*** Resident Terry Trickett highlights the City’s opportunities within the reconstruction of London Wall West. Culture and Commerce will work better together ***
The City’s reputation for commercial and financial expertise remains undented by Covid-19 but the outward signs of activity have changed, probably forever. No longer are the pavements thronged and the restaurants and pubs full to bursting. The memory of a deathly quiet Covid-struck urban desert may now be banished, hopefully forever, but in it’s place there remains a City still recovering from an event that has impacted on its future to the extent of Big Bang, the Second World War and, even the Great Fire. The City has always bounced back before and, this time, in facing up to a post-pandemic future, the opportunities for overcoming misfortune and turning it to advantage are legion.
Last year, the City of London’s Culture & Commerce Taskforce1 declared its intention to:
…reanimate the City of London’s spaces in unique ways that attract people back… and build the connections required internationally for the City to remain a global hub of commerce and become a centre for culture.
The Taskforce has recognised that the Cultural Sector has the potential to play a crucial role in the City’s recovery – a city, where, like many other metropolises round the world, it can be anticipated that in a post-pandemic world up to two fifths of current office space will become surplus to requirements and, thus, become available for repurposing. Of course, changes to physical space as now demanded by a depleted city cannot, in itself, generate new types of collaboration between people from different spheres of activity. It will take the ‘software’ of digital transformation working in close harmony with the ‘hardware’ of re- purposed physical space to ensure the success of the City’s renewal. As an architect, I’m the first to recognise that the creation of appropriate multi-purpose spaces will place a huge demand on the City’s infrastructure and necessitate the re-purposing of many of its buildings. No doubt, the performance of this immense task will stretch available professional skills to the limit, but these are tried and tested skills unlike those concerned in transforming the City’s ‘software’.
The software of digital transformation requires blending human potential with technology to enable creativity. Machines are not taking over the world; they rely on a process of machine learning whereby they must first be trained by humans. This idea of technology and people working symbiotically together, rather than competitively, is at the very heart of digital transformation – a fact that is firmly established in the cultural sector. For this reason, the Taskforce’s plans for attracting creative cultural industries to the City, far from being blue sky, are set to move ahead at a time when the cultural sector can act as ‘carriers’ helping to push the commercial sector towards necessary digital transformation.
Does the Cultural Sector support the idea that it can act as an agent of change to the extent that it will want to become part of the City’s plans for recovery?
This is the key question that must be answered if the Taskforce’s ambition is to be realised.
Culture and Commerce stronger together
Charles Saumarez Smith,2 previously Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Director of the National Gallery and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, believes that, in the aftermath of an international pandemic, people will value the experience of art, in whatever form it takes, more than before and will not take international travel and cultural tourism so much for granted. Galleries will reduce the number of exhibitions dependent on international travel not just for works of art but for curators as well; many have discovered new online ways of communication with their audiences during periods of closure. So the challenge for the City is to create a parallel digital universe which can affect people’s experience of art. The traditional role of the gallery as a ‘cathedral of art’ focused entirely on the values of the past and history is no longer valid. It needs to become a place of 21st century experiment where new forms of out-reach are debated and tested.
… somewhere to think about the nature of art rather than to be told about it; somewhere for people to experience art, to look, to interpret and explore in accord with their own independent appetites.
Not only art galleries but museums, too, as key members of the Cultural Sector, have an urgent imperative to connect with the public through digital media displays that merge with the digital life of city streets. The way is open, therefore, for museums to transform themselves from quiet, highly organised and predictable institutions to become cultural organisations entrenched in the life of diverse communities and connected to global audiences. It’s by tapping into this urge that the City can make ‘Culture and Commerce stronger together’. What is now on offer is a match made in heaven where the City’s commercial streets will become bathed in a new glow of cultural gold – a virtual dream, maybe, but it can be made real with guidance from architects and new media artists. The task ahead is both immensely complex and hugely ambitious but the City has succeeded in transforming itself before and can do it again.
The City of London as a living breathing work of art
The Taskforce’s vision of a renewed City gives promise of providing just the setting required to create places where art is shared rather than kept. Re-purposed spaces in the City embracing new digital technology will be able to show new media forms of art, not as add- ons to traditional media but, more, as an extension of cross-cultural activity where people’s experience of art becomes part of their overall advance into a digital future. Art as an ‘information tool’ will become an everyday experience for people in new spaces devoted not only to culture but, also, in equal measure, to those forming part of a renewed commercial sector.
No doubt, the mediaeval street pattern of the City, preserved through millennia, will remain; cobbled passages, known to only a few, will continue to present a sense of history confirmed by evocative place names derived from ancient trades and sources of wealth.
Charles Landry’s ‘think of the city as if it were a living breathing work of art’3 is apt, not only for the City as it is today but, also, as a prescription for what the City can become in its new found form embracing culture as well as commerce. For the future, closed doors forbidding entry to the City’s secrets will be replaced by a new transparency where ground floor ‘shop windows’ provide indications of what lies behind in reception areas made newly accessible as public galleries. Signs of art and culture will be everywhere and visible to all.
Additionally, developments are afoot within the City’s Culture Mile, which will give further incentive for art galleries, museums and many other members of the Cultural Sector to take advantage of the City’s welcoming embrace.
