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Fringe Report is now closed. Fringe Report closed on its 10th anniversary, Thursday 12 July 2012. It remains online as a record of 10 exciting years in the arts. Till July 2013, previously unwritten content is being added to the site from the past 10 years, but we are no longer reviewing new material. You can still write to us on the existing email addresses. Good luck with your shows.
A Tale of Two Streets
by Teva Hesse
Designers are obsessive about the visual appearance of urban environments, and while the best create beautiful set pieces, they often completely miss the point. Most urban spaces are successful not because of how they look, but because of how they are used. The interest lies in what London's public spaces tell us about ourselves, the mirror they hold up to our habits and desires. There are numerous instances where skilled designers have created wonderful places - I'm thinking about Broadgate, More London or the exquisite Barbican; crisp and new 'designed' landscapes crop up all the time - but these are all a bit like expensive kitchen showrooms - clean and lovely when viewed through storefronts, but sterile and awkward to inhabit.
Let's face it; most of London is depressingly ugly. Despite the rigours of the planning system, this city is an exceedingly haphazard conglomeration of individual districts and buildings, linked by a crazed circulation network. That's also what's wonderful about it, and what makes it so easy to love. Unlike the more homogenous (and more beautiful) Paris, there is the thrill of potential and possibility that hangs over every part of London; it is, to a greater degree than most European capitals, a work in progress. Happily the same goes for its inhabitants; you'd be hard-pressed to find a more diverse and open-minded public anywhere.
London's fabric is a tapestry of uneven texture and quality. Look objectively at your neighbourhood, chances are you'll see some amazing places, and others you habitually disregard. You instinctively avoid certain areas, even if this means taking the long way around. Another aspect that makes London so intriguing is that when navigating through an area which is downright miserable, there are often small pockets of real enchantment. Take a detour into a mews or chance down an unknown street and prepare to be drawn into a small universe which has the potential to become, or already is, quite wonderful.
One more initial consideration: the primary space of London, or indeed any town or city is the street. I don't mean to ignore expansive, leafy parks or grand structures like Westminster Tube Station or St Paul's Cathedral. But in comparison with the amount of space and activity that is allotted to streets, all other urban spaces are simply insignificant. Take, for example, Islington Green. Compare the area given over to traffic lanes and pedestrian pavements, against the grassy island centre. Now count the people sitting, strolling, waiting, working or socialising on these perimeter streets compared to the green common. I have nothing against soggy grass or flowery beds, but the realisation comes as bit of a shock. It's not the square, but the bordering streets. To be sure all great cities need their central parks for fresh air, recreation and mega-festivals, but daily urban life plays out on your everyday, mundane street. By way of analogy, consider the number of cells of your body that belong to the circulation system: veins, arteries, blood, heart and lungs, compared to cells of other persuasions and you'll see my point. They connect everything and make it all work. Their general function is to allow other specialised tissues to live and grow.
One can carry the biological metaphor too far; while streets perform a necessary circulatory function, allowing the free - or, in the case of London, congested - movement of goods and services, consider this: streets do not link spaces in our cities: they are the spaces in our cities. Deprive them of social life and you fragment your environment into discrete and unconnected entities.
Now a simple fact: people inhabit edges, preferring neither the open windswept plain nor claustrophobic interiors. We are cling-ons, drawn to situations which balance between an open view, but immediate to a secure retreat. We seek both protection and advantage. This is probably an evolutionary imprint: in the middle of a wide expanse we were easy prey, but to remain in closed quarters was to deny existence. We move through space as if our path is deflected by a kind of sticky gravity, drawn to the edges of things: that's where café tables lie in wait, shop windows beckon, ledges provide purchase. Watch any space arbitrarily fill up with people and it's always from the edges towards the open centre, never the other way around.
And finally the subject: Two Streets. I've taken two of nearly equal length and orientation. My choice is slightly arbitrary: I've chosen them as I cycle the full length of them on most workdays, as part of my daily commute. In many ways they illustrate my intentions imperfectly, but this is not an exact science. I am aware that there are different types of streets, local and arterial, intimate and monumental. These are similar in being local London streets, and neither leads to or from anywhere exceptional.
Lambs Conduit Street. While the name conjures images of sheep being herded down this route to their slaughter, the name prosaically derives from William Lamb who in 1577 who improved the water conduit that supplied the area. Its design today is not exceptional; it's certainly over-bollarded in its middle section which is traffic-calmed so as to allow only cyclists and commercial vehicles. While traffic engineers have done untold damage to most of this city, in this case they've removed nearly all through traffic, which is quite a blessing. Consider at once the generosity of the pavements, the trees recently planted and the diversity of shops that are sustained on this minor road. There's only single chain store, which I won't bother naming. (While doing a quick web search of this street, I came across a video essay in Monacle magazine which, of all the streets in Europe, picked Lambs Conduit Street to cover in their September 2009 issue! Imagine my horror, having considered this article for some time, at being beaten to the punch. However after listening to their story, I had nothing to worry about. Once again nothing more than advertisements of individual shops, masquerading as architectural and lifestyle journalism!)
