Monthly Archives: September 2009

Highbury Stadium to Highbury Square

The new residential development of Highbury Stadium, the former Arsenal football stadium was officially launched on 24 September. Designed by Allies and Morrison Architects and built by Sir Robert McAlpine for Arsenal Football Club, the renamed Highbury Square is a curious and unique development that appears both livable and preserves a bit of the site’s history. The blocks of flats are arranged as the North, South, East, and West stands were.

The grade II listed Art Deco façade of the East Stand fronting Avenell Road remains in tact in red and white. The football pitch remains green and is now landscaped communal gardens. I like this development because it is designed like a community centred around green space and at the same time, you can still see the site’s previous life – it still resembles a football stadium. It probably serves to fulfil some childhood dreams of actually living in a stadium – it is fun and memorable and more importantly is a great re-use and regeneration of a site that could have otherwise fallen derelict or could have become another faceless concrete block, absent of foliage and absent of any joy and pride of living there.

I was used to big, island-like structures for sports grounds, more prevalent in North America, which can be circumnavigated and accessed from all sides and angles (much like the new Emirates Stadium) and so I always found Highbury Stadium to be a curious location. It is nestled behind rows of small Victorian terraced houses, and aside from the imposing East Stand, it is alluded to only by the entrance walkway at the north end on Gillespie Road (through a gap between nos. 115 and 121) across from Arsenal tube station and the West Stand entrance under an arch at 137-139 Highbury Hill. The new design retains a bit of this coziness. Hopefully, for its residents, Highbury Square will be the place for many more wins at home.

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Today’s High Street Was Brought To You By…

Merchant Square, BowIs it just me or does anyone cringe a little at the sight of yet another Tesco popping up on our high streets? Tesco is certainly a leader when it comes to convenience and inexpensive groceries. When one of its Express formats took occupancy on the ground floor of a new apartment block on Bow Road, I too heralded the convenience – it was handily within walking distance of home, well-situated between Mile End and Bow Road tube stations.

Upon further reflection, convenience is peeled back to reveal something akin to a stealth army dominating a settlement. Less than a mile away to the east, there is already a Tesco Superstore on Hancock Road near the Bow Flyover. Just over a mile to the north, off Roman Road, there are plans to redevelop a former Safeway site into a large block of flats with the requisite Tesco Metro on the ground floor. As if this wasn’t enough, what really moved me to write this piece was the discovery that Tesco had submitted an application to convert and occupy a disused furniture showroom in Wickham House, the former Wickham Department Store on Mile End Road. Wickham House is part architectural gem, part curious folly with an interesting history which is deserving of its own separate post. In the context here, a redevelopment of such a large, prominent building could yield something creative and enhance the section of Mile End Road on which it dominates. But the insertion of another Tesco, cut from the same corporate mold, would be uninspired.

Landlords love big corporate tenants like Tesco. It is an established company with a long trading history and strong financials which translates into a fairly certain and probably generous rental income. But at what cost is this to the neighbourhood? Without a doubt the presence of a Tesco supermarket increases competitive pressures on local independent or smaller retailers.

The wide-windowed Tesco store front on Bow Road does nothing to add character or interest to the street. It doesn’t help create a sense of community. Consumers enter anonymously, quickly pick up what they need, and they leave. Absent is the recognition of the familiar faces of repeat customers. Absent is a shop-owner’s unique perspective on what should be stocked for the season. Absent are the displays of fresh fruits and vegetables that we used to frequently see outside our neighbourhood shops. Instead it is pre-packaged, plastic, and uniform.

In another post, I’ll be writing about how grand parts of Bow Road used to be before it became the faceless thoroughfare it now is. No one stops on Bow Road, except for local commuters hurrying home to their new cookie-cutter flats and the National Express coach to Stansted. Bow Road is simply the section one must travel through to get from the City to Stratford and the East of England. And that itself is an important feature, as Bow Road figures in the High Street 2012 project, an ambitious plan by the project partners Tower Hamlets Council, Newham Council, London Development Agency and Design for London, Transport for London, London Thames Gateway Development Corporation, and English Heritage. They endeavour to improve the stretch of road from Aldgate to Stratford, to connect communities, to enhance public spaces and green areas, and to create an Olympic boulevard leading to the site of the 2012 Olympic Games. Tesco is not a sponsor of the London Olympics, but given its rate of expansion it appears to be a sponsor of the high street.

London Park Hotel

Earlier this year in August, I participated in a design course at the London College of Communication in Elephant and Castle, south-east London. I had rarely spent any time in that area previously, so I saw the opportunity to explore the neighbourhood during my lunch break. I recalled, from a couple years back, that a friend of mine had been interested in a new residential development near the Elephant and Castle roundabout. I couldn’t remember the name of the development, but remembered some hint of it being planned on the site of a former hotel. A quick walk in the vicinity, heading south away from the roundabout yielded a development site, hidden from the public eye by the usual construction hoardings. Ground had not yet been broken and there was no sign of any new housing other than posters for the developer, First Base. Further research on the internet revealed an immense amount of history of what pre-dated the empty lot.

