Some years ago I had a conversation with Sara Fox - who was the client representative on 30 St Mary Axe, aka The Gherkin - about the design of lavatories. Since most of the Foster design team were blokes they had little experience of ladies' loos, so Sara gave them a CPD on long dresses and wet floors, how to deal with the different sorts of clothing that women wear, that there are rarely dry flat areas for women to put their handbags/briefcases on when they wash their hands etc etc.
Sara's concern about the user is something I often think about when I use men's loos. I have to admit that I have never been a fan of the sort of open trench style urinals that you find in a lot of pubs, or even the exposed bowls - some at children's height - that are the standard fare in most public buildings and offices in the Uk these days. I prefer a bit of privacy - a glazed screen or the tall curved urinals of the Victorian lav.
I always thought I was a bit of a wimp in this regard. Indeed when you google the topic there is plenty of boasting boy's talk about confident peeing anywhere.
However I have been noticing, when I use in the loos on the floor of the NLA office, that this is not typical. We have three urinals, without screens in a fairly cosy arrangement, and one stall with WC and I notice that almost without fail, if I am standing at one of the stalls and someone also comes in they will lock themselves in the stall rather than stand next to me, shoulder to shoulder.
So it got me wondering if those designing our lavatories are really thinking about the user - as Sara Fox did - or do they just do what is usually done? Or is cheapest?
This is clearly a cultural thing. I remember years ago staying at a Swedish youth hostel where even the sit down toilets had partitions that were only waist high. In the States, screens between urinals seem to be more prevalent. Watching people as they use public lavatories is something that might be misinterpreted but in the international forum that is the airport loo at Terminal 5 I have noticed the unpopularity of screenless urinals, the stalls are almost always full of people who, time and sound would suggest, are taking a pee - and wasting water.
These days wellbeing is top of the design agenda for offices, it seems to me that designers owe us wimps the luxury of relaxed and stress free peeing. The macho aspect of all this was driven home to me years ago when I went to visit the architect Gordon Graham, the President of the RIBA, in his Nottinghamshire office. Graham was a man's man, a stalwart of the local rugby club, a rugger bugger. When I asked the way to the bathroom he showed me and stood next to me as I attempted, unsuccessfully, to pee into a single WC that sat in the middle of a bathroom the size of a normal person's living room.
From the catalogues it would seem most of the available urinal dividers are minimal in the extreme, mere tokens of modesty. Interestingly one of the more enveloping is design by Philippe Starck - a good 705mm deep - as against Armitage Shanks semi-circular design that barely does the job.
Perhaps the industry needs to do a bit of research since my simple observations would suggest we haven’t got it right.
This article first appeared in On Office magazine
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
In his County of London Plan of 1943 Sir Patrick Abercrombie proposed a new bridge across the Thames between Temple and the South Bank. Thirty years later Richard Rogers proposed a similarly located bridge to connect his Coin Street development with the north bank. A 1995 report prepared for the Government Office for London by engineers Arup confirmed that such a bridge was a good idea.
John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment at that time, agreed and sponsored an exhibition at the Royal Academy to promote it. Later, along came Joanna Lumley, national treasure and champion of worthy causes, who suggested a “garden bridge” designed by Thomas Heatherwick, without doubt one of the cleverest designers of his generation and dubbed by Sir Terence Conran the “Leonardo of our times”. The then Mayor of London Boris Johnson supported Lumley, and Transport for London (TfL) drew up a robust business case for the project.
So what could possibly have gone wrong? While cost, politics and an anti-Boris backlash played its part, the real problems emerged out of the design and procurement processes.
Lumley’s plans lie in tatters after Johnson’s successor, Sadiq Khan, announced that he would not provide financial guarantees following the publication of the report he had commissioned from Margaret Hodge MP. With pledges of private funding amounted to only £69m and potential capital costs put at “north of £200 million”, the gap between what is required and what has been promised for the capital investment is likely to be well in excess of £70m. In the light of Hodge’s findings it is little surprise that Khan pulled the plug. The writing had been on the wall for some time.
