Monday, 7 April 2014

Olympic Park revisited

Off to see the Olympic Park, on the weekend that the south part of the park opens to the public on completion of the work that transformed it from 'games mode' to 'legacy mode'.

There is plenty to admire and a few things to carp about, but in general terms the two most striking aspects of what has been achieved are (1) the fact that it has happened at all, and (2) the fact that it has been carefully designed and properly funded, with no obvious signs of 'value engineering' (but neither is there pointless extravagance).

With London under huge pressure to grow within its borders, it is very hard to find opportunities for new open space of any size, let alone such a large expanse as this - and it only happened here because of the enormous funding made available to clean up a century's worth of pollution, ill considered infrastructure and then neglect over much of this area - which in turn only happened because of the Olympics, but which has delivered a major public asset in a place where it is needed, and effectively in perpetuity, in a way that has not often been achieved as a result of Olympic games elsewhere.  Compare the scale of what has happened here with the open space on offer in other regeneration areas - usually at best a 'linear park', for which read a slightly wider than usual street with some shrubs in it.

My principal general criticism of the approach taken here to the design of the new park is that it appears over-programmed and over-designed, with not enough space left as simple expanses of grass and trees available for quiet enjoyment (and relatively cheap to maintain) - a mistake avoided at one of the first and still one of the best of a new wave of 'regeneration parks', the Parc Andre Citroen in Paris, where the more complicated and programmed elements are arranged around a big lawn.   At the Olympic Park it feels as if they have put too much thought into just what kind of fun you ought to be having.

It is pleasing to see Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre as it was meant to be seen at last, without the bingo wings that it displayed during the games. The nearby helter skelter - presumably, I hope, temporary - did make me wonder at first why she couldn't have been persuaded to turn her hand to a version of this funfair attraction.. But when you compare her Aquatics Centre with Hopkins Architects' Velodrome, you can see that it is they who should have been asked to handle the pure geometry of the helter-skelter; Hadid would be your choice for the Big Dipper.  Horses for courses is an important subject in architect selection.

It was disappointing to find that while the roads through the park, some quite busy, have been engineered in the modern, enlightened, pedestrian-friendly manner, with no barriers and straight line crossings, one finds as one gets close to the Westfield shopping centre to the east of the park that things change within the space of a few metres.  Here one finds oneself in a zone where a completely different set of old-school highways rules have been applied, with a forest of posts and clutter denser and more instantly mature than any of the new planting in the park could hope to be - and the pedestrian relegated to second class citizen, as they used to be.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Sense of PLACE at the Grosvenor Estate, Page Street

'Place' is meant to be important now - so important that it has been promoted to capital letters in the Farrell review.

But the endless blethering about 'sense of place' that fills today's planning documents can be tiring, because no one is able go on to explain what on earth it might be - or, for example, how you could hope to provide it in a new social housing scheme.

There's no question that it's important, though.  And you know it when you see it.

One of the weirdest housing developments in London can be found at Lutyens' Grosvenor Estate housing around Page Street in Westminster, only 500m or so from Parliament.  Weird and wonderful, that is.  Built in 1929-35, well into Lutyens later, more classical / imperial phase, it provides one of the most surreal streetscapes in London.  Long, repetitive, parallel U-shaped blocks, end on to the street, have deck access around the three inner faces. The surreal quality comes from the combination of severe repetition of the blocks themselves and of the chequerboard pattern applied to their outer faces.

Between the wings of housing along the street frontages are elegant single storey pavilions, containing shops and other facilities; these are given fancy classical detailing that is largely absent from the housing itself, a nice touch  - while such embellishments might have been pompous on the housing, they are charming on the pavilions, elevating them several notches above the mundane  - and rendering them just about strong enough to accommodate the exigencies of later commercial signage...

Spend some time here on a quiet, sunny day - or even a rainy one - and you can experience at least one example of how a sense of place has been achieved.

It probably won't help you achieve it anywhere else, though.