Notable development began on the site in the late 1890s. A Rowton House, the fifth of six large working men’s hostels in London, was built by philanthropist Lord Rowton on Newington Butts in 1897. Standing at six storeys tall and overlooking St. Mary’s churchyard, it opened with 805 beds available for the cost of 6d (six pence, before decimalisation of British money, 240 pence made a pound) per night. Its design and layout followed roughly the same basic structure as previously constructed Rowton Houses. The ground floor and basement contained the entrance hallway, as well as common areas such as the dining hall, smoking lounge, reading room, and lavatories and amenities such as a barber’s shop, shoemaker’s and tailor’s rooms, clothes and boot cleaning rooms, and post and parcels room. The barber, shoemaker, and tailor were most likely lodgers themselves. The upper floors contained private cubicles, each of which contained a bed, chair, shelf, and a chamber pot. Lodgers had the option of purchasing food in the dining hall ranging from 1d (one penny) for small items such as pudding, rice, and mince pies to 8d (eight pence) for beef and chops or cook their own food. In 1903, the building was extended, increasing the number of beds to more than 1,000. In 1960, the building was renamed Parkview House until 1967.

In 1972, the building was converted to use as a tourist hotel and five-foot-tall red letters, erected on the roof, clearly announced its new name – the London Park Hotel. The building looked iconic and continued to operate until 1982. In 1992, a 40-something-year-old property entrepreneur, Firoz Kassam, acquired the hotel. A contract with the Home Office to provide accommodation to over 600 asylum seekers proved to be more lucrative than marketing to tourists. From here, the condition of the building and the experience of its residents went downhill. In an article in the Observer newspaper in July 2000, residents are described as having “nothing to do but hang around in groups around the building or watch TV. It is illegal for them to work, and none receives any state handouts other than food and board.” One occupant comments that he “cannot even get a haircut or a pair of shoes.” This was a stark contrast to its Rowton House beginnings, when lodgers were not allowed in the room from nine o’clock in the morning until six or seven in the evening and haircutting and shoemaking services were available within the building. The hotel attracted violence as clashes arose amongst residents. The building became fraught with crime and drugs and experienced serious social decline. A report published by the Sunday Mirror in 2002, pointed to child trafficking and prostitution rings led by people residing in the hotel, with meetings and illegal trades of stolen property frequently occurring in the hotel lobby. It is unclear when exactly the hotel ceased operating, but a search through planning applications for sites in the vicinity seem to indicate the hotel was being sold in 2003. The current owners, English Partnerships jointly with developer First Base, submitted an application to redevelop the site, which was approved in 2007. The building was finally demolished in Spring 2008. All that remains is an empty lot and the five-foot-tall red letters which featured in an anagram competition run in conjunction with the London Festival of Architecture in June and July 2008.

Planning permission and demolition occurred amidst the current recession and a dearth of property and construction financing appears to have halted any progress on the project. Although the hotel went through some very dark times in recent years, it is another piece of colourful London history lost. Rowton House in Newington Butts was one of a set of six in London. Only two remain – Tower House on Fieldgate Street near Whitechapel, which was converted to flats for rent in 2007 and Arlington House on Arlington Road in Camden, the fate of which is yet to be decided. Arlington House was the sixth built in London and last one operating as a men’s hostel. It continued to be operated as a hostel by housing group Novas and was in the midst of refurbishment when it was put up for sale in 2008.

Derelict buildings, the more chequered their history the better, are particularly interesting for urban explorers, who visit and document these buildings on their forums and websites, often with stunning low-light photography, before the building’s demise or transformation. The first of such urban exploration (“urbex”) docu-galleries I came across was Contamination Zone’s visit to the London Park Hotel.

The most curious thing about this building is the stream of history it was connected to and the other connections it led to. From working men’s hostel to tourist hotel to asylum-seekers’ refuge to crime den to redevelopment dream to rubble to Rowton sibling to urban exploration. It spans so many areas of interest – Victorian philanthropy, tourism, social housing, and issues surrounding regeneration, preservation, and conservation. All this is not immediately visible from the empty lot on Newington Butts, now overgrown with grass and weeds – it requires digging a little deeper.

Useful links:

  1. query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=990DEFDE1638E433A25750C0A9679C94699ED7CF
  2. http://www.workhouses.org.uk/RowtonNewington/RowtonNewington.shtml
  3. http://www.contaminationzone.com/Gallery37.php
  4. http://www.lfa2008.org/event.php?id=169&name=London+Park+Hotel+Anagram+Competition
  5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2000/jul/09/immigration.immigrationandpublicservices
  6. Making a Fortune: Learning from the Asian Phenomenon By Spinder Dhaliwal. Firoz Kassam is featured in Chapter 5.