Hodge reported that “the inspiration for a Garden Bridge came from both Thomas Heatherwick and Joanna Lumley”. This was incorrect. The 1996 Living Bridges exhibition at the Royal Academy – featuring a series of spectacular models spanning a miniature Thames – illustrated the results of a competition for designs for a bridge on precisely the same site as the one Lumley proposed. The concept was supported by Gummer on the basis that, should a bridge be built, it would not require any money from the public purse. Rather, it would be funded by development either on the bridge itself or on the banks of the river.
A professional jury, of which the Secretary of State was himself a member, selected a design by Zaha Hadid as the winner. Hadid’s characteristically dramatic structure housed a collection of high end apartments that would have paid for the construction of the crossing. But the popular reaction to her scheme was that the the river was public space and should not be encroached on by private owners. Visitors to the exhibition voted instead for a design by the French architect Antoine Grumbach, whose envisaged Garden Bridge was suspended from a tower block next to Temple Station, the development of which would have funded the new structure.
With the help of the businessman Christopher Moran, Gummer attempted to promote the construction of Grumbach bridge before the Conservative government he was a member of was voted out of office in the 1997 general election. He was unsuccessful. Even so, Stephen Musgrave, chief executive of the Grosvenor Estate, retained an interest in the concept for several years with the view that the bridge would add value to the riparian land. The estate funded the storage of the Royal Academy’s bridge models with the expectation of reprising the show when new plans were prepared. However, in 2004 all the models were destroyed in the disastrous fire in Momart’s Leyton warehouse. Musgrave’s departure from Grosvenor in 2006 put an end to the idea.
By that time Joanna Lumley had picked up on Grumbach’s concept. Her initial idea was to build an “orchard bridge” on the Royal Academy’s proposed site as a memorial to Princess Diana. She suggested the idea to Chancellor Gordon Brown, who chaired the Princess Diana Memorial Committee and seemed keen. When the committee chose the Kathryn Gustafson Fountain in Hyde Park as a memorial instead, the bridge went on the back burner until Lumley wrote to Boris Johnson shortly after his election for a second mayoral term in 2012. Tellingly, she said she was proposing a “green pedestrian bridge, with cycle tracks alongside, with container-grown trees: and beauty and practicality in equal measure”.
But the design put in for planning was very different from the one described in Lumley’s letter. It was not a pedestrian bridge as such, it was a bridge designed for people to meander and tarry slowly down; to “hear birds singing; hear leaves rustling”. It was a bridge that would attract tourists and visitors and be of less attraction to working Londoners who want to get from A to B in the most efficient manner. It was modelled to take 12 minutes to cross (the Millennium Bridge takes three minutes). Its supporters were thus more likely to be those who promoted tourism, or tourists themselves, rather than Londoners. Its benefits were unclear to the community on the South Bank, which has a long history of fighting off new development projects.
London is a pragmatic city. To Londoners, bridges are for getting from one side to the other. The sort of mixture described in Lumley’s first letter to Boris might have worked, but Lumley shot the project in the foot with her decision to exclude cycling. “Being a Lambeth resident and using the Tube, I walk a lot,” she told the Lambeth planning committee. “I’m the only one you can blame for not having cycles on this bridge. I said that I believe that cyclists speeding over the bridge would stop it being a peaceful place to walk.” In one fell swoop she antagonised the most powerful environmental lobby in town. She would not get any more support from cyclists; the sop that they could “push their bikes across the bridge” further exacerbated their negative feelings towards the crossing.
The Garden Bridge Trust, which had been set up in 2013 to deliver the project, was no more adept at understanding the sensitivities of those involved in the highly charged debate regarding “privately-owned, publicly accessible space” (POPAS). The report to the planning committee said that, “All groups of eight or more visitors would be required to contact the Garden Bridge Trust to request a formal visit to the bridge”. This was to “assist visitor management” and “discourage protest groups”. A suggestion that photographers might be charged for taking pictures from the bridge enraged a group who have been vociferous in the POPAS debate. Although these draconian management proposals were later amended by the trust, the damage was done.
Perhaps the greatest damage of all was inflicted by the dogged determination of award-winning reporter Will Hurst of the Architects’ Journal, who made frequent and effective use of freedom of information requests. Without his regular disclosure about Boris Johnson’s correspondence and meetings, the national press and politicians would have had much less evidence-based ammunition with which to attack the project.
