Medellin is a fascinating city. It sits in a valley with a river running, north south, down the middle. Large areas of the surrounding mountains are covered with precarious slum housing similar to the favelas of Brazil or barriadas of Peru. The traffic is terrible and there are plans to restrict cars by permitting access to odd number plates one day and even the next. It has an excellent metro system that largely runs parallel to the river and stations are linked to the four lines of spectacular Metrocable cars that span the city. The cable cars allow a transport system to be threaded into the dense slum areas with minimal disruption and efficiently traverse the steep inclines. Bus stops and cycle share are located at metro stations, providing a satisfyingly integrated system. Every Sunday and public holidays there is a cyclovia around Avenida Poblado between 7am and 1pm. I was told there are some 100km of cycleways in the city (a link to them can be found here) and so I decided to investigate.
I started at the Botanical Gardens and followed a route going south. Crossings are linked to pedestrian movement rather than vehicular and marked in red - so you cross when the peds do.
The cycleway turned onto a wide street with a well marked route next to a tree-lined pavement. But then came a bit of a surprise and cyclists turning right were directed onto a lightly segregated cycleway which ran down the middle of the road which did little to prevent encroachment by vehicles or was great for peds.
Then, as so often happens, it ran out of steam and cyclists were forced onto a rather narrow and at times crowded pavement. But then as quickly as it had disappeared, it started again as a shared foot/bike path:
Further on I was impressed by the new connection into the University, which was very busy and included a bikeshare station.
The route then went into the middle of the road again. The raised section between four lanes of traffic is safe enough for cyclists, but again, poses problems for peds. It's also pretty polluted.
Then came a more successful bit of light segregation followed by a nice, wide street where cyclists are segregated from traffic by trees and from peds by bollards and planting.
I then got to a Metro station where Bikeshare links up to the rest of the public transport network. The cycle route continued on through a lovely park, following the route of the Metro.
I finish with a shot of a junction protected by rather interesting bollards. I presume the holes are in there to take a chain or a rope; they provide a high degree of protection to cyclists, are easy for peds and look OK to boot.
I was only in Medellin for three days and am in no way an expert, but I was very impressed by the ambition of the city to face up to some pretty amazing challenges, not least repairing the city after decades of drug trade induced violence. The charismatic Mayor of Medellin in the early noughties, who then became Governor of Antioquia state is Sergio Fajardo, a mathematician rather than a politican whose father was an architect. He saw the benefits of providing the poor with a strong social infrastructure and built an amazing array social and sports centres, libraries and hospitals in the most needy areas. There is even a spanish disctionary definition of 'fajardismo'.
One cannot leave the home of Quintana, Chaves and Uran without commenting on more adventurous cycling. In spite of the competitive reputation of Colombian cyclists I saw none of the aggressive cycling one sees so often in London - although where there were no cycleways, riders were fearless as they mixed it with the busy traffic. Most impressive were the massive climbs in the surrounding mountains - on every car journey out of the centre one encounters dozens of cyclists, amateur and professional, training in the thin air.
‘Build what British people want,’ Housing Minister Kit Malthouse exhorted architects at a recent conference to discuss his department’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission chaired by the right-wing philosopher Sir Roger Scruton. Malthouse believes that if the views of the British people are taken more into account by designers then new development will meet less resistance from local communities. By selecting Scruton, a devotee of classical and vernacular architecture, Malthouse assumes that the British public is only interested in the styles of the past.
What better barometer of middle England taste could Malthouse have than the presenters of the BBC’s Breakfast programme? When Foster and Partners recently launched their decidedly space-age designs for an observation tower in the City of London, branded The Tulip, anchor Dan Walker called the proposed structure“a good looking building”. His co-presenter Naga Munchetty agreed but went further. She commended the tower because it was “very space-like” and then used the ‘B’ word on live television. She called the Foster design “Beautiful!”
Ironically the comments from professional readers of the Architects’ Journal were less flattering likening the shape to a cotton bud, mushroom, spermatozoa and phallus. Not that that should deter the designers. When designs for 30 St Mary Axe were first unveiled one commentator dubbed the curvy structure the “erotic gherkin” in a similarly cynical vein. Since that time however the abbreviated “The Gherkin” has become the affectionate nickname for Londoners’ most favourite modern building.
While such name-calling is good knock-about fun, the proposal is worthy of more serious consideration. Does London, let alone central London, even need a tower like The Tulip? After all, there are already observation platforms in The Shard and the Walkie Talkie and new ones proposed in One Undershaft and 6-8 Bishopsgate. Foster partner Grant Brooker thinks there is a substantial demand for The Tulip’s vertigo-inducing glass floors and pods. “The idea came about as a result of Open House. The queues for The Gherkin were so large they prompted Jacob Safra, the owner of the building, to ask if we could open up the space at the top to the public.” That wasn’t possible but Fosters suggested instead that the available land on the northeast of the 30 St Mary Axe site could be used to build a slim tower to house viewing platforms, bar and restaurants. The million or so visitors it was expected to attract would make it an economic proposition.
