‘Kapital(e) London’  Issue 209


Charlotte Skene Catling & Marc Frohn


December 2012


Escape Artists

London is an attitude as much as a place. It has developed as a maverick city that remains in a process of relentless growth, and whose sprawling scale resists a single, rational reading. This essay shifts between historical analysis and architectural manifesto, and refers to the projects of several young practices building in London now, whose architecture can be described through a series of ‘Escape Strategies’.

Late Roman London could still be expressed in a single iconic image of the river and the walls. By the 12th century, the civic and religious infrastructure took over to become the new symbolic representation; London was a walled city of towers and church spires under the aegis of St Paul. In 1660, Wencelaus Hollar proposed a bird’s-eye view that showed every building in meticulous detail which was quite far advanced when the Great Fire struck. While the city was faithfully resurrected from the remaining traces after the smoke cleared, the means of its representation was fundamentally changed: Hollar’s extruded buildings were replaced with a much more accurate figure ground plan. With their careful survey, John Ogilby and William Morgan created the first abstracted mathmatical representation of London. While the city resisted a rational make-over, for the first time its complexity could be described with scientific accuracy.

London’s complexity is part of its resilience, a trait that protects against radical change. London has relentlessly preserved its organic form, “ever since”, as Peter Ackroyd observes, “the first Tudor proclamations concerning town planning were ignored… It was part of its ability to frustrate any general or grandiose plan.” Any attempts at large scale change have been violently resisted; the Tudors, the Great Fire, and the postwar planners all offered opportunities for radical alteration. London refused. Economics, politics, and individual opposition conspired against it.

Commerce, the fundamental force that drives London, has brought moments of isolated demolition and redevelopment at different stages of the city’s history. But at the same time, London’s focus on individual commercial interests has fostered a far more profound resistance to change, to keeping the status quo and building upon the existing.

The Unprecedented Precedent
London is defined by precedent where each iteration and new layer of the city contains a ghost of its past: this distinguishes it and makes it very different from other cities. London operates as a wax tablet onto which an architectural memory has been stamped, and in order to progress or to build, this trace must either be incorporated or overwritten.

Out of the Ashes
The Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed five sixths of the medieval walled city, briefly created a tabula rasa, a city of ash. At the time there were essentially three rebuilding options: a conservative route of replicating the existing but in brick rather than combustible timber, a middle-way which widened some of the streets but kept the existing vaults and foundations, and a total re-design based on the diagrammatic clarity of a single vision with a geometric coherence closer to later continental European models.

Ironically, among the masterplans for total re-design drawn up for royal consideration, were ideas that foreshadowed some of the more radical urban gestures of the 20th century. These were the products of a new rational breed, the polymath members of the scientific academy, The Royal Society, itself founded only six years before the fire.

Where the plans of Christopher Wren and John Evelyn clearly demonstrate architectural immagination governed by aesthetics and an overall composition, the proposals of Robert Hooke, Richard Newcourt and Valentine Knight seem to emerge from the modern practice of urban planning based on the more pragmatic factors of function, density, economics and movement and appear to result directly from a process of analysis. Hooke’s regular orthogonal grid, Knight’s striations running parallel to the river, and Newcourt’s concentric hierarchies, also laid out in grid form, are all in striking contrast with Wren and Evelyn’s constructed combinations of radial geometries with grid interlays and long throughfares which contained framed architectural compositions.

Initially Charles II enthused over completely new plans for the City while simultaneously laying out clear guidelines for rebuilding. A royal proclamation was issued to protect the economic interests of the individual; none “should suffer through the carrying out of schemes for the general benefit.” This was a radically different approach to later continental urban development such as Haussmann’s scheme for Paris which had Napoleon’s explicit consent for expropriation.

In London, the absence of deeds and property titles at the time of the fire meant that the only way to reconcile the royal ambitions to protect the property-owning commercial individual, with plans for a new, rational layout, was to survey and quantifiy existing properties. This in turn would allow for a fair redistribution. However, it emerged that this task was going to take much longer than first imagined and commerce created an urgency for speed in recovery. Pressure was increased by the threat of merchants moving west to the suburbs and out of the City and of London losing its trading heart. Eventually the plans for a full re-design of London were shelved and the ‘middle-way’ – keeping the essential layout but widening some of the streets – was settled on.

While the protection of the individual commercial rights rendered the realization of any of the new urban schemes impossible in London, Newcourt’s proposal formed the basis for a whole new idea of a city on the other side of the Atlantic. Newcourt’s scheme for London became the formal basis for Penn’s utopian ideals for Philadelphia.

Light, Water, Earth
Commerce favoured an urban development based on continuity and put an emphasis on precedent. The British legal system is also structured on precedent or case law, where previously established principles set the way forward. Easements, profits a prendre and covenants, are ancient laws that can be roughly translated as, “’rights in the property of others’. They are the complex web of rights and obligations that link different parcels of land and their owners together…. Most easements can be ‘described by their function’, such as rights of way, rights of light and rights of water” .

These laws are interesting as they enter into the realm of private negotiation between individuals. As observed by Megarry & Wade, in The Law of Real Property, common law recognised “a limited number of rights which one landowner could acquire over the land of another” . Here, issues that would fall under planning control in other countries, become simply another opportunity for trade and financial exchange in London. The ‘economically self-determined individual’ is defined by his rights to trade. “Over three quarters of freehold properties are affected by one or more of these rights which can be very valuable.”

London’s unique approach towards Rights to Light can be better understood by comparison to light setbacks in a city such as New York. In London a window as an individual built element is granted a right to light, which in turn informs surrounding architectural development. Each case is specific and is defined by both its location and its history. The length of time a window has been in existence is critical (at least 19 years in order to ‘acquire rights’), which in turn has led to the surreal retention of windows in isolation, separated from the original building, in order to maintain their legal status.

By contrast, in a city like New York, issues of light are addressed by the uniformly applied sky exposure plane linking any building volume to the neutralizing infrastructure of the urban grid. This difference in approach, where London is defined by a complex web of individual relationships governed by independent commercial transaction, as distinct from New York’s ‘top down’ universally applied legislation, crystallises what makes London uniquely different, and reiterates how this difference is defined by precedent. The relationship to precedent is key to any reading or understanding of the architecture of London. But as precedents proliferate with time, they become increasingly tyrannical, restrictive & controlling.

Escape Routes
There have always been renegades in London who have slipped through the legal, spatial & financial loopholes in the urban deep structures introduced above. Their escape routes have ranged from the literal inhabitation of physical gaps in the city, to the colonisation of those metaphoric spaces that haven’t yet been identified, defined or circumscribed by legislation. Both have commercial possibilities in a place ruthlessly driven by finance. During the Middle Ages, the South Bank became a lawless centre for entertainment beyond the reach of the formal regulations of the City on the north bank of the Thames. The theatres, bear-baiting, drinking and prostitution of the South Bank were replaced by pleasure gardens in the 18th C and industry and docks in the 19th C. Pleasure finally returned in the 20th and 21st C with the Festival of Britain, the South Bank Centre and Tate Modern, where it remains firmly in place, perhaps with less prostitution.

The Escape Artists
The re-writing of architectural precedent can create great depth with minimal means through the absorption and subversion of the qualities of the former host structure. Cedric Price, supreme architectural thinker, was agile at identifying loopholes in the system that he transformed into nooses for hanging the establishment. His Pop-up Parliament (1965) proposed a “large but comparitively simple supermarket of democracy” to replace the existing Houses of Parliament at Westminster which had been “packaged inconveniently”. “If we want an efficient parliament… replace the present historic monument with an up-to-date structure – flexible, accessible and dispensible.” Price’s enthusiasm for the ‘dispensible’ was bourne out by his membership of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors.

In another instance, taking advantage of the fact that the applicant for a change of building use is not legally required to be the owner of the property, Price applied to convert Buckingham Palace into a youth hostel on grounds of ‘under-occupation’. ‘Under occupation’ was used as a measurement of density in social housing, where these projects were expected to generate maximum economic value. Applying these same rules to the profligate Buckingham Palace was a delightful socialist sneer. Like most of Price’s ideas, their sublime precision and humour gains anarchic power from a foundation of belief or truth. They are deeply embedded in Britain’s socio-cultural psyche, and rely on the notion of precedent, or London’s ‘deep structures’, for strength. They draw their meaning from pre-existing conditions, from their architectural, cultural and historic contexts.

The Architectural Escape is described through the qualities and tactics of specific London projects. It looks at the cracks of opportunity that exist or are opened up within narrow constraints, how they are exploited, and how this architectural opportunism sets up the cycle that defines development in London. The current architectural escape strategies, epitomised by the recent projects introduced in this issue, fall loosely into three categories:

Temporal, which include impermanent structures & ‘pop-ups’ strategies, these are the transitory take-overs of left-over, in-between sites, and are present for such short periods that the schemes generally fall under the radar of planning law, they are gone almost before they can be ‘seen’ or identified by the system.
Stealth structures are those that make themselves invisible either to the eye or to the law; they include cut-away geometries tailored to fit between cracks of visible space, or adaptations to the gaps in planning legislation.
Ex-territorial schemes occupy territories that sit outside general planning classification, these might be located in the tideway of the Thames, or classified as ‘art’ rather than architecture or building; these are occupants of conceptual borderlines or ‘no-mans land’.

Design Tactics
Within these loose categories and specific architectural examples, what begins to characterise these maverick structures? Qualities do emerge that seem to tie together these architectural escape acts, and bind them through time to their ghostly counterparts.

Out of Sight Sites
Temporal, Stealth and Ex-Territorial projects rely on occupying left-over gaps in the city, either apparently undesirable, only temporarily available, or those considered logistically impossible.

