Monthly Archives: October 2009

Look Up, Look Around #3

On Rue des Saint-PèresI went to Paris and Versailles last weekend with Colm.  We spotted this building in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, which I thought was eye-catching.  On the side of a building on Rue des Saint-Pères, just north of Rue de Verneuil, it appears to be a screen, to protect the corridor in the building from birds flying through it.  I like how something with a practical purpose, was designed and made to be aesthetically interesting and pleasing to the eye.  It captures attention in a positive way.  It is simple, yet makes a great impact compared to what a boring screen and plain wall might have done (or not done).

Paris is one of my favourite cities and I have been trying to visit for a weekend at least once a year.  I have been many times before – sometimes to see the sights, sometimes for work or to visit friends, and always for the food and drink.  On this visit, we went to Versailles for the first time.  The palace and the gardens are immense, which does not sufficiently describe it.  At a later date, time permitting, I’ll post some more thoughts and images of the Château de Versailles.  However, a top tip for dining in Versailles, which we figured out a bit too late, is to head towards the market (Place du Marché Notre Dame).  The perimeter of the market is lined with a wide variety of wonderful looking bistros, restaurants, cafés, and bars.  We also figured out it probably made more sense to visit a patisserie or boulangerie and pick up a baguette or some delicious pastries to take back to the hotel (or in months with warm, sunny weather, to have outside in a park), rather than search high and low for some place to sit down for breakfast.  It was far more cost-effective (no seating in the patisseries and boulangeries mean low overhead costs and more affordable products).

As for dining in Paris, I got an excellent recommendation from a friend to try Bistro Volnay on Rue du Volney, near Place Vendôme in the 2nd arrondissement.  Definitely for game lovers and carnivores, with an excellent and affordable wine list.  On Sunday we went to Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur and Montmartre.  We ended the weekend rather pleasantly in London, watching Amélie the film (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) so that we could retrace our steps at Sacre Coeur as Amélie led Nino on a bit of a goose chase.


1000 days and 18 years: London 2012 Olympic Park

Today marks the 1000-day countdown until the start of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. It is very timely that I attended a presentation last night by the planning and design firm that led the creation of the Olympic Masterplan Framework.

A team from EDAW (rebranded this month as AECOM), which led a consortium including HOK Sports, Allies and Morrison, and Foreign Office Architects, presented the immense regeneration project being undertaken by its client, the London Development Agency. It was a confidently delivered overview summarising the project that was incepted in 2002 as part of London’s bid for the Olympics and, following London’s selection in 2005, evolved into a plan with full permission in 2007. The evening’s talk began with a caveat that the Masterplan Framework was presently under review with the Olympic Park Legacy Company (“OPLC”), the corporation established by the Government and the LDA to manage the future estate post-games.

The team very eloquently described the challenges faced by the site historically. The Lower Lea Valley is the meeting point of the Boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and Newham, three boroughs that have some of the most deprived areas of the city. The Lea Navigation, rooted by the Lea River and its canal systems, and the predominantly industrial use of the land created a desolate no-man’s land that separated Bow to the west from Stratford to the east. The options to cross it tended to be vehicular – by car or bus over the Bow Flyover, by DLR, by rail, or bypassing it entirely underground from Mile End to Stratford on the Central Line. Attempts to improve accessibility seem ad hoc and insufficient. The Greenway is a path set over the Northern Outfall Sewer, lined on either side with green patches, and is meant to link the Lower Lea Valley to the Bow Backwaters and Stratford. Lack of sufficient use and pedestrian traffic made it susceptible to litter and dumping. Lack of maintenance and security made it appear unappealing and unsafe. The same can be said about the canal paths along the Lea Navigation, some of which are now inaccessible due to the OP construction works. These seemed to have improved somewhat with the peripheral development in the Boroughs around the OP fringe. But such development, as was also pointed out by the EDAW presenters, has been varied and not cohesive with an overall strategy. The property boom up to 2007 attracted opportunistic developers that have built tall, dense apartment blocks on whatever small patches of land they could get their hands on. It is curious that the EDAW-consortium’s Masterplan Framework contains a significant amount of high density housing, one of the areas met with criticism from the OPLC. One of the changes that could be already considered is the reduction of the number of tall buildings and the increase in family homes (with 3 or more bedrooms and gardens).