“Plenty of cities have these marker buildings,” says Brooker. Fosters designed the Barcelona Communications Tower - the 288m high Torre de Collserola - in 1992; in cities like Toronto, Berlin, Tokyo and Shanghai they are popular tourist destinations providing spectacular views of the surrounding city. Our own BT Tower does just that but is sadly open for only limited periods. New London Architecture (NLA) hosts an annual reception in the revolving deck which is so popular that tickets have to be distributed by ballot.
Providing new tourist infrastructure fits well with City Hall policies: in 2025, visits to the capital are expected to reach 40.4 million as long as we remain competitive and invest in culture and amenities. Those who question whether money should be spent on attractions like the Tulip when London is facing a housing crisis should realise that tourism accounts for one in seven jobs and such overseas investment benefits the wider economy. Policy E10 of the new London Plan says “associated employment should be strengthened by enhancing and extending (the capital’s) attractions, inclusive access, legibility, visitor experience and management….”.
The Tulip responds to the Corporation of London’s own strategy to bring more people into the Square Mile to create a seven-day-week “retail, leisure and cultural destination”.The draft City Plan says “complementary land uses will be encouraged to enhance vibrancy and viability, extending to weekends to diversify the City, its economy and community”.
At the moment tourists flock across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s Cathedral and don’t get much further east than the One New Change shopping centre. More has to be done if the crowds are to move into the heart of the City: try and find an open coffee shop on a Saturday morning! The attraction of the Walkie Talkie’s difficult-to-access viewing gallery has increased the number of visitors somewhat in EC3 but not enough to get the shops to open. The City Plan also speaks of improving the offer at Leadenhall Market, a couple of minute’s walk from the site of The Tulip: “the character of the historic market will be maintained and enhanced as a visitor and retail destination, supporting a flexible range of retail uses.”
The Tulip’s planned exhibits and educational programme will add to visitors’ understanding of the City. As someone who spends much of his time attempting to communicate issues around development and change in London to a wider public audience, this will be a spectacular new tool. It will also enhance the Corporation’s cultural strategy which at the moment is focused on the north-west part of the City around the Barbican Centre, the Museum of London and the proposed Centre for Music. More attention needs to be paid to the south - to the amazing heritage of the City churches, of the historic Livery Halls, the Guildhall and the riverside walk which, in spite of being on the sunny side of the river, has a fraction of the numbers of visitors that use the South Bank.
There is some understandable concern that the popularity of The Tulip will mean that the already overcrowded City pavements will become even more so, although Brooker suggests that because of the different schedules of workers and tourists this won’t be a major problem. Anyway, if the City implements its excellent proposed Transport Strategy which promotes improved pedestrian movement, overcrowded pavements will be less of an issue.
Norman Foster himself describes the Tulip proposal as being “in the spirit of London as a progressive, forward-thinking city.” It is in the smooth, steel and glass, engineered style we see in The Gherkin and in the work the practice does for clients like Apple, which has its roots in the high tech movement of the 60s and 70s. Coincidentally, the building was launched in the same week that the eponymous radical architecture group published Archigram: the book. A key Archigram project was the Montreal Tower by Peter Cook - designed some 55 years ago -which might be seen as a precursor of The Tulip with entertainment spaces, views and restaurants on top of a slim stalk. The aesthetic is slicker and more sophisticated but the spirit lives on.
At 305.3m The Tulip will be marginally higher than the proposed One Undershaft next door and shorter than the Shard’s 309.7m across the river; its bulbous, mini-gherkin pinnacle will sit comfortably above the walkie-talkies, cheesegraters, scalpels and cans of ham below. The gallimaufry of designs that make up the easter cluster can easily absorb a new friend. As the scale of the latest orthogonal towers - 22 Bishopsgate and 100 Bishopsgate - becomes apparent, it is clear that the townscape can only take a few such behemoths. There is still a role for the sort of varied geometry that has defined the City over the past decade and has proved popular with the public. Indeed, when NLA carried out research into the number of towers being built in London a commonly heard complaint was that their views of The Gherkin were being blocked by the new developments. Among younger audiences, this was seen as just as damaging as any impact on views of St Paul’s Cathedral dome. In the build-up to the Olympics The Gherkin became a key part of brand London: gone were the beefeaters and Buckingham Place, in came images of modernity and progress.
Fosters’ latest design reflects that vision of a contemporary City, a city of culture and creativity. Is it beautiful? That is, of course, a matter of taste, but when it comes down to defining an acceptable contemporary aesthetic, I’d go with Munchetty over Scruton every time.