The bridge made a good story for the AJ because it touched on key concerns of its readers. First, the relationship between Heatherwick – a designer – and the architectural profession is a sensitive one. There remains a feeling that he is treading on their patch. Designers do furniture, products and interiors, goes the argument, but architecture requires a different level of intellectual engagement and holistic thinking. This divide was inflamed when Heatherwick attacked the designs for the Royal Mail’s Mount Pleasant development, which he branded as “empty, cynical and vacuous” and “downright lazy”. The fact that the designs were by four of the profession’s most respected firms – AHMM, Allies & Morrison, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios and Wilkinson Eyre – confirmed Heatherwick as an outsider in AJ readers’ eyes.
The other key element that helped Hurst’s stories run and run is the profession’s concern about the procurement of projects. Walter Menteth, chairman of the RIBA’s procurement reform group, provided Hurst with regular comment on the failings of the TfL processes, which fitted with Menteth’s views that “there is an ascendance of procedures lacking transparency and democratic accountability, with nepotism, collusion and corrupt practices gaining ground”.
It was open to the mayor and TfL to work with Heatherwick Studio without a competitive procurement process. But TfL Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy and Head of Planning Michele Dix chose not to do so. They wanted to look at options. Architects Wilkinson Eyre, who were known to TFL for their designs for the cable car at Greenwich, and Marks Barfield, who delivered the London Eye, were invited to tender. On the face of it, a perfectly sensible thing to do.
But because there was lot of pressure from Mayor Johnson to get the project moving, the ensuing process was rushed, with a brief that should have made clearer what TfL was looking for. Heatherwick had been working on the project for many months. The others had a couple of weeks to come up with design advice for developing the concept of a new footbridge, not an iconic new addition to London’s landscape, although it did specify that the footbridge “would also be a positive contribution to this important cultural and leisure destination”.
In a generous statement following the publication of the Hodge Report, Julia Barfield stated that had Marks Barfield been aware of Heatherwick Studios’ involvement and original idea, they would not have submitted a tender: “There is still honour and respect between architects and designers.”
Yet, given the situation they found themselves in, it was not unreasonable of Hendy and Dix to seek some reassurance by asking other experienced practitioners for proposals. It would certainly have been easier to have made a direct appointment of Heatherwick, given the pressure they were under from City Hall. Richard de Cani told Hodge: “The timescale pressure was coming from City Hall because this was seen as a second-term deliverable.” Hodge commented that decisions on the bridge were driven by electoral cycles – a somewhat naive comment from a politician of Hodge’s experience. Was it not ever thus?
For Hendy, Boris was in charge. In his evidence to Hodge he said, “I took the view – and I still do – that, actually, if you’ve got a mandate of between four and five million voters, then if you want to do something which isn’t in the mayor’s transport strategy…a mayoral direction allows you to tell the organisation what to do.”
The Hodge report agrees that one of the most important responsibilities the London Mayor enjoys is to take action to enhance London and make it a better and more attractive place for people to live in, work in and visit. “Renewing the infrastructure through innovative ‘grands oeuvres’ is vital to ensuring that London maintains its leading edge as one of the most appealing capital cities in the world,” she wrote.
I have supported the Garden Bridge for just this reason since its inception, in spite of reservations about its focus as a place to stop rather than to cross and in spite of its ban on cycling. The layout could surely be changed over time to suit different users. As a new London landmark, the bridge would enhance not just the river but the riparian environment. It is the right place for a bridge. Hodge criticises TFL’s “robust” business plan, preferring the views of the Treasury – hardly a great bellwether of urban improvement.
I prefer the views of Richard Rogers – appropriately ennobled as Lord Rogers of Riverside. Writing in the Architects’ Journal, he gave an eloquent and convincing argument for the bridge’s location:
“The bridge is perfectly located in the heart of London. It’s a vital meeting point, a hinge between Central London’s neighbourhoods. On the north bank, Aldwych (which will also be partially pedestrianised) marks the transition from Covent Garden theatres to Temple legal chambers. On the other axis, walking routes lead north through Bloomsbury and Lincoln’s Inn, to King’s Cross and Euston. But this route comes to a dead end at Aldwych; the Thames lies unnoticed down a dingy side street over a fast-moving high street. On the south side of the river, the bridge will land on the spectacular riverside walkway that has done so much for what was once a no-go area.”
