Guided walking tour of Shoreditch with Igloo near Arnold Circus
In the Gehl Architects family, annual study trips are a well-loved tradition; partly because it is important to keep a social office, but also in large because we actually really enjoy the opportunity to play tourists. Although our work takes us to many exotic and exciting cities, it is sometimes difficult to find the time to marvel at tall, shiny buildings, when the paving is disastrous and we are blinded by visual clutter or by the overpowering presence of D-categorised facades (refer to “How to study public life” or know that on a scale from A-E, where A is a façade that has a dancing unicorn and a coffee-drinking hipster on display, D facades are pretty uninteresting.) Therefore, it was a happy crowd that showed up at Copenhagen airport earlier this month to partake in this year’s two-day, jammed-packed study trip to… London town.
We arrived early in the morning at Gatwick airport, with two hours to get two dozen Gehlians, via our hotel in East London, to King’s Cross station for the first stop of the tour. Argent, who are responsible for the redevelopment of the areas around the station, had invited us to their office to give us an insight into what has been called “the largest area of urban redevelopment in Europe.” (Richard Godwin, Evening Standard Magazine). In the office, we were presented with the grand plans for making a vibrant, diverse and inclusive neighbourhood, along with interesting schemes for an implementation considering both the economic and the social parameters. We wondered: is it possible to transform a polluted and neglected railway area in the middle of London into something truly nice? Afterwards, when we had bought lunch at the exotic food trucks on the plaza between the granary-turned-art-school (St-Martins) and the greened river bank, it was easy to believe in a bright future for King’s Cross.
Colourful food carts and street furniture bring life to the grey plaza in front of Central Saint-Martin’s School at King’s Cross.
At Stratford, we were introduced to another area of London that has been subjected to ambitious planning strategies: the post-Olympic wasteland, of which we were given a very entertaining guided tour by London Urban Visits. However, as fond as we are of walking, the vastness of the Olympic park and the scarceness of distractions, managed to make our feet and legs growl by the end of the tour. It shall be interesting to see how those large-scale spaces between the sports arenas will be appropriated in the future, and whether they can be brought back to life when the surrounding areas have been developed for residential and commercial purposes.
In Dalston, Hackney, we visited this green oasis known as the Eastern Curve Garden, which is preserved and appreciated by the local community.
However, my favourite visit of the day was our rendez-vous with Dalston, Hackney, which (according to the Guardian and I) is one of the coolest areas in London. However, you need not fret if you haven’t heard of Hackney yet, because the gentrification of the area has happened so quickly that not even the long-term residents of Hackney have had time to grasp their new status. They are left to marvel at the rapid increase of property prices and the sudden occurrence of novelty bars and tourists, such as ourselves. We met with Hackney Co-operative Developments, which is a non-profit local community organisation, aiming to create an equal and solidary environment for the (small) business owners in Hackney. Our meeting took place in the Eastern Curve Garden, which will definitely be used as a best-practice example in the Gehl office, for how to develop successful, community driven green spaces within a dense, urban fabric.
In the evening, we digested the many impressions of London in a cosy restaurant, which was located beneath the bridge of a functioning railway. Who said re-appropriation?
On the second day during the “creative city”-tour we had lunch in “Lookmumnohands” – a bicycle-themed café at London Fields.
For the second part of the tour, we were split into two groups, entitled “creative city” and “retail”. The group, which was investigating creative city co-operations, had the pleasure of visiting Igloo in the London Tech City, the Trampery and Netil House. London Tech City was a very interesting example of the effects that the branding of a city area can have. The Trampery and Netil House proposed two very different working cooperatives, both promoting inter-disciplinary mingling, but with varied means and goals. While the Trampery oozed of creative hub with artwork on the walls and social designer-kitchen spaces, Netil House had a scent of raw concrete (literally) with a hint of squatter and DIY. As some of us were debating the ups and downs of the creative industries in London, the rest were busy scouting retail-strategies in the high-end shopping district of Mayfair. In this area, the streets are groomed with good paving, wide sidewalks and beautiful window-displays, because the shop-owners know that their clientele prefer (are used to?) nice surroundings. Their tour also went by Lamb’s Conduit Street, a sophisticated hub for menswear designers, and the Brunswick Centre, which is a successful example of a mixed-use development (residential and shopping). Their day finished on Camden High Street, which might be said to be diametrically different from where they had started off in Mayfair; In Camden, the streets aren’t “nice” in the physical sense of the word, but the bustle of people rushing in and out of the many little shops gives Camden a uniquely “nice” vibe that attracts Londoners and tourists alike.
So, at the end of a study tour, what does the Gehlian take home, besides sore feet and a million pictures of urban prodigal moments? Firstly, a renewed will and energy to partake in the many changes that cities constantly undergo. Secondly, a ton of questions, answers and ideas to inspire future projects. And, in this case, thirdly: a love of London, as the city which continues to renew and reinvent itself so rapidly that even the flâneur breaks into a run.