). One of the things that struck me was when our friend arrived and tried to describe his whereabouts by the people and objects that surrounded him, was that he could be anywhere within the park. I thought by his description that I should be able to see him, and yet I could not. This it seems to me is one of the interesting features of London parks: a ubiquity of activity, everyone acts in a very similar manner across the park. Here a pair might be tossing a frisbee back and forth, there a few lads will be kicking a football around. Where are the Aussie rules football, naked sunbathers and the impromptu performance of a Christopher Marlowe play? There seems to be an intensely narrow band of activity in which people recreate in their public parks.
Now there is an actual statute which governs behaviour in the Royal Parks, which is the Parks Regulation Act, but I'm not sure that this is what ensures this homogeneity of activities. There seems to be an attitude that within parks that there is a certain type of behaviour that is appropriate, and that these unspoken rules are followed unquestioningly.
One wonders if it is the parks themselves, the very landscapes, the false nature, that implies that we are not really as free as we are in the wilderness. If so, what exactly is it: the vast expanses of grass? Isn't it fascinating that we can acheive an urban landscape that is so adept at controlling behaviour. Perhaps landscape designers should aid the design of schools or prisons even.
Regent's Park as the archetype for the new super prisons.
Here's a walk that we undertook, in the interests of both an article and for a small amount of education, through Soho. At this point it is mostly just a photo essay. To begin with we made our point of embarkation (in this case from the number 55 bus) Central London's navigational Milion: Richard Seifert's Centre Point. Its name provided us with a suitable starting point, if somewhat ironic as apparently the right to build it came from providing a useful automobile junction being built underneath it. However with the proposed Crossrail works pedestrians may be able to claim this point back soon, as part of the increasingly walkable area of London.
Chinatown Pak Choi. London. March. 10.
Our first foray outward lead us through Chinatown, and in particular down those tiny streets inhabitated by a collapse of pallets and trolleys outside those small vegetable shops like the one above.
Frescoe. London. March. 10.
One of the first objectives on our trek was the Notre Dame de France church on Leicester Place, where an early 20th Century Beaux Arts concoction. It was of particular interest for the artworks inside: a mosaic by the Russian Boris Anrep (above) and a mural by Jean Cocteau, the polymathic French artist. Both Anrep and Cocteau are colossal figures in European intellectual culture and the audience they garnered on this Saturday morning was a little disappointing, so please make the pilgrimage.
Camera Fayre. London. March. 10.
We set back off into Soho heading West toward Golden Square. I spied this CCTV garlanded with coloured ribbon (presumably a vestige from some previous event), and found the anachronism pleasing and jolly.
"RevueBar". London. March. 10.
Apparently London's first strip bar lies dormant and wanting, a sign of both the declining decadence and increasing commercialism of Soho.
Canaletto. London. March. 10.
A house on Broadwick Street which bore Canaletto when he moved to London to be closer to the English gentlemen who patronised his tireless views of Venice.
Espresso + Gravadlax. London. March. 10.
One of the major points on our journey was Nordic Bakery, a delightful (and delectable) eatery that oozed with good taste (real good taste not the faded romantic roccoco rubbish that passes for taste in near-east London). The detailing went from the Aalto chairs to the gravadlax, right down to the denim aprons on the typically blonde staff.
Almost ex-embassy. London. March. 10.
Our final objective and the one that marked the move from the quietening streets of Soho to the very quieted streets of Mayfair was Eero Saarinen's American Embassy. Or as we recently found, Eero Saarinen's soon to be ex-embassy (Kieran Timberlake's design for the new Vauxhall pad can be seen here). Which raises the interesting question of what this Grade II listed building will become when they move out. Perhaps just an office building, or some culturally mundane institution, but perhaps the US should use it (an example of an American bringing something great to Britain as an outpost for welcoming. An anti-embassy? Somewhere where we can learn that America is not just a lardy hillbilly state, and that it perhaps has something to discuss with the rest of the planet. This anti-embassy should be an outpost for all that is good that is American.
It is time for us to strike out for the territory, and chart lines across the capital in a manner that might live up to the title of this blog. The first real Urban Adventure takes the form of a walk from Kingsland Road, Hackney, to Greenwich.
We chose this route for its scenery - the route we take uses both Regent's Canal (or partly doesn't as we shall see), and the Thames Path. It forges a pictaresque route through some of the most diverse (socialogically/geographically/architecturally) parts of London.
Regents Canal, near Victoria Park. London. March. 10.
Quickly, after mounting the canal just before it is crossed by the shining new Overground line, the route had to be rethought. Regent's Canal affords (at least in some parts, currently, although as the Islington to New North Road stretch testifies, it is quickly being capatilised upon) some of the most revealing backyard glimpses of both lives and neighbourhoods. It cuts through the terraces and light industry, allowing them to spill inward toward the canal: to embrace its open-ness. The stretch of the canal alongside Victoria Park is currently undergoing major work and this allows us to catch a glimpse of its reality, the shuttered concrete walls, sluggish silty bottom, and floating traffic cones that lie beneath the normally attractive surface.
This gruesome striptease is a wonderful spectacle, and one that has revealed further appreciation in us toward the canal.
Regents Canal, near Mile End park. London. March. 10.
The slopes falling toward the canal around Mile End Park are the results of some very obvious and intentiona regenereation. Although quite who for is unknown, perhaps the sectre of the Olympic Delivery authority looms low over this stretch and this could account for such "Dutch" spectacles as the above bridge.
Graduate Centre, by Surface Architects. London. March. 10.
This Surface designed building for Queen Mary's University has an interesting and complex formal relationship to the canal, and this goes some way to explaining its somewhat scale-less form.The most exciting part of its design is the opening next to the building, it opens the space beyond to the canal, and the canal becomes less cut-like, less linear. This is the sort of urban move that could invigorate and invite the canal into the city.
The canal leads into the Limehouse Basin, where we have to break from it, and attempt to join the Thames Path, which leads us across the Isle of Dogs. A highly disparate pedestrian experience, one that takes us from corporate urbanism to empty 90s residential blocks. The route breaks from the vast expanses of the Thames-side walk, to the tight and place-less spaces further into the interior of the Isle.
Millwall to Canary Wharf. London. March. 10.
The above photograph expresses to us the discontinuity of the Isle of Dogs, and its disparity between the semi-detached suburbs of Millwall to the high-rise of Canary Wharf. Whether or not this stretches to a more troubled London relationship with towers or not, or if it is a ore local situation is hard to say.
The suburbs of Millwall give way to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which on the weekend that the Thames Tunnel was open before it became a branch of the Overground, was an enticing prospect. The archaic lift, with its genial supervisor, leads you to this eery and antiquarian stretch of Victoriana. This bizarre place leads us up into the heartland of tourist Greenwich, an incongrous transition, but one soon left behind, striking out to the South and East.