Image: DBOX for Foster + Partners
Correction: This article was amended on 26 Nov 2018 to clarify that it was not Rowan Moore who christened 30 St Mary Axe as the 'erotic gherkin'.
Eric Parry's designs for the Leathersellers' Company illustrated in new book on the City's Livery Halls
On Saturday 24 April 1993 at 9.17am, the City of London Police received a coded warning from the South Armagh Brigade of the IRA. Just over an hour later a bomb in a tipper truck parked in Bishopsgate and loaded with almost a ton of fertiliser was detonated, destroying adjacent buildings and severely damaging many others within a 500m radius. The cost of building repairs was estimated at £1billion.
The IRA bombing campaign set in train a series of events that led to an equally dramatic but more benign change in the architecture of the Square Mile - the rise of the Eastern Cluster. The close-kissing towers, still growing on the City skyline - once dominated by Wren’s 51 church spires - have multiplied ever since Foster and Partners received planning permission for 30 St Mary Axe in 2000 on a site made vacant by the 1992 Baltic Exchange bomb.
One of the victims of the IRA was the Leatherseller’s Livery Company Hall in St Helen’s Place, set behind a neoclassical facade built in the early 1900s. As the ancient Company, which dates back to 1444, contemplated restoration, it became clear that surrounding sites of which it held the freehold were ripe for development. The Square Mile was booming and the City Corporation was keen to densify office space. As then Planning Chief Peter Rees said, “if we can’t build out we must build up.”
The outcome was that the Leathersellers did a very advantageous deal with Brookfield Properties whereby the developer would build the 40 storey 100 Bishopsgate Tower next to the site of the old hall and the proceeds would fund a new one - no expense spared.
Instead of building up, Eric Parry designed a building that goes down. Behind the refurbished facades of Helen’s Place, the above-ground floors have been allocated to income-generating office space while a grand ground floor reception space, with views out to the medieval walls of St Helen’s Bishopsgate, leads to a sweeping, processional stair down to the Company’s dining hall. The curved walls are lined with shrunken bull shoulder with a two-tone effect developed by leather designer Bill Amberg, to match the vitreous enamel on the building’s exterior. Elsewhere, Amberg has responded to Parry’s obsession with craft to fill the Hall with a range of leather pieces including a corridor lined with pale green and maroon, gold-foiled, leather-clad panels and an inglenook in the ground floor lobby area entirely stitched by hand using historic saddlery techniques.
Craft, not just in leather, is a key focus of Parry’s interior: the Court Room has double height panels of American walnut with a central court table of European walnut; the reception room sports a central blue-and-white glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly suspended above a circular bronze table, while the carpet was designed by Parry to complement the Chihuly above. At the top of the main staircase is a stained-glass window by Leonard Walker showing Henry VI, the monarch who conferred the first Charter on the Company made in 1937 for a previous hall.
Scagliola pilasters, transferred from the old Hall, have been scattered randomly across the walls and ceilings - perhaps as a reminder of the destruction of previous halls by the Great Fire, the Blitz and the IRA bombings. The walls of the Dining Hall are again covered in American walnut panels which sit below a forty metre long tapestry with images and allusions relating to the Leathersellers’ Company and its history.
The Hall was opened in 2017 by the Earl of Wessex and is a worthy new member of the cluster of City Livery halls that is such an important and little-known component of London’s heritage.
The importance of this collection of architectural gems can be discovered in a remarkable new book by Dr Anya Lucas and Henry Russell with photos by Andreas von Einsiedel. I use the word remarkable advisedly. Astonishingly, this is the first time in their long history that the 40 historic buildings have been properly photographed and compared. Thanks to the initiative of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects it is now possible to properly appreciate the legacies of the ancient City trades like the Mercers, the Grocers, the Goldsmiths and the Skinners. It is to be hoped that the publication will prompt the generally secretive Companies to make their homes more accessible to the wider public and in that way to highlight the rich culture of the Square Mile.
The Livery Halls of the City of London Anya Lucas and Henry Russell Photography by Andreas von Einsiedel is published by Merrell on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects. 280 pp and 450 illustrations.
https://bit.ly/2P0Me2k Price £45
The exclusion of through traffic at Bank Junction in the City of London has received overwhelming support in a public consultation survey carried out by the Corporation, while a further study shows that the junction is now safer, less polluted and does not unreasonably impact on traffic flow.
The temporary experiment, which began in May last year, banned all vehicles apart from buses and cycles between the hours of 7am and 7pm. If the findings of the reports are accepted, the changes will be made permanent.
75 per cent of 3730 respondents ‘supported’ or ‘generally supported’ the changes. Of those 17 per cent wanted further positive improvements such as extending the scheme to 24hrs, wider pavements and better signposting, while 12 per cent wanted to allow black cabs and other vehicles back into the junction, 70 per cent of whom identified themselves as taxi or private hire drivers. The Ned Hotel, concerned about deliveries and taxi drop-offs called for black cabs to be permitted to use the junction at all times.
