In this post-referendum, pre-Brexit London, amid the flux, indecision and observations from politicos, economists, business leaders and social commentators, there is one steadfast segment of our economy that continues to march on: the city’s cultural and civic infrastructure.
However, London’s development must be anchored by exciting, engaging and enriching cultural infrastructure or it risks sapping the capital of its identity and vibrancy.
Over the past decade and more noticeably the last year, my practice in London has noticed a significant appetite for the reimagining of our city’s greatest asset, its culture and identity.
This sea change, I might add, is not a brazenly obvious investment flip like the ones we saw during the financial crisis, but a reinvention of a historic regeneration model that has been replayed, from time immemorial, to reboot our social and cultural foundations.
London is the master of reinvention. For a millennium, it has been positioned as one of the greatest cities for commerce, innovation and cultural development and for centuries now, governments and city authorities have actively deployed cultural policies — good and bad — to recast the capital’s social and financial erosion.
From the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire to Victorian social reform that bequeathed civic treasures such as the Royal Parks, the V&A and the Royal Albert Hall, as well as new sanitation, public baths and the beginnings of social housing — all responding to the capital’s need for repair and repositioning.
Interestingly, after the Second World War the response was just as courageous. Whether you love or hate the brutalist Festival Hall, Barbican and Commonwealth Institute, they played a key part in recreating an identity and sense of place through design.
Today the spectrum of interventions to aid urban renewal has widened. Mega events such as the Olympics and Capital of Culture, sit side by side with smaller urban festivals, public art, pop-ups, street vendors, galleries, performance spaces, creative workshops and studios, and intelligent developers are actively seeking community organisations to utilise redundant buildings and land or “meanwhile spaces” as catalysts for urban change.
However, it’s the quality of the local culture and resources that determine whether people think their environment is a good place to live. Large landmark buildings and activities, often built in declining or fringe areas of the city, certainly increase visitors, but these instruments of change can also be to the detriment of place and sometimes ostracise its locals, if seen in isolation.
Cultural infrastructure development has to be used to showcase the uniqueness of the city or area and a long-term vision is required in order that a vibrant, safe, economically viable and socially cohesive space is realised. A space that adds value, creates employment and ultimately creates what its residents really need.
London’s boroughs are flourishing with creative people and investment, from large projects such as the Olympic Legacy in Stratford, Camden’s King’s Cross Knowledge Quarter with The Crick Institute, Central St Martins and The British Library, to the Royal Borough of Greenwich’s newly announced Woolwich Creative Quarter.
These are regenerative behemoths, although smaller-scale interventions can be just as meteoric for the communities they serve. Take our Idea Stores in Tower Hamlets and Bernie Grant Centre in Tottenham. Although small scale with significantly lower budgets, both have enabled a disparate community, stitching it together.
Art, music, literature and sport have always brought people together. They are a place where people can share complementary interests. Cultural interventions and institutions cannot and should not be mere instruments to improve attractiveness; they need to be an accessible and inclusive ingredient to build, transform and sustain local communities and create a sense of belonging, bringing knowledge, skills and capabilities that are essential for social development.
Culture is core to the development of an area’s identity and a well-designed community with a distinctive character is a place where residents can connect and be proud — a true neighbourhood.