"I have a lot of big plans for the gallery, but every idea is an experiment; I don't necessarily want to enforce what it will be, but rather find out what it wants to be." This is how Thomas Ermacora described his vision of the Lime Wharf Gallery, a largely hidden series of spaces squeezed between Vyner Street and Regents Canal in the middle of Hackney's burgeoning creative quarter.
Ermacora hopes the gallery will become an "accelerator of change through culture", bringing arts, technology and social enterprise together for projects which generate optimism for the future. All of these traits made Lime Wharf Gallery the perfect space to present "Future Fitting." This evening of talks, orchestrated by Ermacora and Lucy Bullivant (editor of the new webzine Urbanista), focused on urban design that has the foresight and flexibility to deal with the needs of the future.
Read about the ideas presented at the Future Fitting event after the break...
Each speaker was invited to present a project outlining the 'future-fitting' of a city: Alessandra Cianchetta, founding partner of Paris-based AWP, presented their masterplan for the La Défense region of Paris; Andy Groarke presented The Filling Station, a temporary project by Carmody Groarke to turn a petrol station into a restaurant; and finally Lewis Kinneir, also of Carmody Groarke, presented a project to make use of a large area of unused land in the shadow of Heathrow Airport.
Cianchetta began by describing La Défense, Paris's business district (hosting half a million commuters daily), as "designed by engineers, yet illogical". Typical of other similar projects of the modernist era, it is designed to separate cars from pedestrians and is characterized by labyrinthine spaces. "These are conditions we don't really want any more", she says.
The area has had no overall design vision in place since it was first created in the late 1950s, and AWP were aware that it's mono-functional nature is no longer suitable for the modern age. Primarily, they aimed to reconnect La Défense to the rest of Paris and integrate other functions within the district.
However, the idea of implementing a scheme for the whole area is similar to the simplistic logic that created it in the first place: "something that is too rigid will necessarily fail", explains Cianchetta. To counter this AWP invented simple design suggestions - such as removing the protruding features which currently compromise Paris's Grand Axis, and allowing for an invasion of nature - that provide a much more flexible framework with which to develop the area.
Andy Groarke then brought the discussion from Europe's largest business district to a small site near King's Cross Station in London. This site is planned to be developed in a few years' time, but Carmody Groarke provided a 'meanwhile use' for the now-abandoned petrol station: to convert it into a restaurant designed "to test out how to start people believing in a place to go".
In this sense The Filling Station is neither temporary nor permanent; it is a precursor to the eventual development which will occupy the space. It is a temporary test which will be used to inform a permanent experiment in space, and the temporary nature makes it all the more effective: "the timescale of the project is short so we can test things with relative impunity", says Groarke.
Groarke describes it as a place that is "consistently in a state of imbalance and reactivation", and it is this forever-changing nature that makes it such a popular and dynamic spot - as well as the sensitive way in which it reconnects the site back to the adjacent canal.
Finally, the focus switched from something which occupies a very short timescale, to another Carmody Groarke project which is expected to take around 25 years to even complete. The site is a large area of disused agricultural land within the landing path of a runway at nearby Heathrow Airport. Despite its sorry state, the land is grade II listed, as it forms a part of London's green belt, making it almost impossible to develop.
The challenge which Lewis Kinneir presented was how to develop the land in a way that is (1) permissible under green belt restrictions, (2) not affected by the planes overhead and (3) can actually unlock value for the private owner of the land. The solution was particularly ingenious.
The plan hinges around the layer of gravel under the ground's surface. This gravel will be excavated, and then some will be used to form a concrete slab to replace the soil and protect the greenbelt. The rest will be sold for construction in other parts of the capital. Over a 25 year period, the site will be transformed into a public park on the surface, which enhances the connections between local neighborhoods and provides a useful public amenity; underground will be a colossal concrete warehouse, which can be leased as a centrally located distribution center to a company such as Amazon.
All three projects presented an insightful and intelligent vision for the future, which is enabled by challenging the dichotomy between what would previously be considered as incompatible opposites: whether that is business versus leisure districts, temporary versus permanent buildings or public versus private space. Future Fitting presented a way of thinking about urban design which is not restrained by old fashioned thinking, but embraces the diversity and opportunity that is presented by modern urban planning.