As might be expected 90 per cent of pedestrians and cyclists supported the scheme while every other mode gave over 50 per cent support - except for taxi and commercial drivers. Businesses and groups who were supportive included the City Property Association (CPA) which represents 150 firms working in the City, British Land, Shanghai Commercial Bank, WBRC Insurance and Welltower Health Care.
In their response to the survey the CPA said that the scheme ‘should be retained as a new benchmark for the minimum standard of what should be acceptable for air quality and road safety for vulnerable road users in Central London’. Property giant British Land suggested that such initiatives have a ‘very positive’ impact on the City’s image as a contemporary business location.
The London Cycling Campaign asked that over the longer term, all motor vehicles should be removed from the junction and the space turned into a public plaza.
A second study on the performance of the changes found that there had been a 40 per cent reduction in casualties compared to average equivalent periods in the five previous years. The study also found that buses that used Bank were actually travelling faster than before the changes, saving between three and five minutes on a journey, and that there has been a marked improvement in NO2 levels, although further changes are needed if the area is to meet EU annual average limits.
The reports, which will be presented to the Streets and Walkways Sub Committee on April 10, suggest that the improvements have met the Corporation’s performance criteria and that there is sufficient support for making the scheme permanent. A final decision will be made by the Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee on July 5.
Those who love cities are lucky. Whether they are visiting them or living in them, city buffs can turn the most mundane trips into research projects, they can read the streets and buildings as others would a book and they learn the stories of social and physical change, of aspiration, of failed and successful projects.
It was Fei Tsen, the San Francisco Chair of SPUR, which is the closest thing to the NLA that they have in the Bay Area, who pointed out this benefit while she was showing me around the city recently. Fei was Director of Development for the Port Authority when it was converting its waterfront into a major public amenity and she is now President of the Treasure Island Development Authority which is overseeing the master planning of a 405 acre former naval yard situated in the heart of the Bay. We first met in Shanghai where we were on the same platform discussing waterfront development, so our conversations as we charged up and down San Francisco's vertiginous streets provided a fascinating three way comparison.
Common threads run through the future policies of each of the cities. Perhaps top of the agenda is the problem of congestion, of pollution and healthier streets. The chief planner of Shanghai had told of his ambitious plans to increase the coverage of the metro system by 2040 to allow 15 minute pedestrian access to stations right across the city. Both London and San Francisco have similar aspirations to encourage more active travel, but the chance of delivering it in the same timescale as Shanghai is nil as each city is equally committed to the democratic process. London edges out San Francisco in the infrastructure delivery stakes. Despite the fact that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) was a world leader when it was delivered in the 70s, its expansion has stalled in spite of calls for more lines to serve this very polycentric area.
Each city has been regenerating its docks area for several decades, each now realises the importance of culture in the creation of new pieces of city. In Shanghai the banks of the Huangpu River and the West Bund have been landscaped, roads have been built and old warehouses converted into massive art galleries; in London artists' colonies in Fish Island are recognised as important parts of the economy, the Royal Docks are being planned for creative communities and Barking and Dagenham is developing film studios as part of its programme for economic growth. In San Francisco makers and crafts people are colonising areas of Mission Bay as development in the area accelerates.
We didn't see much evidence of homelessness in Shanghai, but London and San Francisco share a similar problem of street sleeping, although San Francisco's is more evident and distressing. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but London has around 8,000 rough sleepers out of a population of 8.7million, whereas SF has around 7,000 out of a population of just under 900,000 with a disturbing number clearly suffering from mental health problems.
Resilience is a big issue in SF, not only is it facing up to the problems of climate change but it needs to prepare for a future earthquake. As the SPUR website states "We know that another major earthquake will strike San Francisco — we just don't know when." That may not be a problem London will face anytime soon, but then we don't get the benefits either. In 1989 the Embarcadero Freeway was damaged in the earthquake that caused considerable havoc in the region. Instead of rebuilding the structure which cut the city off from the Bay, they demolished it and used the areas previously occupied by the approach roads to create parks and public space. The city was reconnected to the Bay, and the Ferry Building with its iconic clock tower converted to a retail centre and creating a world class waterfront.
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
In discussion with a member of the housing team at City Hall recently, we talked about ‘replicability’, something which is pretty important if we are going to also investigate modern methods of construction (MMC). How do you replicate 50,000 homes a year without creating new districts of unutterable tedium?
The idea of repeating a simple model isn’t new – the houses built in London after the Great Fire were all just about the same and available only in four sizes. Regency terraces played the same note time and time again, as did the terraces of the Edwardians and the suburban semi-detached of the thirties. The London Estates often exhibited high levels of repetition, from the Georgian layouts of the Dukes of Bedford to the white classicism of Grosvenor’s Belgravia. All of these turned out to be pretty popular, so why can’t we replicate the quality of replicates our predecessors produced?