In The Public Realm

Last weekend was the annual Open House in London.  Over 700 buildings and spaces were made available to the general public, with free access to some that are normally limited to their owners or occupants and guided tours by architects, historians, or people closely involved with the spaces.  One such space I visited was the Hothouse in London Fields, Hackney.  Hothouse will be highlighted in another post because it is its tenant and one of its products that feature today.

Hothouse, London Fields, HackneyThe Hothouse is home to Free Form, a non-for-profit organisation whose tagline is “making artwork for the environment”.  Operating as a registered charity, Free Form provides services including the provision and commission of public art, regeneration projects, solutions for creating safer communities and public spaces,  manufacture and use of recycled glass through its Green Bottle Unit, training and learning programmes, and workspace within Hothouse for artists and designers.  One of such example of Free Form’s art in the public realm is a seating and performance space in Bishops Square, Spitalfields, E1 in East London.  Bishops Square is Hammerson’s office building development on the site straddled on the west by the City and on the east by Spitalfields, East London.  The forecourt in front of the office buildings is a leafy, open public right of way with raised green grassy patches, a rectangular pond-like water feature (complete with beautiful lilies and lily pads), reinforced glass floors revealing the archaeological history beneath the site, and sheltering the seating and performance space – a triangular sail-like pavilion.  Two half circle benches for seating under the pavilion are illuminated by an inner and outer circle of 48 recycled glass inlaid roundels, which are lit by fibre optics and linked to a colour wheel.  The lights change from blue to green, illuminating the space.

Yesterday, I witnessed something pretty special and unique taking place in this performance area.  It was a fabulously sunny Sunday, probably one of the last sunny days of the English summer.  Bishops Square, as well as Spitalfields Market, Brick Lane, and the Truman Brewery, was filled with people.  They were gathered around a band, as the musicians set-up and tuned their instruments.  My boyfriend, Colm and I sat down to have a break from our market browsing, but leapt to our feet as the band opened with a rather sexy deep bassline.  I stood on the stone kerb on which we had been sitting to get a better look.  Five musicians were positioned under the pavilion – two drummers, an electric bassist, a double bassist, and a saxophonist.

Mustard PieI had not seen a band configuration like this before and they had my attention.  They sounded great, interesting, sexy, and slick.  We walked up closer and around the performance area looking for a banner, sign, CDs for sale, anything that would give a clue as to who this band was, but there was nothing.  I posed the following question to Colm – “why is it that we are sure to be told the names, addresses, and birthdays of the crappest bands, yet there is nothing to tell us who this great band is?”  His response was “because they don’t need to make money”.  Not exactly right.  Instead I found out that the true answer was that anyone who knew anything about the local jazz scene, knew who these guys were.  I went up to a guy in a white T-shirt perched on one of the boxes behind the sound engineer and tapped him on the shoulder.  “Excuse me, who are these guys?” I asked him.  Over the loud and resonating bass and drums (double dose of each no less!) he told me that one of the drummers was from a band called Polar Bear, there were also members of Led Bib, and he told me the name of the saxophonist – Jan, but I couldn’t quite catch the surname.  He informed me that the five musicians were improvising.  At the end of the piece, the drummer (not the one from Polar Bear) got on his microphone and thanked everyone for listening.  He introduced the band and mentioned that it was the first time they had played together as a unit.  I certainly hoped it wouldn’t be the last time.  Back at the flat, Colm looked up Polar Bear and found Seb Rochford’s name and image on the internet.  I looked up Led Bib and found out it was led by its drummer, Mark Holub.  With help from the wonder and power of the internet, I was led to Jan Kopinski’s myspace blog.

Led Bib and friendsThe quintet was comprised of drum and bass team from Polar Bear – Seb Rochford and Tom Herbert, the drummer and bassist from Led Bib – Mark Holub and Liran Donin, and Jan Kopinski on saxophone.  Together, announced Jan’s blog, they were Mustard Pie.  Both Polar Bear and Led Bib were Mercury Music Award nominees, in 2005 and 2009, respectively and deservedly so it would appear.  I was fortunate enough to experience something very unique – it was creative, dynamic, and incredibly cohesive for five artists collaborating for the first time.  The music and sounds, the interwoven chords, riffs, and musical patterns were talent and musicianship in its rawest form.  I was in awe and I was inspired.

To say that it felt like a magical place to be is no exaggeration.  It was a public space used to its greatest capacity.  Art and music together in the public realm, for everyone and anyone to enjoy free of charge.

Look Up, Look Around

Bringing you news and stories about the built environment, communities, sustainable development, and just about anything related to buildings, public places, and green spaces.  When you’re out and about, remember to look up and look around.