The Culture Mile, a microcosm for experimentation
Located within the North West corner of the City, the Culture Mile already has a considerable reputation in music (Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London Symphony Orchestra), cultural heritage (Museum of London) and art & exhibitions (Barbican Centre). Once the Museum of London moves to West Smithfield, a key site at London Wall West will be released for redevelopment. What is required is a scheme which will not only fuel the City’s ambition to ‘build the connections required internationally’ but, also, celebrate creativity in the widest sense of the word. Opportunities to create flexible public spaces designed to host culture working alongside commerce don’t occur very often which explains why I regard London Wall West as a global test case on how cities plan for a post-pandemic future. The eyes of the world will be watching. Will London Wall West succeed in acting as a cultural beacon in bringing people back to the City? Can it effectively demonstrate the City’s new-found destiny as a global centre of culture?
To answer these questions, I’m turning to the initial scheme for London Wall West prepared by the City’s appointed architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), which seeks to ‘amplify the creativity embedded within the area and use it to create lasting change into the future’.
This is a vision that we would all like to see made real but, unfortunately, the scheme’s first presentation revealed an interpretation which placed an emphasis on commerce to the detriment of culture. Given every opportunity to respond, I’ve put forward my own suggestion for reversing the scheme’s priorities with culture taking centre stage.
A laudable aim to ‘develop increased green space and pockets of nature and tranquillity’ underlies DS+R’s first proposals. This is a skill that the architects have demonstrated par excellence in their work on the High Line, New York, and now, somewhat unexpectedly, a similar opportunity presents itself in London. I’m aiming to show, in my suggestion, how DS+R’s idea for a high-level green space or ‘Meadow’ can be extended to embrace the cultural components of a revised scheme. But, first, I should explain that this is no ordinary meadow; it has been described by the City’s Property Investment Board as ‘a distinctive figural bowl that creates a moment of surreal respite from the City around it with a meadow-like character’. My transformations of this feature are indicated in plan sketches for both the Higher and Lower levels of the Meadow.
A ‘gallery’ encapsulated within the undulating structure of the Meadow provides a space for 21st century creative experimentation. Further suggestions include a Performance and Display Space located under an elliptical Public Platform. Here, the aim is that galleries and museums from around the world will mount a series of illusionary/immersive displays which engage the public in state- of-the-art virtual reality experiences.
An Allosphere4, a large scale, immersive surround-view instrument for both scientific and artistic experimentation, is positioned at the key access point to the London Wall West site. Although I’ve replaced the original Building 2 (designated for offices) with an extended Meadow, I’ve retained Buildings 1 & 3. These can be developed in a number of ways, preferably following the recommendations contained in the Taskforce’s ‘Refuelling the City’s Creative Renewal’: ‘these spaces need to be safe, fit for a post-pandemic world and flexible. They need to be designed to be fit for the post-pandemic landscape and allow the commercial, creative and civic sectors to come together in more powerful ways.’ When you think of it, these same recommendations should be applied, also, to all repurposed space created throughout the City.
Reanimating the City
The Taskforce’s proposals are described as being unique. For once the use of this word is appropriate; I believe that, if effectively implemented, these proposals do represent a way of making the City a ‘world first’ in demonstrating Culture and Commerce coming together as a powerful motivator of change and renewal. But success will depend on culture and commerce joining forces at an equal level; a token influx of culture will never be enough.
This explains the importance of London Wall West as an exemplar of change which demonstrates a new working balance between the two sectors. It’s together, as equals, that culture and commerce can ... reanimate the City of London’s spaces in unique ways that attract people back… and build the connections required internationally for the City to remain a global hub of commerce and become a centre for culture.
The City’s continuing development as a living breathing work of art will encourage not only museums and art galleries to enter its doors but, also, many other members of the Cultural Sector will be attracted by the repurposed and new spaces on offer. Coming under the general heading of Cultural Industries, these include advertising and marketing, architecture, design and fashion, film, television and publishing to name just a few. All will be tempted to join the City, as a hub of international commerce and culture. There will be no shortage of takers for new and repurposed spaces on offer in a renewed City.
A pattern of events can be predicted where the evidence of surplus space for existing owners, tenants and users will emerge gradually, over time, as the City adjusts to a new office / homeworking balance established during the pandemic. The release of this surplus space onto the market will occur as existing leases expire or come up for renegotiation, with significant amounts becoming available over the next 5 – 10 years. It’s during this same period of time that London Wall West will be undergoing processes of demolition, design development and construction. First designs by DS+R are currently under review and I should emphasise that any suggestions I’ve included here, in these notes, already have been shared with the appointed architects. I’ve put forward these ideas because I see the renewal of the City and the development of London Wall West being part and parcel of one and the same project. The success of both acting symbiotically together will seal the City’s fortunes for a long time ahead.
I have to admit, I do have a personal interest in the City’s future developments; as a resident in the Barbican, living next door to the London Wall West site, I remain optimistic that the City’s golden opportunity for renewal, equal to any past transformation, will be seized to produce a place of unrivalled cultural and commercial creativity fit for the digital age. That’s what we’re all hoping for when DS+R reveals a revised scheme, due any time now.
1 ‘Culture and Commerce: Fuelling Creative Renewal’ can be accessed at https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/assets/Things-to-do/full-report-culture-and-commerce-fuelling-creative- renewal.pdf
2 Comments from Charles Saumarez Smith ‘s book ‘The Art Museum in Modern Times’, Thames & Hudson, 2021.
3 From Charles Landry’s ‘The Creative City: A toolkit for Urban Innovators’, 2008.
4 An Allosphere is just one example of a special feature that could be positioned at the key access point to the London Wall West site. For details see https://allosphere.ucsb.edu/