Architecture: Southwark: walking back to happiness

Radical projects in a south London borough aim to improve the lot of the pedestrian.

Ellis Woodman
Sunday 04 April 1999 23:02

IN THE summer of 1996 a disused car-wash in south London played host to an extraordinary exhibition. A collaboration between Southwark Council and the Architecture Foundation, Future Southwark set itself the task of re-imagining the streets of its immediate locale. Eight teams of architects were asked to consider what might be done to improve public spaces. Now Southwark Council has realised some of the ambition of that show: three of the proposals have been implemented.

The car-wash was pulled down not long afterwards, but the street on which it stood, Southwark Street, has enjoyed a radical redesign by the architect firm, muf. In order to calm the nerves of planning committees and highways departments, muf were at first only allotted funding for a 100m-long "pilot project". To an extent, one can sympathise with the panickers: muf describe their scheme as an "urban beach" but the nearest body of water is the Thames, a good 200 metres to the north. A beach without water is an obscure candidate for over pounds 1m of public funding. And yet, based on the success of the now completed trial, money has been found to transform the remaining 600 metres of Southwark Street.

So what does the work involve? In basic terms, the architects are creating an expanded footway with associated planting, lighting, signage and street furniture. They have given their attention solely to the south-facing pavement, aiming to create the most generous space possible on the sunny side of the street. For stretches, the pedestrian wins back the width of a traffic lane. The new space is therefore broad enough to support a range of activities without hampering the passage of A-to-Bers. Not, perhaps, unlike a beach. The new ground surface - concrete embedded with Thames shingle - does much to enforce that reading. The street also happens to form the main route to Bankside Power Station - soon to be the Tate Gallery of Modern Art. In anticipation of the visitor onslaught, office use is being swept aside in favour of cafes, shops and hotels.

Muf's design emerged from a consultation process which gathered the views of residents, visitors and those who work in the area. The responses seemed often fantastical, often in direct conflict and yet the final scheme manages to honour a remarkable number of those demands. The residents' association envisaged the area as a pleasure garden, planted from end to end. There is little available land for such a scheme, but by planting along the faces of buildings, the architects manage to eke out a continuous green ribbon. Gripes about stopped access to the raised ground floors of existing buildings are answered in the next phase of the project, and not with the cursory disabled ramp - rather, the entire pavement humps up. It is an inclusive sensibility also in evidence in the pilot project. The built work includes a pair of black concrete benches, resembling a couple of beached whales. Their design followed workshops in which the concerns of local children were sought and as a result, one bench has a special child-height seat set into it.

No one has any delusions about Southwark Street's cafe culture extending onto neighbouring Borough High Street: as the latter is one of central London's main traffic arteries, there is too much noise and no potential to widen pavements. Nonetheless, the architect firm East's re-landscaping programme does much to improve the lot of the pedestrian. East have relaid the pavements in a dark blue. It is a strong choice, sitting happily against the grimy brick of the predominant Victorian building stock. This new surface provides the background for an ingenious lexicon of signage. Doorways to shops are designated name-plaques in multi-coloured terrazzo. More significant addresses such as Green Market have their names cut into new "threshold mats" in inlaid granite. Side streets are named with a fattening of the kerb-line. As street signs are almost invariably scaled for the attention of the car-user, it is a pleasure to encounter so much reading intended for those travelling at three rather than 30 miles per hour. Larger-scale interventions are planned for the ends of the street - to the south, a huge free-standing planter, and to the north, a billboard- sized mirror giving improved views of Southwark Cathedral from the street.

The third project, opening this week, is the most conventionally building- like. Eric Parry Architects have shoehorned a new visitor centre under one of the concourses that joins London Bridge Station to the wider world. Housed within a minimal glass envelope, the visitor centre proper defers to a second structure located immediately next door. This takes the form of a 16m stone spire, canted over the pavement at a precarious angle. At one level it operates as a signpost; the architects' drawings, however, refer to the structure as a "monument". So a monument to what? There is perhaps a clue to be found immediately on the other side of London Bridge. There stands Wren's Monument - a lone 202ft column, built of the same Portland Whitbed stone as the new structure. The Monument, boldly phallic in form, carries a regenerative association - appropriate given that it celebrates the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire. There has been no fire in Southwark, but since the port industries began relocating in the late 1960s, the area has been in steady decline. Parry's structure clearly aims to signify the end of this period of neglect. The regeneration is unquestionably afoot: the new Tate is taking shape; the neighbouring Globe Theatre is up and running; a pedestrian bridge across the Thames is being built to designs by Norman Foster; and, perhaps most crucially, the Jubilee Line Tube extension should come into service in October.

But the Parry project rather plays the role of spectre at the feast. For despite the widespread talk of community consultation, pounds 700,000 worth of visitor centre asserts a pretty incontestable truth: the area's future lies in the hands of outsiders. Gentrification and tourism have come to be seen as offering the best path to recovery and the Future Southwark initiative represents a key stage in that transformation. Perhaps for this reason, a straw poll revealed as much suspicion as enthusiasm for the projects. Savvy to the experience of the established community in neighbouring Docklands, locals are wary of attempts at wholesale regeneration. Southwark Council needs to answer their concerns because the work it has built is of an exceptional quality. It deserves a better reception.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments