Architecture: Wheeling and dealing
Friday 07 August 1998
London's top millenial tourist
attraction, thanks to the architects
and businesses who teamed up to
give it new life.
Millennium Mile is the fancy name for a bit of run-down riverfront called the South Bank on the Thames in London. For years it was known as the rat run, which is how traffic controllers describe drivers' accelerating from the City to the West End.
Now its a scenic route, planned more for pedestrians than drivers. The transformation has made the community who live there, and the firms who employ 40,000 workers in the area, so proud that they are staging an exhibition in the Oxo Tower from 24 August, of scale models, drawings and photographs of the buildings and the bridges in the cultural kilometre. Then you can visit the real thing.
Old favourites like the National Theatre, the Hayward, the Festival Hall and the GLC building - now two hotels and an aquarium - will be revealing their face-lifts for the first time. Proposals that haven't got off the drawing board will be up for discussion, like the Millennium ferris wheel at Southwark, which is being projected as London's top tourist attraction, and the Lido Olympic-sized pool with a glass roof that turns into a dance floor, by architects Lifschutz Davidson (currently seeking a new owner with around pounds 15m to spend).
Bridges naturally loom large. Norman Foster's new Millennium Bridge will link St Paul's to the new Tate at Bankside and Will Alsop's proposed new bridge at Blackfriars, now up for planning, refutes a description by the chairman of English Heritage, Jocelyn Stevens, as "a condom". Just why it isn't can be seen quite clearly from the elegant scale model which shows the interlocking platforms sinuously embracing Blackfriars.
The Oxo tower, with its special arrangement of noughts and crosses that spell out the name of the beef extract that beat the Thirties' ban on riverfront advertising, is a good place to stage this exhibition, which has been put together by various movers and shakers from the business community. With a single stroke, known as the spine route, the length of the Millennium Mile, the South Bank Employers' Group turned an exhaust- fumed, dirty grey and characterless zone into a tourist attraction.
"We have the chance to make this one of the most convivial parts of London, or we have to acknowledge failure and admit that an area just minutes from the Palace of Westminster will be dominated by the car and the unlit subway." Ian Coull, chairman of the South Bank Employers Group, spelt out the future last year when he got the 17 businesses in the group to put their hands deep in their pockets to subsidise the Spine Route.
The Arts Council gave them pounds 1m to hang 6-metre indelibly-inked banners off the street lights along the South Bank. It was the first initiative in a public arts programme that involved artists and the local community to transform a series of bleak spaces into a vibrant outdoor gallery. It helps to unite a disparate group of buildings: all the architectural gems that you will see in the Millennium Mile exhibition turn their worst side to the main thoroughfare. Interspersed with some hideous buildings, such as the Cell Block H of London Weekend Television and the Lubianka of IPC, the area certainly needed something to pull it all together.
Street furniture that was designed especially for the Millennium Mile gave it street cred. The architect Alex Lifschutz looked through every catalogue to try to find something with character that wasn't bolt-on heritage with ghastly Georgian lanterns. "It was like furnishing a room with a sofa at one end and a bath at the other," he said. "So much fake `heritage'.
"Every manufacturer came at it from a different point of view. Dustbin manufacturers are only interested in dustbins, lighting designers only in the lamppost." So with his partner Ian Davidson, and a concept from the traffic control design department CDT/HLS, they set about designing new street furniture that didn't look as if it had come from a car boot sale.
First, they narrowed the traffic lanes of Upper Ground, put in sleepers to slow traffic, and lined it with small steel drums that double as bollards and seats. They took the elegant tensile structure that was the tallest tower in he world at the Festival of Britain in 1951 - the Skylon, by Powell and Moya - as their inspiration for javelin-like posts to line the pavements. The Skylon Mark 2 supports lights, flower baskets, double- sided banners and street signs, in a very measured way. "It gives the characterless street an identity," says Lifschutz.
No decorator could have done more than the young architects Lifschutz Davidson to make over the main road. Now people eat in it, cruise it, party in it. London Weekend Television celebrated its birthday in it. It has a vitality and excitement about it. Even the hanging flower baskets, brightly sown with annuals by Lambeth Council, don't make it twee.
Like all modern architects, Alex Lifschutz worked on the space between buildings to make attractive views, opening out to the river, encouraging shops, wine bars and bistros to open at Gabriel's Wharf and to keep a riverfront walkway running parallel to the spine route. Two new, well lit and beautifully designed subways under Blackfriars and London Bridge free the river route: Lambeth decorated theirs with Victorian photographs of bridge-building, and Southwark used Cumbrian slate panels carved with scenes celebrating the frost fairs of the 17th century when the Thames froze over.
But Alex Lifschutz is not one to rest on his laurels - or the laburnums planted along the pavements. Even though there are only these two designs, the steel drum and the javelin, he thinks that they should have been used more sparingly. "My personal view is that we should have been a bit calmer about it and had a bit less street furniture."
He is most proud of the fact that they accomplished it all on the bits of land that weren't public spaces, and therefore needed co-operation from 23 landowners. "Most of the land is owned by the businesses. Only occasionally will you see the little studs that delineate the public highway, but everyone agreed with Lambeth that this land would be thrown into the public realm rather than the private." The South Bank Employers' Group may have a boringly matter-of-fact name, but they can be proud of their vision.
Now Lifschutz Davidson has designed a new range of street furniture that seeks, with just one component, to free pavements and parks all over Britain.
"Take a snapshot of the street you live in, and highlight in yellow all the bits that furnish the street, to see how many bits and pieces litter our streets and public spaces," Alex advises.
Most streets look as if they were furnished from a car boot sale, with telephone circuitry boxes, lampposts, litter bins, road signs, bollards, benches and barricades designed to induce road rage in pedestrians. The MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, once flagged all the dog turds in a square to make people notice the everyday things that despoil space.
Lifschutz Davidson have rationalised the tangle with a single modular post on which equipment can be clipped, including telephone boxes, parking meters, pay and display systems, dustbins, electronic signage and amplification systems for mobile phones and security cameras. "It's going to reduce clutter on the streets and let people breathe, and find their way through hurdles."
They have involved Royal Fine Arts early on in the project, to get their design accepted for sensitive historic sites. The prototype, made by Woodhouse in Warwick, will be ready in a few weeks and they hope to go on sale with the new system, which is called Meridian, in around three months time.
"Social identities and practices are shaped by people's experiences of the street," says Nicholas Fyfe, a senior lecturer in geography at the University of Strathclyde.
In Images of the Street, the new book he has edited on planning, identity and control in public spaces, London's South Bank gets only one mention: "The homeless sleeping elbow-to-elbow under cardboard containers on London's South Bank".
But not on the Millennium Mile.
The Millennium Wheel: on 23 August Tussaud's will announce their plans to take it over and turn it into London's top tourist attraction. This week, the Tussauds Group announced the purchase of Thorpe Park. The pounds 19m privately funded Ferris Wheel, which has British Airways support, is designed to be parked close to Westminster. The 450ft wheel above the Thames is the world's highest observation wheel, even after planning insisted on it being reduced by 10 percent from its original design by architects David Marks and Julia Barfield. Thirty-two capsules will each hold 25 persons. The wheel revolves in just under half an hour.
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