Thursday, July 01, 2010

London Festival of Architecture 2010

Temporary orchards, nomadic allotments and portable theatres trumpeted the return of the London Festival of Architecture this summer, a biennial orgy of walks, talks, installations and performances aimed at bridging the gulf between architects and their estranged public.

After the baffling month-long riot of events across the city in 2008, this year’s festival was recession-slimmed to three weekends themed around different "hubs", from Terry Farrell’s regency procession of "Nash Ramblas" through central London, to the Olympic hinterlands of Stratford in the east, to the "urban forest" of Bankside south of the Thames.

At its best, the festival demonstrated alternative possibilities for pieces of the city, providing a lens through which to see our streets afresh and mobilising local communities to get involved. The Urban Orchard, designed by Heather Ring and curated by the Architecture Foundation, took over a neglected plot beneath a railway viaduct, transforming it into a refuge for "wayward plants" and 85 fruit trees. Hosting cider-making workshops and classes in guerrilla gardening, the orchard has become a thriving community garden, its legacy continuing beyond the festival when the plants will be dispersed to nearby council estates and adopted by residents in the autumn.

A project by Central Saint Martins students highlighted some of the invisible forces at play in the city in the form of their London Flapjack Association, a whimsical critique of the Business Improvement Districts which are progressively privatising our public spaces. Patrolling Bankside with their “Mobile Ranger Hub” (or tea trolley), they doled out officially sanctioned baked goods and recruited an army of “Flapjack Rangers” in hi-vis vests. Meanwhile, tirelessly pedalling between myriad events to provide a thirst-quenching cuppa, the Chai-cycle by Daniel Marmot and Pooja Agrawal also demonstrated the potential of most unlikely places to become congregational hubs with their mobile pop-up tea shop.

At its worst, the festival showed quite how far architects have retreated into their internalised theoretical realms, with many "public space" projects seemingly designed without the public in mind. Feld72’s "Hyperlimpics" installation in Stratford provided an apt metaphor for such indulgence, broadcasting blaring crowd noise from a mobile seating module, oriented towards a big video screen where you could watch yourself. While commenting on spectacle, it was also a noisy deterrent to anyone who actually wanted to sit down. Similarly, Carmoady Groarke’s elegant rooftop dining pavilion – perched atop the Olympic building site and constructed from its surplus materials – provided an apt monument to exclusivity: while aesthetically provisional and lean, at an inflated €90 a head, its pricing was anything but.

Elsewhere, New London Architecture proved that the tried-and-tested trick of covering a street with turf is still an easy crowd puller, with their pop-up "pocket park", a temporary public garden which hosted a jam-packed schedule of free talks, performances and sun-bathing. Students of the Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff continued the green theme by assembling a series of ‘nomadic allotments’ out of palettes and other materials scavenged from Borough market, providing a convivial space to linger on the fringe of its hectic food hall. Such projects had instant appeal, capturing the public imagination as to how the city could be. Done well, the festival proved that temporary interventions can provide a snapshot of the possible, with the potential to open up fundamental debates about the future of a site or street. But all too often these projects come down as quickly as they have popped up. With no legacy plan to take them forward, they remain one-offs, serendipitous biennial blips in the architectural calendar, rather than opportunities to seriously debate the future of our cities and interrogate the less happy sides of our built environment.

Originally published in Domus, 13 July 2010