There are reputedly more architects in Clerkenwell than in the whole of India. As for our own Royal Borough, it’s estimated about 500, out of the 691, are members of the West London Society of Architects. Taking London as a whole there are 12,387 architects in 1,665 practices, according to RIBA London, the regional body representing members of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
So, given that we are suffering the worst recession since the 1930s, when the profession was a fraction of its current size, what’s everybody up to?
Those not commuting between the capital and the Gulf States, or the rapidly emerging powerhouses that are the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations, are probably under-employed and with spare time on their hands. Which is why recessions are – sometimes – good for architecture: creative minds are applied to solve local issues and often with the active participation of end-users.
Two RIBA London shows, one at Somerset House on the Strand, the other at RIBA Headquarters, at 66 Portland Place, are reasons to rejoice. What is so cool about the first, called Forgotten Spaces, is that it is sheltered within Sir William Chambers’ own forgotten spaces – the light-wells and coalholes surrounding the Edmond J Safra Fountain Court and the hidden subterranean passage, known as the Deadhouse.
Here are 28 original proposals for overlooked sites in Greater London, from the discreet to the grandiose, submitted through open competition by artists, architects, engineers, designers and local groups, and selected from 138 entries. There are four overlapping themes: Play, Growing, Civic and Uninhabited Spaces. Projects which have been realised elsewhere, such as the De Hofbogen in Rotterdam and New York’s High Line, have clearly been models for several of this year’s submissions.
They range from do-it-yourself apiaries, using a mixture of discarded materials, to ambitious plans to drain St Saviour’s Dock in Bermondsey and transform it into Fagan’s Den, an amphitheatre and beach. Fire Pits, an international festival of food and music at Crystal Palace, received one of the Commendations, while a fish ladder for the River Wandle in Wandsworth (no, I’d never heard of it, either) was another imaginative response to a real eyesore.
Third Prize went to Henry Williams and Stanton Williams for their treatment of Highgate railway station (one of many railway-based ideas), and Second Prize to Steve McCoy for an urban climbing tunnel re-using an existing deep-level air raid shelter that runs under Clapham High Street.
Also worthy of note are plans to create Hogarth Eyot at what is currently Hogarth Roundabout, thereby reconnecting Chiswick north and south of the urban motorway that is the A4 Great West Road; the puny flyover, by the way, was a ‘temporary’ measure adopted in 1969. A couple of schemes for Lots Road (they include a Cathedral of Alchemy); the disused eastbound surface platform at South Kensington tube station; and a flower toilet at Sydney Street, between Fulham Road and King’s Road, Chelsea, are worthy of note.
But First Prize, deservedly, went to Alex Scott-Whitby, creative director of Studio AR, for [IN]Spire. His brilliant idea is to turn many of the belfries in unused and under-used City churches (there are 51) into low-cost studios for creative types. His own is at the top of the Church of St Mary Woolnoth in Lombard Street. His eyrie is photographed to remind us of Albrecht Durer’s St Jerome in his Study of 1514.
The second exhibition was the inaugural Architecture Open show at RIBA Headquarters which ended on 4 November. It included 66 entries from nearly 200 submitted by London architects – conceptual projects, drawings, models and sculptures. Memorable pieces included Ian McChesney’s ‘Loss’, a model of a 3m high scooped-out ball of flame-charred plywood; several façade treatments by Brady Mallalieu Architects (the practice of RIBA President Angela Brady) and Duggen Morris Architects for theirs of a new learning centre; and Misha Smith’s ‘musical machine’, an extraordinary wall-mounted display of what looked like eight primitive shields, but which – via a laptop – produced sounds in response to the viewer’s movement.
All credit, then, to RIBA London director, Tamsie Thomson, for Somerset House; and to Jessame Cronin and Antonia Faust for curating Gallery One at 66 Portland Place.