Interestingly, this is the reverse of Abercrombie’s justification, illustrating just how much London has been transformed since WW2 by his plans, which included a tree-lined walkway along the south bank and a new National Theatre. The post war planner believed that the south bank was “perhaps the greatest of all London’s lost opportunities. On the north is vitality, with public access to enable the river’s attractions to be enjoyed. On the south, dull and monotonous decay.”
One of the reasons Thames Central Open Spaces opposed the Garden Bridge was concerns that the South Bank would become overcrowded. However, it would be more likely to draw people to the north of the river, with its space and attractions.
The most likely fallout of the Garden Bridge debacle and the Hodge Report is a review of the procurement procedures – certainly at TfL and possibly within City Hall. It is important that this does not discourage the sort of independent initiative that promoted the project at the outset.
Hodge says that “grands oeuvres” have their place. She is right. But such projects emerge from the capital’s creative community, which requires encouragement rather than the ghastly trolling that has characterised the debate surrounding the Garden Bridge. We need visions for a better city.
In a previous Royal Academy exhibition – New Architecture: The Work of Foster Rogers Stirling – Richard Rogers proposed the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square and a park on the Victoria Embankment, a project that has provided an ongoing vision for public space improvements in the West End ever since. Barfield Marks’ London Eye has transformed the South Bank and visitor perceptions of the capital. Terry Farrell has proposed numerous improvement projects, from Nash Ramblas to the Thames Gateway National Park. Norman Foster raised the level of public debate about London’s airports with his plans for the London Hub. Re Form architects have put in many hours of pro bono work on the Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf bridge to help move that project forward. Throughout the capital architects and planners work with local communities to develop ideas for improving neighbourhoods, an initiative now recognised by Mayor Khan with his Crowdfund London project. Any new procurement guidance generated as a result of the Hodge report should make it easier for such initiatives to come forward.
The Garden Bridge was one 13 new crossings proposed by the Johnson administration. “From Fulham in the west to Dartford in the east, this is a vital package of crossings that will drive economic growth and get more people walking, cycling and on to public transport,” he said. This is a strategy that overrides mayoral terms and one that Sadiq Khan continues, in slightly amended form, with plans for the Rotherhithe-Canary Wharf bridge, the Silvertown Tunnel, the extension of the Docklands Light Railway to Thamesmead, a riverbus between Canary Wharf and North Greenwich and a new river crossing at Barking Riverside.
So what next? Can the Garden Bridge Trust come up with the private funds they need to complete the job? Could a triumphant Theresa May cock a snook at Khan and get the Department for Transport to provide the necessary financial guarantees? Or perhaps the Mayor could go for a simpler walking and cycling bridge. Architect Ian Ritchie – who also came up with the idea for a garden bridge in the Royal Academy competition – has written in the Architects’ Journal: “An elegant pedestrian/cyclist bridge could be realised for £30 million and it would not need high security, restricted access, a marketing/shop/maintenance building on the South Bank, nor require the sale or leasing of public land for private use on either bank.” This solution got a pretty positive thumbs up in the original business plan in all regards, except that it wasn’t green and would not be self-funding. A bridge like that would attract at least 10,000 people a day. Charge them a £1 toll and you would pay off the capital costs in a couple of years!
Such a project would support the mayor’s strategies for improving conditions for walking and cycling in the heart of the capital and provide a popular connection between north and south banks. With a transparent rerun of the competition between Heatherwick, Barfield Marks and Wilkinson Eyre, Sadiq could deliver a “grand oeuvre” that London could be proud of while reinforcing the capital’s reputation as a creative and cultural hub.