The mixed feelings expressed by London residents about the development of the area comes as no surprise. Many people are concerned that regeneration of the area will impair local businesses, that there will be an inadequate provision of affordable and social housing on the legacy site, that significant amounts of taxpayers’ money will be expended on an event viewed as short-term, benefiting few, and that the ambitious plans to redevelop the area will fail miserably or be of limited success.

Rather than be cynical about the ambitious project, I see major opportunities for the area and the challenges and outside forces being imposed upon it, must be addressed head-on.

Stratford City

I mentioned Stratford City, Westfield’s large shopping centre development, in a previous post. Westfield’s plan pre-dated the securing of the London Olympics and it could prove to be an enormous benefit to the area or become a monster. I think it will increase the attractiveness of living in Stratford, Bow, and Hackney given the proximity of these communities to a convenient retail and hospitality area. However, following last night’s presentation, I have a greater appreciation of the impact Stratford City could have on the legacy Olympic site, Stratford Broadway, Roman Road in Bow, and other local high streets in the vicinity.

I am interested to see what will happen around Shepherd’s Bush, which was increasingly becoming an unpleasant, unsafe triangle until the significant investment in the Westfield London shopping centre was made. The transport links around Westfield were improved somewhat, but congestion around the Central Line access at Shepherd’s Bush greets visitors or traffic jams by anyone who dares driving to the centre (I support reduced car use in Central London!) The major opponents of Westfield London concerned local retailers, in particular the shopping mall across Shepherd’s Bush Green.

Being a native of Toronto, Canada, I grew up in an environment where shopping was done at a destination shopping centre. But shopping centres co-exist with local neighbourhood shops in Toronto. I believe in providing a balance and choice of retail options to communities – ranging from large stores and high street chains to small businesses and boutiques. Both offer a different shopping experience and range to consumers. But this requires considerable investment, support, and shared knowledge to smaller businesses to enable them to compete. This could come in a number of different forms, ranging from funding, to training and advice, to collective purchasing and shared services. I believe, in conjunction with the larger scale redevelopment at Stratford, local planners and small business bureaus can help local businesses revitalise high streets and create a strong sense of community. This type of anchoring in a community, which encourages people to choose a particular neighbourhood to live and work in is also important to big centres like Stratford City. Embracing the local community, rather than alienating it, may be an important element to its success.

Comparisons to other East London regeneration schemes

There were questions raised last night and comparisons drawn to other regeneration projects in East London that have proven to be problematic, namely the Greenwich Millennium Village and O2 Centre, the Royal Docks, and Canary Wharf. The latter experienced significant difficulty financially and initially attracted corporate occupiers, but wasn’t much of a community. It became more successful in the economic boom as overseas financial institutions poured onto the estate, a greater retail and leisure offering was developed and luxury high-rise flats were built along the riverside. The estate began to experience a life on the weekend, not only during business hours. But the quarter is lacking in cultural attractions and the housing is divisive, with affordable and social housing crammed down the centre of the Isle of Dogs, surrounded by the newer flats around the perimeter. In the midst of the economic crisis, the failure of Lehman Brothers has created void space in their former London headquarters and financial institutions have down-sized dramatically. Development is still progressing at Canary Wharf with the new restaurant openings at Churchill Square including Jamie Oliver’s new Italian outpost. As the geographic name suggests, being situated on the Isle of Dogs, Canary Wharf is effectively on an island. Transport links are limited to the DLR and Jubilee Line. Road access enters the estate at the north end, but must exit in that same direction since there are no road bridges connecting the Isle of Dogs to the other side of the River Thames. The Greenwich Peninsula, on which the former Millennium Dome, now O2 Centre sits, is also effectively an island. Although, connected to the north by the Blackwall Tunnel running under the Thames and served by the Jubilee line, it is surrounded by water except to the south. The Royal Docks practically sits on the outskirts of London. The ExCel exhibition centre attracts trade shows and conferences, hotels and residential development has been prevalent in the area, but large commercial buildings sit empty. The OP, however can be different and estate managers must be careful not to let it slip into an island-like existence. Good pedestrian access, interesting leisure and cultural draws, and good public transport connections are critical to ensure the parkland and new communities are successfully linked to Bow, Hackney, and the rest of Stratford. With the enormous size of the sporting venues that will endure and the mammoth rail hub at Stratford, the OPLC and developers should ensure the area retains a pedestrian-friendly environment, enjoyed in much of Central London. The ability to walk from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, with shops, bars, galleries, parks, and other points of interest at every corner is one of the main draws of London (something that is lacking in a large sprawling city like Toronto for example).