These days we worry more about site and context. The modern movement told us we needed to think about orientation and topography; recent theory tells us we need to be more aware of location, character and sense of place; new developments are frequently designed to look as though they have been built over time so you get a zoo of architects or a gallimaufry of styles – as at Poundbury. At King's Cross the scale of development is controlled but each building is by a different designer using different materials and different colours. Everyone is afraid of places looking boring. The replication to be found in new Chinese cities is frequently used to illustrate the inhumanity of large scale identical development.
I live in Bedford Park in Chiswick built in the 1870s and 80s, dubbed the ‘first garden suburb’, where the developer Jonathan Carr bought a series of designs from his architects – mainly Norman Shaw, and mixed the various types in a random manner along tree-lined streets. All the houses, Queen Anne in style, are built in the same red brick from the Acton brick fields with distinctive white external joinery, the materials providing a coherence to the whole estate of nearly 400 houses. In the first years of the 20th century a couple of mansion blocks were added in similar brick providing an increase in density that sits comfortably in the context of the three storey homes. The whole area maintains a highly satisfactory order in diversity. Such mixing and matching has been followed by house builders in the ensuing years, yet rarely with the sophistication managed by Carr.
Today the London Housing Design Guide has helped to deliver a certain level of replicability in the New London Vernacular style using simple facades, variegated brick finishes, punched windows with inset balconies. These can be found across London, from Hounslow to Horton, illustrating a remarkable level of similarity for this day and age.
Although clad in brick these blocks are built in a variety of methods, from concrete, laminated timber, steel or stacked volumetric units. The facade and the structure are separate, allowing enormous freedom, potentially, to external designers. This separation – which has been evident in office building for a number of years – when seen in conjunction with the economic variations permitted by digital design and manufacturing technology means that traditional concepts of style and permanence are all but dead. While we might all occupy an identical box produced by modern methods of construction we can download printed facades of any look we like – vernacular, classical, Modern or decorated.
We need to investigate new thinking in housing if we are to create desirable, higher density cities. We need to find ways of delivering new housing more efficiently and in a way that is acceptable to local communities. Digital technologies could provide the ability to deliver customisation, variety and replication, but how will the planners react? How do you maintain quality? How do you create a structure in which individual expression coexists with a coherent urban fabric?
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
When you think of London, you don’t necessarily think of boulevards. The wide, sweeping streets of Paris aren’t part of London’s planning language, and yet the West End is defined by its boulevards: Oxford Street to the north, Park Lane to the west, Charing Cross Road to the east and Pall Mall to the south. It is bisected vertically by Regent Street and horizontally by Piccadilly.
These are grand streets with the potential to enhance the area. They are key civic spaces, often with great architecture, yet they are swamped by motor vehicles – buses, vans, cars and HGVs. In the main, they are overcrowded, polluted and dangerous.
To see boulevards at their best, wander along Strøget in Copenhagen, Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul, Avda Constitución in Seville, and Rue Ste Cathérine in Bordeaux, where pedestrians safely stroll – and spend money – in car-free streets while trams and cyclists glide through shared spaces. It makes you wonder why London has put up with these awful environments for so long.
Oxford Street schemes that never were
Planners and politicians have been arguing about improving the West End’s roads since the Buchanan Report of 1963. Colin Buchanan himself described the state of Oxford Street as “a travesty of conditions as they ought to be in a great capital city”. But in those days movement was king: Lord Holford’s comprehensive redevelopment proposal for Piccadilly Circus was rejected, not because of the destruction it would have caused to the landmark, but because it would have restricted traffic. The removal of private cars from Oxford Street was only won because the bus lobby thought it would allow buses to move more freely.
There have been numerous ingenious plans for overcoming the complex problem of making a better place and keeping the traffic moving. One, by the architect Bryan Avery, proposed a pedestrianisation scheme for Oxford Street with a covered mall from Marble Arch to St Giles Circus; buses would run on its roof, unimpeded by pedestrians or cross streets. Bus stands would be located at convenient intervals and journey times would be considerably improved.
In 1983, a special joint meeting of the Highways and Planning Committees of Westminster City Council recommended that “these proposals merit further study by this council, the GLC, and other public bodies, as well as discussions with the public”. But nothing happened.
Back in 1992 Christian Wolmar, transport journalist turned mayoral candidate, highlighted the dangers of Oxford Street: the 250 people hit by vehicles in that year, the six deaths and the unacceptable levels of pollution. The responses, then as now, reflected the difficulty of pleasing all the major stakeholders. The Oxford Street Association feared that pedestrianisation would deter customers. Taxi drivers suggested that they would be forced to take long and expensive detours. Westminster City Council thought pedestrianisation impractical because there was no alternative east-west route.
