A Friday of Londoning

Our final Friday in London was a busy one. Amid the chaos of ensuring we get our belongings out of the city with us, saying goodbyes, and leaving our jobs, we managed to squeeze in a full afternoon of visiting exhibitions and looking out of bus windows.

Kensington Roof Gardens

First on our list were the Kensington Roof Gardens. On the top of an art deco building along Kensington High Street is a peculiar collection of gardens, and flamingos. The gardens were completed in 1938, commissioned by Trevor Bowen, then vice-president of Barkers, the department store who built and owned the building, and designed by landscape architect Ralph Hancock. One of the gardens’ claims to fame is that they were the location for Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ video when he couldn’t make it to Top of the Pops in 1964, which can be seen here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKZ6hDUVW_0

Our first impressions were a bit mixed to say the least. As we emerged into the ‘Spanish garden’ we were hit by a feeling of ‘is this it?’, but allowed the cynicism to pass. A colonnade of spirals shelters some outdoor furniture of the fashion found in the smoking areas of trendy nightclubs. That made sense when we realised that the gardens were part of a trendy nightclub.

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Moving around the central building into the ‘English garden’ things started to feel a bit more normal. This garden was a far better fit for the low grey clouds looming overhead. Patches of lawn with little water features and bridges going from nowhere to nowhere. The circular openings in the tall red brick garden wall offered views over the London roof scape, as opposed to another well kept suburban garden. These little moments are what give this place its character. So too do the flamingos which appeared around the next corner. Four friends, wandering along, hopping in and out of the artificial ponds. These were the highlight of the gardens without any doubt, and the venue knew it. Flamingos are on every piece of marketing, they’re stars of the show, and in return have had their wings clipped so they can’t fly away.

The path then took us into a marquee containing a bar. The venue hosts wedding receptions and other such events, trying to make the most of it’s uniqueness to attract clients. Putting a marquee over a quarter of the gardens to host events is a pretty strong indicator that whoever is currently in charge has no idea what kind of place they’re dealing with. The gardens are odd but interesting. They’re very much let down by the maintenance and general lack of care and attention given to the details. Things the outdoor furniture, gas heaters and music being played form speakers disguised as rocks. The whole idea of these roof gardens was one which was certainly tinged with a knowing irony, but they’re now being run by night club people; the kind of people who for some reason take themselves incredibly seriously. The mix isn’t a good one, and it’s a shame. These gardens could be great fun and pleasant places to be. Unfortunately they’re at the mercy of people with questionable taste and little imagination, and it really shows.

The Architectural Association – Water’s Way

After leaving the roof gardens we walked along some on Kensington’s residential streets, noticing big expensive houses surrounded by very little in the way of human life. We walked past a couple of estate agents and saw how much it would cost for the privilege of living on on of these streets. I imagine there are quite a few more fulfilling things you can with £7 million than buy your own slice of Kensington terrace. We then hopped on a bus which took us along the side of Hyde Park, along Oxford Street to Oxford Circus from where we walked to the Architectural Association.

The ‘Walter’s Way’ exhibition at the AA shines a light on the construction technique made popular by architect Walter Segal. The idea is that the technique is cheap and easy in order for anyone to be able to do it. Standard materials and fixing are used to create modular pieces which are designed to be part of a grid, meaning that the structure is kept simple. There is a 1:1 scale example of a Segal structure, in which technical drawings are displayed. There is also infomation about projects which have employed the system, namely a Lewisham self-build project.

We’re assuming that the reason the AA are highlighting this technique now is because of its relevance to a lot of the thinking about the current housing crisis in the UK. This simple and accessible building method certainly offers a lot of opportunities for self-builders. We’re certainly going to research the Segal Method more as we believe it has the potential to provide affordable houses which meet the needs young people who are sick of throwing their money into the private rental sector.

We left the AA feeling quite exited about exploring the possibilities of this simple construction technique that is massive overlooked by architects, most likely due to a combination of ego and the disconnect between architects and hands-on construction.

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The Building Centre

We called in at The Building Centre to get some photos of the ‘Don’t Move, Improve’ exhibition. We were at the awards evening a few weeks ago but it was too busy to have a proper look at the projects so we went back for a through examination. The award is for the best home extensions and improvements in London. It’s interesting to see how there is a clear style in fashion in London at the moment. It combines a modest approach to form and materiality while trying to force some contemporary-ness in where possible, usually via large glass openings or shiny interior fittings. They are generally tasteful, some more than others, and they speak pretty clearly about the modest and well mannered state of British architecture.

There is also an exhibition called ’Streets Ahead’ about London’s streets, looking at their past, present and future. It’s quite an interesting and informative exhibition showing how London’s streets are used and how they can and will change in future. It’s good that this discussion is taking place, streets and roads are of course incredibly important to London’s future so it’s a matter that should be given a lot of thought.

Before leaving we sat down next to New London Architecture’s impressive scale model of London and watched the fascinating film about the city’s architectural history and the challenges it faces in future. An hour later we left towards our final destination.

The Royal Academy – Mavericks of British Architecture Exhibition

This exhibition is located in an in-between space and was less than we were expecting, comprised of little more than circles stuck on walls. The architects deemed by the RA to be mavericks are: Robert Smythson, John Vanbrugh, James Wyatt, John Soane, Charles Robert Cockerell, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Charles Holden, H.S. Goodhart-Rendel, James Stirling, Cedric Price, FAT, and Zaha Hadid.

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Each architect and their reason for being considered a maverick are described and places on a vague timeline which highlights other architect working at the same time to put their maverick-ness into context. The exhibition is more about the debate over what constitutes a maverick architect rather than the architects themselves. It’s an interesting debate, especially now that people are suggesting we’ve seen the end of the ‘starchitect era’.

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We finished off out evening with a look around the RA’s shop. There were some really interesting objects for sale, and while we have no intention of buying anything, they do give us ideas about things we can make or design. Gallery shops are surprising sources of inspiration for us. After we’d got our fix of pretty objects we made our way home tired, but happy pleased with a busy day.

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