I can see lots of opportunity for the OP post-games as well as ways to leverage off it positively in other neighbourhoods such as Hackney and Bromley-by-Bow which still suffer from high levels of deprivation. The approach must be wholistic and genuine in order to create an environment where people can live, work, play, and enjoy. The development of a large community takes time – the legacy plan extends through to 2020 and beyond to at least 2030. It isn’t just about the next 1000 days.

Look Up, Look Around #2

4 New Street SquareOne of my favourite new buildings in London is 4 New Street Square, the management suite at Land Securities’ New Street Square development, EC4.  Constructed between 2006 and 2008 on the east side of New Fetter Lane, the estate comprises four large office buildings and this smaller, plant-clad box housing the estate management offices and meeting space.  It is beautifully covered with small cubicles and holes from which plants escape.

Musée du quai Branley, Paris, 2006It brings to mind the “Living Wall” at the Musée du Quai Branley in Paris.  And having recently returned from a weekend in Paris, I couldn’t help but notice the immense number of buildings in the French capital that were covered with climbing vines and ivy.  At this time of the year, the leaves are changing to autumnal colours and the effect is beautiful.  Vertical gardening is, in my opinion, aesthetically pleasing and a great way of creating a greener, more nature-filled space.  Colm, my boyfriend, was quick to point out that some ivy and wall-climbing plants can damage brick walls, seeping into cracks, expanding in holes in the mortar until then weaken the structure.  But walls incorporated with plant cubicles might be a good alternative.

New Developments: Masterplanning

Today I went past two areas of significant regeneration – projects that are underway that have already or will change the face of two previously industrial districts into cultural communities in which to live, work, and play.

Olympic Park, Lower Lea Valley, Stratford City Masterplan

I haven’t been past the Olympic Park development in a long while, not since July this year.  I was on my way to Stratford on the DLR from Bow Church and my how things have changed.  The roof structure of the Aquatic Centre is up.  It is not yet clad, but its distinctive wave-like shape is now evident.  The area around Stratford station has changed significantly.  An enormous steel bridge spans the numerous railway lines that travel through Stratford and links the station entrance and town centre to the beginnings of Stratford City, Westfield’s massive shopping centre and mixed use development.  Together with the legacy plan for the Olympic Park, this ambitious regeneration plan of the Lower Lea Valley and Stratford boasts 2.9 million sq ft of retail and leisure space, 6.6 million sq ft of offices, 1.3 million sq ft hotel accommodation, 16,400 new homes, and 180,000 sq ft of community facilities.

Tate Modern, Bankside Masterplan

The Tate Modern, one of my favourite contemporary gallery spaces and an ingeniously redeveloped, regenerated industrial cathedral, is expanding into the space behind the existing gallery.  It is already a frontispiece on the south bank of the River Thames nestled between Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to the east, residential lofts and Blackfriars Bridge to the west.  New office buildings were constructed in the last couple of years on Southwark Street (Blue Fin Building, Bankside Mix), with new shops, restaurants, and bars at street level.  The new Tate Modern extension, in my opinion, will make better use of the inward facing space including beautifully manicured gardens and create a better link from the river to Southwark.  A new residential development, called Neo Bankside.  It is a development joint venture between Native Land and Grosvenor and was designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners.  No longer will Bankside be separate pieces of a puzzle scattered around perimeter streets and thoroughfares as boundaries, with the Tate Modern’s backside snubbing inland Southwark.  It will instead be a neighbourhood, with business, culture, natural outdoor space, and homes co-mingling with the gallery as its centrepiece.

