In London’s ongoing quest for ‘good growth’, with more housing, commercial, transport and other sectors all competing for increasingly scarce space, will there still be room for culture?
An NLA late debate held at London’s Transport Museum in Covent Garden sought to find out.
Sam Mullins, Director of the London Transport Museum began by pointing out that the venue was one of the original examples, with the GLC having held a competition in the 1970s over what to do with the building, and plans for a four lane highway through Covent Garden even having been considered. But the spot-listing of 284 buildings changed that direction completely, and the competition for the building led to the London Transport museum moving in and now benefiting from the 24-40 million footfall every year. ‘When we opened here in 1980 the market hall in the middle of the piazza was boarded up’, he said. ‘The museum was the first thing here and led the charge of the Covent Garden in the 80s, a prime example of culture leading the line on regeneration’.
London is still the greatest cultural centre in the world, declared chair Peter Murray, with the immediate milieu playing host to a huge variety of theatres, museums, night clubs and so on, and policies that can help that continue.
Tim Reeve, Deputy Director & Chief Operating Officer, V&A said V&A East in Stratford’s East Bank was following in a grand tradition, with the organization’s creation of the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green as a place to ‘inspire art and education for young people in east London’. V&A East, designed by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro ,will bring 250,000 objects from the museum’s archive to some of the most deprived boroughs in the country said Reeve. The opportunity is for the V&A ‘to bring its encyclopedia, its source book of creativity of art and design to a part of London that ‘deserves’ that opportunity, inspiration and ingenuity that the collections provide’.
Annelie Kvick Thompson, Principal, Grimshaw said culture is an important factor in placemaking, and successful placemaking adds value, growth and provides distinctiveness and identity. Culture relates to lifestyle, enjoyment and bringing like-minded people together, she added, so is a key element in providing attractive places. At London Bridge, for example, the architects included public art, but the scheme also enables the area to ‘grow; through its permeability and public realm.
Few developers get the chance to create places as big as Knight Dragon is doing at Greenwich Peninsular – a 150-acre site, or twice the size of Soho where 15000 homes will be delivered over the next 15 years. Matthew Dearlove, Head of Design, Greenwich Peninsula, Knight Dragon, said the developers are creating social and physical infrastructure, including the creation of a ‘new narrative’ in terms of culture. It is behind the design district – 16 buildings by eight architects – dedicated to the creative industries with makers, artists and design agencies in partnership with the GLA, with rents capped. ‘The role that culture plays at the moment is temporary placemaking, that’s about attracting audiences, getting the scale of the peninsula onto people’s consciousnesses in London. It’s then about translating that into a physical place which then beds those narratives into the development of a building.’
Finally, Emily Druiff, Artistic Director and CEO, Peckham Platform said that the pace of London’s change was palpable but that there was a risk of stripping away the complexities of London’s unique localities and existing communities being marginalized and displaced. Cultural organisations, she said, ‘have an increased responsibility to address social inequality’. Peckham Platform engages communities that are at risk of being marginalized in the cultural mainstream and is creating a larger gallery in 2021 in Peckham Square for its ‘social art’. But we all need to improve our work with communities, said Druiff, to change perceptions of who culture is for and who London is for.
Reeve said the communities of east London don’t tend to visit the V&A in south Kensington, finding it an elitist space, but the organisation has learnt from the process of creating its new gallery in Dundee. ‘It would be a generational mistake to just turn up in three- or four-years’ time with our objects and assume that everybody’s going to be dreadfully impressed’, he said. For Druiff, the locality was key, and there was a real need to ‘engage deeply’, with cultural organisations helping to enable policy change and distinctive places. On the Greenwich peninsula, Dearlove said Ravensbourne College provides the basis for an embedded community of creative industries, with a heritage of production rather than historic buildings. ‘It is very much a new piece of London’, he said. But creating character and place takes a long while, said Kvick Thompson. ‘In terms of curating how things develop over time, design plays a part – both with the large-scale developments and the small-scale developments that create richness’, she said. ‘It’s a dialogue.’
Ultimately though, if an organisation like the V&A was to obsess too much about the potential pitfall of ‘gentrification’, it would never go beyond the ‘slightly gilded’ environment of south Kensington, said Reeve. ‘We’re becoming part of an already very rich creative community’ he said. ‘We’re not trying to create something; we’re trying to add something…This is a really important moment for the creative industries in the UK. This is our economic success story of the last 10 years, and is going to be really important for the next ten.’
By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