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No clean slate

In the first of our new-look Canteen Conversations, we explored the messy stuff of urban life and whether by embracing rather than erasing it, we can create richer new pieces of the city.

Our latest Canteen Conversation took place on Thursday March 7. Guest speakers included Sharon Giffen, Head of Design at the Earls Court Development Company, writer and teacher Shumi Bose, Liza Fior, principal at muf architecture, editor and publisher Tim Abrahams, and Darryl Chen, Urban design lead at Hawkins\Brown. The conversation was facilitated by Dave Hill former Guardian London editor and founder of website, On London.

Darryl kicked off by asking whether it was possible to shift mindsets from ‘minimising the abnormals’ on a site to ‘maximising the novel’.

“The first thing we did [at Earls Court] was to really look at working with what we were left with”, says Sharon Giffen. “The exhibition centre had been demolished, but we had this amazing opportunity to straddle the levels with existing structures and to keep the existing Georgian street which was due to be demolished previously. It brings so much character and a grand entrance to the site.”

At muf, a bespoke approach to public realm allows for appropriation, creative use, and nurturing the possible says Liza Fior: Only by asking what’s there can we define what’s missing. It avoids the unintended consequences of projecting a vision on a place which casts shadows on the open spaces, creates wind tunnels or displaces the very things that have been defined as being valuable.”

Tim Abrahams is concerned that too much emphasis is placed on the physical context and not enough on the social: “I think about the area where I live and the development that’s happening around cities like Bicester and there is no historical richness. We need to build a hell of a lot of stuff in the coming years; as much as it’s great to hear about these relationships that are unfolding in an urban context, I wonder where the housing that we desperately need is going to come from. We’re going to have to build stuff that does not have context.”

Architect Robert Evans agreed that there was a tendency to only talk about the physical and related his experience at Kings Cross with Argent: “I think one of the things that we got better at over time at Kings Cross was focusing on the cultural, the memories and the stories. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful force in cities.”

Sharon Giffen said: “Local people talked about the buzz that the exhibition centres and the events brought to the area – from punk rockers and Bowie fans in the 70s, to the Boat Show and the Ideal Home exhibition. The word ‘wonder’ was repeatedly mentioned and so we created our vision to bring the wonder back to Earls Court . We want to put this part of West London back on the map, through a vibrant mix of uses, fantastic green public spaces and showcasing innovation and culture – to create a better piece of city.”


Vicky Richardson, Head of Architecture, at the Royal Academy of Arts said that we should be less precious about the current context and focus on creating the context for the future: “Most of what we value now was the product of hugely radical development in the 19th century, the imposition of infrastructure, the railways and housing. Isn’t it our responsibility now to make the context for 100 years’ time, so that people are really valuing the stuff that we have created today? That should be expressive of some kind of faith in the future?”

Wrapping up Darryl said: “I think what we need to be doing is forming a continuity between the past and the future. That’s what a lot of modern housing estates get wrong. There’s no adaptability of house types. There aren’t enough shared spaces, and so the ways that an area can evolve are quite limited.

“It’s incumbent on good developers and designers to make sure that there is that adaptability and a sense of agency for the people that will live there, to shape the vision and continue to shape it over time.”


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