I haven’t yet got into the habit of taking photos as I’m going past things (when it’s not a planned visit), so photos will have to follow in a future update!

Vampire Weekend at KCLSU

Situated in a plum location on the banks of the River Thames, with glorious views of Southbank, the London Eye, and the Oxo Tower, is a fourth floor bar that is no secret. It’s not a members’ club. It’s not a posh, velvet-roped lounge bar. It is the King’s College London Student Union nightclub called Tutu’s.

It has been quite some time since I’ve stepped foot in a student union and my expectations were admittedly mixed. I had tickets to see Vampire Weekend perform staples for the young 20-something crowd from their self-titled album that debuted in 2008 and new songs from their forthcoming album Contra. It had been almost four months since they were last in London, as one of a handful of acts supporting Blur in Hyde Park, and a year minus 10 days since I last saw them playing three sold out gigs at the Forum in Kentish Town. The gig at Tutu’s would be small and far more intimate. Just last week, VW were playing the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in my hometown of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Horseshoe is tiny at a capacity of 350 people. KCLSU, at just less than double that size, was packed tighter than a London Underground carriage at rush hour. 600 sweaty, bouncy kids jumped wildly to the songs they recognised and were a bit more restrained and appreciative to the new and unfamiliar ones. The concert was short, lasting an hour and finishing at 10pm (enough time to squeeze in study group? No, I don’t think so.)

They opened with White Sky, a song from the new album that was a regular feature in their setlist from last year’s concert tour. Oxford Comma, Campus, Blake’s Got a New Face, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, I Stand Corrected, Mansford Roof, and A-Punk were all well-received with their upbeat rhythms and sing-along sections. The set was peppered with a couple of new songs, ska and tribal-beat influenced tunes characterising VW’s style and appeal. They closed with Horchata, their recently released single, and the rousing vampire-escaping Walcott.

Jeremy Warmsley’s Acres, Acres (minus 1 band member!) supported Vampire Weekend and opened the show.  Their sound seemed to be a collaboration of many different and familiar styles – chord progressions reminiscent of Franz Ferdinand’s Dark of the Matinée, tempo changes and ho-down guitar paying homage to folk alternative favourites.  What could have been the worst part of their set, but instead was the best display of musicianship and professionalism, was the piano keyboard failure during their last song.  The sound cut as the Jeremy’s piano chord sequence crescendoed.  They tried again, consulting on stage as to which section to pick it up from, only for the sound to cut in exactly the same place.  The bassist and drum continued to a roar from the crowd.  Jeremy raised his hands in defeat, picked up his guitar and finished the song with emotion and drive, possibly fueld by the frustration of technology.  With this, the band demonstrated maturity and pragmatism – the show must go on – and they ended to a massive cheer and hollar from the audience.

But I digress. This is a blog about buildings, spaces, and environments not music, although I will sneak in the random gig review whilst writing about music venues of note. To find a music venue at upper floors is a rarity. And to have one with a spectacular view of the south bank of the Thames in Central London is even more unusual. Tutu’s, named after Desmond Tutu, is located in the Macadam Building on Surrey Street. It is an interesting, welcoming space and whilst I had many memorable evenings at the student pubs and clubs when I was at university, none was as appealing as this. While there is something somewhat grown-up about sitting on a seat by the window, the colourful light displays of Royal Festival Hall and the Southbank Centre and the bright pink hues around the London Eye behind us, I feel it contributes greatly to the experience of student life and to the community of the university. It is a pleasant, communal place to meet and socialise. It was much nicer than some of the unkempt dives in London that suffer from neglect, poor management, and lack of maintenance. I would love to be a student at King’s College London and for Tutu’s to be my local pub.

Update:  I had some problems with the Gallery previously.  I’ve figured out the error and have now posted some photos of the band members.