And here's where the previous discussion of edges comes in handy. The edge of this street creates eddies where people congregate easily, there are plenty of outdoor seating areas (under global warming lamps), pub overspills on the corners, but also cyclists stopping at the bicycle shop to pump their tyres, and some unusual windows to browse. The successful shops and restaurants are usually those where the real edge of the street goes inside, down one side wall and back out the other; creating an inside-outside zone which extends the street edge, becomes the street edge. Passers-by can peer inside, and customers within can view the street. This is a street of voyeurs, everyone able to watch each other, which is what creates such a social and comfortable space.
I could enrich my practice if I could only connect with those restaurant and shop owners that try to entice customers with signs pointing into murky interiors. The default commercial layout is goods or tables along the side walls, a clear space down the middle to allow views within and without, and lots of plate glass to the street. There are some textbook examples on Lamb's Conduit Street. English Heritage might have raised objections to the erosion of the ground floor façades of these buildings, but there aren't many buildings worthy of their attention. I appreciate the surrounding architecture of the street, including some very good buildings from the 1960s and later, but none of them really flies above the radar. (There are poor ones as well, such as the Metropolitan Police building on the corner of Theobalds Road). Most buildings are competent without being noteworthy. If they were clad in limestone or half-timbered and dating from before the Great Fire, the street might appear on more postcards, but hardly work better. To sum up, Lamb's Conduit Street has mediocre architecture and landscape, interesting shops and excellent edges.
Unlike Lamb's Conduit Street, Chancery Lane has all the advantages. It is historic, gives its name to a nearby tube station, and merits its very own Conservation Area. 'Chancery Lane' conjures up a quaintness mixed with the weighty justice of an Empire. Indeed several venerable institutions stand along its length: the Law Society, buildings of Lincoln's Inn and the Maughan Library of King's College. With such a great assortment of architecture, hints of grandeur and charm, it should be a real treat - but it disappoints immediately.
Chancery Lane is dense but strangely lifeless. The continual flow of vehicles, owing to the lack of cross traffic, would justify renaming this street 'Chancery Conduit' which could initiate a mutual designation swap with 'Lamb's Lane'. Despite endless road works, the centre of the street is a convenient one-way thoroughfare for motorists, which inhibits the creators of cohesive city life known as pedestrians. There are several clothing stores in the middle that cater to legal professionals, but otherwise high rents have squeezed out all retail enterprises except chains and private clubs. The staffed reception lobbies of commercial buildings broadcast an unmistakable message: guarded hospitality for the invited, disregard to all others.
So if you're a resident or tenant who profits from the concentration of legal institutions on Chancery Lane, please excuse my summary judgement of your street. It has lovely architecture, but abysmal edges, very little variety and confounds any sense of civic space. It creates a poorer environment by far in a direct comparison to Lamb's Conduit Street.
As long as we consider streets as spaces to move through rather than to move within, as spaces to circulate rather than to congregate, we resign our urban environment to a kind of mediocrity - even if the design of the surrounding buildings and landscape is fabulous. Consider what life can take place outside buildings, what the internal and external edges can do to hold and stimulate the experiences of the city. The sight of a beautiful and well-detailed building can be an uplifting experience, adding to the ambience of a place and conveying professional pride and aspiration for architects and designers. Yet undoubtedly designers labour for a disproportionate amount of time on things that are of minor importance, and fail to promote several issues that really matter.
A successful public realm is dependent on considered design, but other concerns, some outside the designer's scope of work, should take centre stage. Is public outdoor space supported by flexible ground floor internal space? Are rents moderate enough to support local shops and dampen the viral commercial imperative that destroys so many London streets? Does the traffic engineering favour motorists at the expense of pedestrians? Do the edges of buildings integrate with the street and promote good visibility for all? Do locals and visitors have spare time and spare income to patronise and inhabit these spaces?
London is lucky in that its population is gregarious and staunchly loyal to group pleasures. An environment quickly becomes impoverished when its inhabitants cannot come together easily and agreeably. Streets such as Lamb's Conduit have encouraged a very positive kind of outdoor activity, where all civic architecture is essentially only a backdrop for life between buildings. In so doing, this humble street points in a welcome and alternative direction to environments that are so mismanaged that most of us become transients of one type or another.
(c) Teva Hesse 17 October 2009
Notes: Teva Hesse is an architect living in London UK. He writes: 'This essay owes a debt of recognition to JB Jackson and his 1954 essay in Landscape magazine entitled "Two Street Scenes". To those unfamiliar with Jackson's work, suffice it to say that he is widely credited as being both the originator of cultural landscape studies, and the hippest of college professors, trekking between coasts on motorbike to teach alternate semesters at Berkeley and Harvard. I had the pleasure of knowing him in his later years, and his uncommon common sense and insight into everyday landscapes remains an inspiration.'
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