Ken Livingstone’s plans of 2006 included a terminus at Marble Arch and a tram that people could hop on and off. The New West End Company welcomed the fact that such policies would turn Oxford Street into a “people place”. John McAslan + Partners was commissioned to do a feasibility study for the introduction of trams. But again, nothing happened.
The future of Oxford Street
The current Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called for pedestrianisation by 2020. The ‘p’ word strikes fear into the hearts of many retailers, as well as the residents of streets who believe they will be affected by diverted vehicles.
But what does pedestrianisation mean? While a reduction in the overall volume of traffic must be a key part of future plans, the endgame might not be a totally bus- and taxi-free street from end to end, but one with enhanced public realm in specific locations. It might, for instance, involve the creation of new spaces between north-south trafficked roads; or a whole row of new public squares in the heart of the capital, with attendant opportunities for reimagining what a London boulevard can achieve.
Whatever route is selected, something needs to start happening soon, as the launch of Crossrail in 2018 draws ever closer. A report in 2014, authored by Alex Jan of Arup, indicated that Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon stations will deliver some 745,000 people to central London per day by 2026. During the average weekday afternoon peak, it is projected that 34,000 passengers per hour will enter and exit Bond Street station alone. The current infrastructure of pavements and crossings simply cannot absorb such an increase.
In June 2015 the West End Partnership launched a Vision for the West End, which suggested that Oxford Street West (the area to the west of Oxford Circus) should be “the world’s best outdoor street shopping experience, achieved by a reduction in vehicles with greater use of surrounding streets for loading, servicing and taxi pick-up”, accepting that any solution for Oxford Street needed to include the hinterland as well.
Peter Vernon, CEO of Grosvenor Estate and Vice Chairman of the West End Partnership, rounded off the speech in which he introduced the Vision report by saying that changes to Oxford Street can be the “launchpad for reimagined districts north and south of it”. There was little mention of getting rid of traffic.
Following commitments made in his election manifesto to pedestrianise Oxford street, Sadiq Khan announced in July 2016 that vehicles would be banned from Tottenham Court Road in the east to beyond Selfridges in the west by 2020. A final stretch, up to Marble Arch, is due to be completed by 2025.
Oxford Street East, with its smaller units and shabbier shops, has long been the poor cousin of the stretch between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch, but change is on its way. The redevelopment of the old Rathbone Place Post Office site, two Crossrail station exits, the award-winning Zara store, the redevelopment of Centre Point, and public space improvements around Tottenham Court Road station are giving the area a much-needed boost.
The Park Lane problem
The wider Oxford Street improvements might give some impetus to plans to reduce the dominance of traffic in Park Lane and upgrade connectivity to Hyde Park. In 1996, the Grosvenor Estate looked at the idea of linking their ownerships on the east side of Park Lane to Hyde Park by placing the eight lanes of traffic in tunnels and extending the park over the top. The idea was later reprised by Boris Johnson in his Way to Go transport strategy of 2010, but went no further.
More recently, the architect Liam Hennessy presented a simpler scheme at a New London Architecture conference, which proposed widening the four-lane northbound road to accommodate two-way traffic on the surface and turning the southbound carriageway into a wide pedestrianised boulevard. No trees would be removed and all the extra space required would come from the currently inaccessible central reservation.
The Grosvenor Estate supports the idea, but would only participate if it received the blessing of the Mayor, TfL and Westminster Council, according to its surveyor Nigel Hughes.
Tackling Pall Mall and Charing Cross Road
The other two sides of the West End perimeter, Pall Mall and Charing Cross Road, are making better progress. They form part of a Londonwide plan to get rid of gyratories in places like Vauxhall, Elephant and Castle, Baker Street and Aldgate. Rolled out in the 60s and 70s, these certainly sped up the traffic, reducing permeability as well as quality of place, but did little to reduce congestion.
To the south of the West End, Pall Mall and Piccadilly have been transformed from one-way racetracks into more amenable two-way streets, increasing permeability and reducing the isolation of the St James’s urban block. Other improvements to the streetscape and public realm have since been carried out in Lower Regent Street, Waterloo Place and Haymarket with wider pavements, new street lighting, less street clutter, better pedestrian crossings and Yorkstone paving.
Work has yet to start on similar improvements to the eastern boulevard. Charing Cross Road is the boundary between Camden and Westminster. Scruffy and careworn, it is the scene of many battles between the two boroughs – not least in recent years over the improvements surrounding the entrance to Tottenham Court Road tube and Crossrail station. As the LSE’s Tony Travers frequently points out, edges – particularly those between boroughs – are unloved, uncared-for, and often places of discord.
Back in 1961, Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road north of Cambridge Circus were made one-way northbound, while southbound traffic was routed one way down Gower Street. This isolated a big chunk of Fitzrovia, segregating it from Bloomsbury while doing little to achieve its original aim of reducing congestion.
