Strange fruit flourishes as designers bring new life to Britain's city streets

An innovative young London team reveals a vibrant side to urban street furniture.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Two young London architects are trying to put a new slant on so-called street architecture, which they say has been too unfashionable an issue to attract fresh approaches in design. And they got on their bikes to do it.

Two young London architects are trying to put a new slant on so-called street architecture, which they say has been too unfashionable an issue to attract fresh approaches in design. And they got on their bikes to do it.

David Hebblethwaite and Sacha Kemp-Potter, and their London Bloc practice, became entangled in the subject by chance when a catering company, Primal Soup, asked them to come up with a prototype for a tough but eye-catching food-stand that might help give their over-the-counter cuisine a sharp, easily identifiable physical presence.

London Bloc accepted the commission with alacrity because "we'd both been impressed by street architecture in Europe, notably in Barcelona. But the planners here didn't seem particularly impressed." To begin with, the planners in question were Westminster's, and they reacted with some puzzlement when presented with London Bloc's unusual - but by no means wild - food-stand solution on an otherwise suitable site found by the architects.

"The planners didn't seem to be terribly impressed," says Sacha Kemp-Potter. "We've mostly had a terrible problem convincing them." She shouldn't have been particularly surprised. While Hebblethwaite was completing his MA at the Architectural Association, she was studying furniture design at Manchester - one of whose most high-profile products is the designer Thomas Heatherwick. He, too, has sought to bring a new edge to street architecture - and, until recently, failed to find workable opportunities. Plainly, the going in this area of design is pretty tough - even for the gilded few.

"Urban furniture in London so often amounts to back-to-back benches," she says. "Streetscapes and urban elements are either reproduced in the hundreds - identical phone boxes, benches, bus stops - or as bespoke designs that create local conditions, but which fail to nurture street culture in the wider sense. What we're interested in is how the design of a street product can be adapted to reflect the location, and influence it."

This treatise may be a little spongy - is there a clear difference between creating local conditions and influencing them? - but it does encourage alternative approaches to street architecture, something linked to the self-help ideal, perhaps. Ultimately, it took some encouragement from the architecturally progressive Southwark Council to keep them on track.

When London Bloc found a potential site in the borough and proffered their drawings, "they loved it. David and I had cycled round Southwark looking for sites, and found a perfect one at the bottom of the bridge. But someone else had spotted the site first."

Finally, a suitable site was found in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and London Bloc's solution combines simplicity with a sharply graphic exterior. "In this first instance," says Kemp-Potter, "we wanted to produce a design that had a crisp and logical character."

They've done it, too. The kiosk - which has since been taken over by Juicy Fruits - features a straightforward chassis made of mild steel sections, glazed on three sides, with an up-and-over front. The outside of the unit carries hardwood battens cut to a pattern of slightly varying lengths. It's a nice lesson in breaking up the potentially lumpen nature of an oblong.

Despite such incursions, it will nonetheless remain a daunting struggle to improve the standards of street architecture in Britain. Apart from some occasional Lottery-funded exceptions, and the work of some determined architects and designers, there seems little concerted desire to replace what amounts to visual litter.

What holds back change is a fear that small-scale architectural objects will always be too expensive to justify. There is something in this: London Bloc's food-bar, for example, cost £6,000. But that included all the fittings and catering equipment - and Kemp-Potter emphasises that the unit-cost would have been less had the caterers elected to develop a chain of kiosks rather than go into wholesale activities.

Despite London Bloc's chariness of "branded" street architecture, that route simply cannot be ignored. If street architecture is innovative and practical, does it really matter that much whether the owner is a small-scale, localised operator or a major chain? Can the fruit of any interesting design be too juicy?


Day Out: Service & Monument, is at London's Oxo Tower gallery until 8 October, featuring street architecture by postgraduates of Ron Arad's design products course at the RCA