Secret East London

TimeOut Secret East LondonI cheered when I heard about this week’s TimeOut magazine – the secrets of East London revealed! The gems and special places of this once neglected, reviled area of London would be celebrated by all. Colm pointed out that Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, which I wrote about in an earlier post, was mentioned. I cheered again (my finger being on the pulse).

I smiled to myself as I read about places that I had visited before and was delight by many that I hadn’t heard of before. To tempt your senses, here are my highlights and recommendations, but do pick up a copy for yourself for all the nitty gritty details.

Spend your time

Trinity Buoy Wharf – closest DLR station is East India and then its a bit of a walk, heading east. Home to Container City. Do stop at Fatboy’s Diner (was featured in the film, Sliding Doors) for a bite to eat or a milkshake and take in the view of the former Millenium Dome (now O2 Centre).

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park – as mentioned in my earlier post.

Lee Valley Park – a long sliver of waterways, parkland, and reservoirs stretching from Bow in the south to Ware and Stansted to the north.

Spend your money

40 Winks Hotel – a unique place to stay, with 2 beautifully decorated and designed bedrooms.

Present – Shoreditch High Street is experiencing a renaissance and I noticed this new men’s clothing boutique yesterday. Kingsland Road to the north and Great Eastern Street to the south are also evolving – worthy of a future post!

Milk – another new occupier on Shoreditch High Street.

Whet your appetite

Hidden in the footer banner on page 18, TimeOut mentions Pizza East’s opening on 16 October on the ground floor of the TEA Building where T Bar used to be and The Book Club on Leonard Street where Home Bar used to be. I will pay a visit to these places myself and provide a more detailed review in a future post!

Nothing in Life is Free

The London Evening Standard was distributed for free for the first time officially yesterday.  Today, instead of walking past the usual Evening Standard newspaper stand, I walked past a man handing them out for free.  Whereas I would normally be somewhat annoyed for being harrassed by the distributors of the free cheapsheets, I was inclined to accept the offer.  The first thought that came to mind was the number of Evening Standard street vendors that would be made redundant (although reports note that the Evening Standard denied there would be any immediate redundancies – the key word being ‘immediate’).  The second thought was about the amount of waste that results when things are offered for free.

Thelondonpaper was introduced in 2006 by News International as an afternoon free sheet to rival the Evening Standard, Associated Newspaper’s afternoon stalwart.  Associated Newspaper responded with the Standard Lite later renamed London Lite, a trimmed down version both in number of pages and quality of the news reporting.  For three years, Londoners were accosted regularly by free sheet distributors on every street corner, outside every tube station entrance and London streets and tube carriages became littered with them.  The amount of paper strewn everywhere was disgraceful, given the derth of convenient recycling outposts in the city.  In January 2009, a 75.1% controlling interest in the loss-making Evening Standard was sold to Alexander Lebedev for £1 and Associated Newspapers retained a minority ownership.  By June 2009, over 400,000 copies of London Lite were distributed each weekday and almost 500,000 of Thelondonpaper (Source: Guardian) compared to approximately 250,000 copies of the Evening Standard.  But News International surprised the market and media analysts when it announced in August this year that it would be closing Thelondonpaper, the primary motivation reportedly being NI’s goal of increasing revenues through paid-for content.  The loss-making free paper ceased publication on 18 September 2009.  This should have heralded an end, finally, to the war of the free sheets between Associated and NI.  It should have rid London streets of the environmental nightmare of wasted paper and annoying street distributors.  Instead what followed was the Evening Standard’s move to drop the 50 pence cover price and increase its distribution to 600,000 per weekday.

I only rarely ever found an abandoned copy of the Evening Standard on a London Underground train.  People seem to take more care with something that they have paid for and whilst they might not have recycled it as they should have, at least they departed with it somewhere sensible, most likely at their home.  I don’t believe there will be a reprieve from the litter and wastefulness as one free paper has simply now been replaced by another.  It comes at a cost.  The negative environmental impact of increased use of printed paper continues, the future jobs of vendors are now at risk, and the Evening Standard is hoping that the revenue will come out of your pocket in some other way – through consumer spending having been lured by the advertising that appears on its free sheets.