There is a plan that, by the end of 2018 when Crossrail opens, traffic on Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road will be restricted to buses and cycles during the day. Gower Street will revert to two-way use with a segregated cycle route. Taxis and delivery vehicles will be barred from using Tottenham Court Road as a through-route, while new landscaping in the area will improve the pedestrian experience.
Improving the public realm
Existing infrastructure and congested underground conditions in most of these improved boulevards sadly make tree planting impossible. This is unfortunate: as well as making the urban landscape more pleasant, trees have a positive impact on air pollution, the urban heat island effect, noise pollution and mental wellbeing. In addition, according to Peter Heath of Atkins, the long views of historic Grade I buildings along Pall Mall from St James’s Palace to the National Gallery are important townscape assets that would be obscured by trees.
In Charing Cross Road, the need to cater for pedestrian surges and the dense underground services (including a large unused tram power route tunnel running north-south just below the surface) have also made tree planting impossible. There are ways that these streets can be improved without major works – better street finishes, wider pavements, well-lit buildings, new architecture that addresses the street, and more sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS).
SUDS should be the accepted norm for all road improvements in the capital. Increasingly severe storms, when rains run off the streets straight into the drains, are overloading Joseph Bazalgette’s 19th-century sewer system. The solution is to create small landscaped areas which absorb the run-off and delay its passage into the drainage system. These pockets of landscaping both enhance the street and deliver a more sustainable city.
To relieve overcrowding on pavements, the West End boroughs could take a leaf out of the City of London’s book and fix street lamps to buildings, rather than cluttering pavement with bulky posts.
The West End boulevard where these ideas are most successfully displayed is, of course, Regent Street, created by John Nash in the early 19th century. It has hugely benefited from the single ownership of the Crown Estate, which has delivered good stewardship and public space improvements – including the Oxford Circus diagonal crossing, the peninsularisation of Piccadilly, and the more recent re-creation of St James’s Market between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street.
Within the approximate geography of the urban box described above, Alex Jan has proposed a plan entitled The West End Weave, a long-term strategy of improving the complex network of streets that covers the West End with dedicated routes – providing priority to certain transport modes depending on location, character and local context. The endgame is “a more coherent, better-connected, safer and healthier West End”.
In the 50 or so years since the Buchanan Report, thinking about traffic in towns has shifted to a more satisfactory balance between strategies for movement and strategies for place, as set out in TfL’s Street Types for London strategy. Accommodating traffic, absorbing the huge growth in pedestrian numbers that will be generated by Crossrail, reducing pollution, and improving placemaking in the West End are all complex undertakings with many stakeholders to be satisfied. Leadership is needed that reflects the appropriate balance of interests and sets out a clear framework for better coordinating policies on walking, cycling and public transport – as well as taxis and delivery vehicles.
According to Deputy Mayor for Transport Val Shawcross, the “blockage and resistance” to pedestrianisation of Oxford Street is around the deployment of buses in central London. “TfL had become stuck in a bit of a time warp – God bless them,” she says. Shawcross is now ex officio the Deputy Chair of TfL and in a position to make things happen.
More coordinated and longer-term thinking may also result from the New West End’s successful creation of a Business Improvement District. Property owners have a real interest in the long-term value of their holdings: they look after them well and benefit from the increase in value generated by improvements.
In 2004, the influential Danish planner Jan Gehl wrote a report about improving public space in the West End entitled Towards a Fine City for People. When he returned to London a decade later, he made no bones about his disappointment at the rate of progress. Today, though, he would surely be impressed by the improvements to St James’s and Pall Mall (in spite of the poor provision for cyclists), make positive noises about the proposed improvements to Charing Cross Road, and support the long shot of Hennessy’s Park Lane proposals.
If Sadiq Khan can push the stakeholders of Oxford Street and its environs to create a place that compares in quality with equivalents in foreign cities, he will have succeeded where many have failed – and he will leave a legacy to sit beside that of Nash and the Prince Regent.
This piece was written for the Centre for London essay series and also appeared in Dave Hill's On London website
When I started the London Festival of Architecture is 2004 it was focused on Clerkenwell. We calculated that the up and coming area was home to more architects per square metre than anywhere in the world - an accolade boosted by the recent arrival of Grimshaw and BDP. In spite of this headline statistic we found it very difficult to convince Ken Livingstone and the GLA to be as generous to us as they were to other London festivals. Architecture did not seem to feature as we thought it should in the lexicon of creative businesses like fashion, design, games and advertising.
The reason for this it appeared was that the RIBA had decided that the future of architectural export lay with the construction rather than creative industry because they handed out the jobs, so in the eyes of the Department of Trade, architecture was classified as building rather than creative design. Things have changed quite a bit over the years, but the LFA always lagged behind in its ability to raise public sponsorship, lacking the figures to prove London's importance as an architectural design hub. No longer.
