Architecture: Softening London's hardest edges

The Architectural Foundation is using installation art to kick- start a debate in Britain's poorest borough.
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The Independent Culture
AS ANY Monopoly player knows, Whitechapel - in the East End - has some of the cheapest land in London. Worse, Tower Hamlets, in which it falls, is the poorest borough in Britain - despite including Canary Wharf and the Corporation of London, and the crowd-pulling Tower of London.

The borough has a large population of Bangladeshis, so it has the utmost concern for overlapping different cultures. In the latest report by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit, poor housing was placed at the heart of the debate about poverty and inequality. Tony Blair wants to pull down the slums but forthright Lucy Musgrave, head of the Architecture Foundation, doesn't think that pulling down housing estates is a good start.

"We've got to be cleverer than just bricks and mortar," she says. She has chosen to begin in a modest way, with the spaces in between - and a travelling roadshow designed to find out what residents want.

A man hanging from a high wall for 24 hours, gazing up into the sky above Tower Hamlets, is an interesting image to kick-start debate on what must be done. Like the palace guards who fascinate tourists, he won't speak - but simply noticing he is there makes passers-by look up and register the change in their familiar environment. Tom Geoghagen is an artist who puts himself through these endurance tests like a living installation. More accessibly, on street level a travelling performance art group, Blast Theories, is canvassing opinions with a tape-recorder.

It is typical of the Architecture Foundation to draw attention to their Tower Hamlets roadshow in this indirect way. Rather than conduct surgeries and collect a heap of grievances about architects and town planners, they have subtly started a robust debate going between residents, businesses, the council and architects. Just moving artists in gets people looking up and around them.

They call it bottom-up public participation, which is another way of grabbing attention and giving residents air time to express opinions on the needs of the area they live in. Outside J Sainsbury on Whitechapel Road, the Beacon, a public video booth made from BT phone boxes, will canvass local opinion and broadcast ideas for improving Tower Hamlets. So you're six years old, and moaning about the mud that spoils playing in the sandpit at the adventure playground? It will be given a roof.

The Architecture Foundation roadshow is not just talking heads - it is an action group finding out what residents most want, and then doing something about it through council participation, which is why they have selected five derelict and underused sites on or around Tower Hamlets and have matched them with five architects and landscape design consultants to come up with ideas for improvement.

The five were chosen for their work in greening urban areas while maintaining high-density housing levels.

Alex de Rijke, with Marsh and Morgan, will unclutter Watney Street Market with pounds 500,000 from the Single Regeneration Budget, to link residential areas, underused open space and transport systems, and community facilities.

Kinnear Landscape, with a budget still to be resolved, will attempt to create a pedestrian shopping street on a wide area of pavement and raise the profile of Whitechapel Street market. Lyn Kinnear was given the brief to give this exacting historic market site a face-lift after she had skilfully pulled together a fractious group to landscape a vacant lot appropriated by the homeless in Tottenham Court Road, opposite Habitat.

The Wellington housing estate will get a pounds 150,000 bridge over Regent's Canal into Victoria Park from Adams and Sutherland, a young practice whose adventure playground on the Holly Estate involved all the children in the design.

Penoyre Prasad, who will build the Teviot Harca Community centre for just under pounds 1m, attracted attention with a youth club in Somerset which also involved all the kids.

Tony Fretton has the biggest budget - pounds 1m to turn a derelict furniture factory in Gunmakers Lane into a drop-in site, job centre and sleep-over system for young adults, providing secure, affordable accommodation with shared apartments, and communal restaurants open to the public.

The Minister for Regeneration and Planning, Richard Caborn, liked the Architecture Foundation roadshow approach so much that at the launch, on 7 October, he recommended funding it from his pounds 800m budget for the New Deal for Communities programme for the borough of Tower Hamlets.

In Glasgow, at a meeting with EU chiefs, he had the bright idea of getting teenagers from member states to submit plans for their ideal city in the year 2000, and exhibiting them at Strathclyde University.

One 14-year-old girl from Luxembourg drew her town centre as a pleasant green space with a scanner at each corner. Richard Caborn observed: "When I was a kid in Sheffield we used to leave the doors open. Now you see their concerns for safety first."

Architecturally, Tower Hamlets has long been the testing-ground for radical new ideas. Some of the best post-war architects built housing schemes here. A few of them self-destructed, such as the Gremlin House, which was built during the 1951 Festival of Britain on the Landsbury Estate to illustrate just how not to build a house.

Berthold Lubetkin, whose penguin pool at London Zoo is much admired, built Cranbrook House and Dorset Estate, with its pinwheel propeller stair system in three blocks. The Smithsons staggered two brutalist buildings with portholes in their facades like hands reaching out. Sir Denys Lasdun, at Keeling House and Usk Street, tried out the organic growth of new cluster blocks around a core. Radical ideas were implemented, even if poor management gave Modernism a bad name. This programme seeks to redress the balance.

Not all programmes are as well received by the Government, however. The Royal Institute of British Architects' first urban design workshop on the future of cities has been snubbed by John Prescott at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. He turned down their invitation to be the main speaker and they have had to fall back on John Gummer, the former Conservative minister.

Urban Design Week workshop, at Riba, 66 Portland Place, London W1N 4AD, from 10-17 October. Tickets cost pounds 105.75 for the week (0171-307 3677)