This article was first published on Dave Hill's On London website www.onlondon.co.uk
Clerkenwell used to be affordable. In 1996 I worked on the Living Bridges exhibition at the Royal Academy with Nigel Coates who had offices in the pre-refurbishment Morelands Building at the junction of Goswell Road and Old Street. It was big and cold, the loos were dickensian, but it was only £4 a sq foot. The same space now would cost you fifteen times that amount. not great for small companies, nor great for start ups. OK, so if you can’t afford Clerkenwell, why not move east where its cheaper - for the time being? But the new businesses which are the future of the London economy cannot keep moving further and further out, they might as well go to Birmingham, Bristol or Berlin - and quite a lot of them are. Which it is why it is very important that Sadiq Khan should make the provision of affordable workspace a key part of his planning policy in the new London Plan that he is working on right now and which will determine the future shape of London for the next 30 years. More easily said than done - Islington have supported affordable space near the Old Street Roundabout but even with a 50 per cent grant rents can work out at around £40 a square foot, which is hardly cheap. The Mayor’s plan should look strategically at where affordable space should be provided and come up with a scheme that makes affordable workspace a key element in all new development, just as he does with housing. In London’s economy it is impossible to stop rising rents - or gentrification if you like - that can only be balanced by some sort of public intervention. Co-working spaces and less onerous leases have helped new businesses but are unlikely to be enough in the rough and tumble of the post Brexit economy.
This article first appeared in the Clerkenwell Post
I'm fed up with the impossibility of knowing what the coming year holds and go along with RSA's Matthew Taylor who writes in today's Observer that perhaps it's best to "abandon the task of objective prediction in favour of the search for hope". So my new year's resolution is to get on with projects that can make a difference without waiting to find out what's going to happen in the rest of the world. Here are ten of them.
Bob Hoskins’ character Harold Shand in the film ‘The Long Good Friday’ was both a gangster and a visionary. Back in 1980 Harold understood the potential of London’s docklands: ‘….having cleared away the outdated, we’ve got mile after mile, acre after acre of land for our future prosperity… so it’s important that the right people mastermind the new London…’ he says to a boatload of US investors as they pass under Tower Bridge on a trip to the east.
I was reminded of the iconic film while putting together a lecture recently for a conference in Shanghai on the subject of waterfront development. Harold’s vision actually came from script writer Barrie Keeffe who had been a reporter on the Stratford Gazette and got the idea for the storyline from overhearing local councillors discussing the regeneration of the area. Much of Docklands was deserted at that time and good for little else but filming gangster car chases. The London Docklands Development Corporation was set up by the Government in 1981 and as a result, today Canary Wharf stands sentinel at the riverine entrance to London - an iconic reminder of the UK capital’s transformation from a maritime and manufacturing economy to a service economy with a significant focus on the financial sector.
Like Shanghai, London exists because of a river. The Romans who arrived in Britain 2000 years ago selected the area that is now London because it was the earliest spot where they could build a bridge. Because of the River Thames London became a busy port in the medieval period, beginning a relationship with the wider world that remains to this day.
The Chinese have historically appreciated the benefits and delights of waterfront locations; but it has taken us some time to catch up. When Surrey Docks was developed - 90 per cent of the water spaces were filled in. Until recently we have associated waterways with pollution and the big stink. This suspicion of water can be seen to this on the canals where most development turned its back on the water. The fact that an unencumbered waterfront view can provide an uplift in value of anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent means that attitudes are now very different.
Chinese developers have snapped up some of the larger waterfront sites in London. The Lots Road Power station in Chelsea is being developed by Hutchinson Whampoa with a couple of towers by the river, shops and restaurants in the old power station building and a series of bridges that link the two sides of the development along Chelsea Creek. The same developer is building the new Convoys Wharf at Deptford. Chinese developers Knight Dragon are building 15,000 homes at Greenwich Peninsula. Chinese developer Asian Business Port is constructing a new business park overlooking Royal Albert Dock.
But with Silvertown Quays only receiving planning permission last October and with Greenwich Peninsula on a 20 year development programme Bob Hoskins would have been alarmed to find out that it was going to take over fifty years to replace the docks and industry of the East End. If you’d told him that then you’d probably have ended up in the meat freezer.
First published in On Office magazine
Peter Murray, commenting on London, architecture, cycling and cities