Through the sterling efforts of Tamsie Thompson, the indefatigable director of the LFA, the GLA Economics division has carried out detailed research into the commercial impact of architecture. They have found that there are some 4,240 offices in the capital’s architecture sector which produced £1.7 billion in gross value added (GVA). After accounting for inflation, the compound annual rate of growth in the GVA of London’s architecture sector since 2009 was 7.6 per cent. That was faster than the creative industries and the London economy as a whole. There were approximately 22,800 jobs in London’s architecture sector in 2015 with one-in-four architect occupations in the UK based in London. Encouragingly approximately 40 per cent of architectural staff were female - a considerably higher figure than the rest of the UK.
But it's not all about exports; the research found that between £382.5 million and £453.9 million of London’s GVA could be attributed to architecture-related tourism. So that's good for the heritage sector.
More worryingly around one-third of the jobs in London’s architecture sector were taken by non-UK nationals and of this, the majority (73.3 per cent) were EU citizens. So movement of labour is going to be very important post-Brexit, if London is to retain its status as a global hub for design and construction skills,
The research highlights the significance of architecture's role in London's economy and the need to protect it as the Government negotiates our exit form the European Union. It also reinforces the importance of events like the LFA in drawing attention to the sector. The creative industries are going to be crucial to Londons success as the financial sector reallocates to other centres. Congratulations to Tamsie and GLA Economics for reminding us that the mother of the arts can still hold her own in both her creative and her commercial contribution to the capitals wellbeing.
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
Central London is a city of many layers. The Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Georgians and Victorians have all left their mark, as one period has built on the remains of another. Often the street patterns remain but the buildings change. The multiple layers are a result of the destruction of the city after the Roman occupation, the Great Fire and the Blitz, as well as of the unsentimentality of both the Victorians and the post WW2 reconstructors.
In this regard we are pretty unusual compared to many European cities which have tended to protect their old towns more rigorously. But I was interested to find even deeper layers of underlying civilisations when I visited Beirut recently. The levantine city has seen off the Phoenicians, the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and the French. It has also been damaged by wars as well as natural disasters.
The civil war of 1975-1990 killed many and laid waste much; the eye of the storm was the boulevards and buildings of the centre of the city where Muslims and Christians from east and west Beirut respectively attacked each other across this urban killing field.
The area was traditionally a meeting point for Lebanon’s multi-faith society - Sunni and Shia muslims, Maronite christians and Druze - and their mosques and churches remain the heart of the reconstruction project for the central area which has been carried out by the public/private development agency Solidere over the last two decades.
Brit Angus Gavin - formally of the London Docklands Development Corporation - was responsible for the masteplan. Gavin retained much of the street grid and view corridors from before the war, opened up some of the Roman remains, restored key landmarks and hired a bevy of international names to design new buildings.
I have to admit that I had been under the illusion that much of the work by Solidere was pastiche recreation of the French Mandate city, but discovered that many of the buildings, reduced to bullet pock-marked shells in the fighting, had been convincingly restored. Set in pedestrianised areas - a massive relief from the utter chaos of Beirut traffic - the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ has come back to life (although retail is suffering as the Syrian war deters high spending tourists from the Gulf). Rafael Moneo has designed the Beirut Soukh, a modern interpretation of the old markets on the site. My companion, a local architectural historian, was unimpressed, taking the view that the Virgin megastore and high end jewellers that now occupy this mall are no substitute for the small trading families that would have inhabited the soukh before the war.
One of the most impressive contemporary buildings is the headquarters of the Audi Bank designed by Australian Kevin Dash with polite and clean cut facades using the obligatory sandstone cladding and internal galleria with artworks collected by the bank’s owner. Robert Adam has designed a new office building with an unusually exotic reinterpretation of traditional Ottoman and Islamic forms.
Moving away from the restored heart we find 3Beirut, a collection of towers by Foster and Partners, and Beirut Terraces by Herzog and de Meuron with characteristic cantilevered balconies and lots of greenery. Across the Marina is a yacht club by Steven Holl, not one of his best buildings. Renzo Piano is building a museum on one side of Martyrs’ Square and Allies and Morrison a residential quarters on another. Jean Nouvel produced designs for a remarkably out-of-scale tower which seems to be on hold and is unpopular with the locals.
Looking at photos of the city from the early 90s, it is evident that what has been achieved is impressive. As a piece of city making the restored streets are more successful than the high rise apartments, which offer little to the public realm. But why so many overseas architects? There are some good Lebanese architects like Bernard Khoury, Nabil Golam and, from the younger generation, Lina Ghotmeh, one of the team that recently completed the Estonian National Museum.
In the years to come the Solidere development area will expand into infill areas towards the sea to the north. I trust the new-build there will continue the sense of city rather than become a collection of set pieces by the global names.
This article first appeared in New London Quarterly