Assemble Studio’s Folly for a Flyover was a project with a short lifespan sited in the neglected junction of two successive overlays of transport infrastructure, the A12 motorway and the Lea Navigation Canal in Hackney Wick, East London. For only nine weeks, a gap in the unlovely undercroft between the east and westbound traffic became the surprising scene for an ‘experimental cinema, a café, workshops and boat trips’ . This was an architectural folly ‘posing as an imaginary piece of the area’s past, a building trapped under the motorway’ . Somewhere between the 18th C conception of a folly, and the fantasy dreamworlds concocted on the backlots of film studios, this structure set out to be deliberately ambiguous. Borderline sites have the disadvantage of many interested parties; use of this one had to be negotiated between the Olympic Delivery Authority, Transport for London, Hackney Parks and British Waterways, with planning for a temporary structure swiftly granted by Hackney Council.

According to Anthony Engi Meacock of Assemble Studio, it was conceived of as ‘creative mythology’, by the collective of fifteen, only some of them architects. The layers of artificiality, from the surreal siting of the folly where its roof protrudes between the two lanes of the flyover like an escaped character from a fairytale, to the successive revelations that what appears as brick is really made of timber, and what appears as solid is really lightweight and propped by scaffolding from within. The building is intended to sucessively reveal itself ‘as a fake’, where timber bricks are threaded on ropes for support. This stage set fragility reinforces the project’s fleeting presence, which leaves nothing behind but an abandoned terrazzo platform, remaining in place for as yet unimagined future scenarios.

Perhaps the ultimate portfolio of disregarded and unusable urban left-overs was that collected in the 1970s by Gordon Matta Clark, the almost worthless ‘gutterspaces’ auctioned off by New York City for minute tax sums, “tiny irregular, inaccessible…parcels of land, the remnants of surveying errors or other zoning anomalies” . This collection of micro-parcels came to be known as, ‘Reality Properties: Fake Estates’, and before his untimely death, Matta Clark wanted to ‘develop’ them into specific architectural propositions which would have been the extreme precursors to today’s escape tactics.

Where Stealth buildings aim to remain below the radar, Temporal schemes need to shout to draw attention to themselves. There are various methods. Temporal schemes, in overlooked or unfamiliar sites, invariably use text and light signs as design features. The more obscure their locations, and the shorter their life spans, the larger and brighter they need to be, turning the buildings into billboards. Signs, pictures, symbols and sculptures have always dominated London; some were symbolic like the red and white pole announcing blood-letting barber-surgeons, others were more obscure, like the grasshopper still seen today in the City of London as a symbol of industry, which originated as the personal emblem the founder of the Royal Exchange. Giant boots, gloves, cigars and coffins enlightened the impatient or the illiterate; overgrown signs became so dominant in 18th C London that they cut out daylight or fell, killing passersby. Enormous 19th C advertising hoardings signalled progress as they were erected around expanding London’s building sites and railway works. The Language of the Walls or A Voice from the Shop Windows or The Mirror of Commercial Roguery, 1855, is a treatise on advertising as underhand narrative, whose thesis is explicit in its title. An image from the satirical Punch Magazine in 1890 shows London taken over by signs, printed balloons, dirigibles and giant hands ready to strangle the dome of St Paul’s. The promotional SIGN as urban phenomenon and architectural adjunct is not new.

Some of the current temporary architectures merge with the activities within them to become a new, cross-bred phenomenon of architecture/event hybrids. The architecture does not function without the event and vice versa, and the announcement of the event through large signage is an integral part of the architectural language. The signage of the new ‘escape architects’ often recalls and resonates with the past lives of the spaces they occupy; petrol stations, roof tops or underground road and rail infrastructures have their own language.

The Kings Cross Filling Station is a bar, restaurant, social and cultural space by Carmody Groarke and Office of Change, in a disused petrol station on York Way and the Regents Canal. The programme is contained in the left over rectilinear componant parts of the site’s former life, which are wrapped in a 200m long, reusable, scalloped fibreglass wall. The old petrol station elements are silhouetted as ghostly shadows when the space is lit at night from inside. The signage in pale green neon is fixed to the former station’s forecourt canopy, and doubled by reflection in the canal. This is a temporary structure with a two year life span that occupys the gap between dereliction and construction on a 67 acre development site. Like many pop-up structures, scaffolding forms the supporting skeleton.
Cineroleum is another project by Assemble Studio, also located in a derelict petrol station, of which there are now over 4,000 in London. The name, also in large neon letters, replaces the former station signage. This simple but powerful project is reduced to a single gesture; the theatrical action of a curtain rising. The clarity and power of the desired effect was reinforced by the site’s roadside location. Engi Meacock described how the sense of enclosure – heightened by the intimate, flickering film light and smell of pop-corn – suddenly shifted when the performance ended, the curtain rose and the audience instantly became the spectacle. The impact of being thrown into an unexpected urban dialogue, of being exposed back to the city, one visitor felt was as shocking as having one’s ‘trousers pulled down’ (or perhaps one’s ‘skirt lifted’), in public.

Banksy created ‘The Lambeth Palace’, a dark, damp and grimy pop-up cinema in the disused arches and tunnels in Leake Street under Waterloo Station. It lasted only a week and was designed to show his own film, ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’. A flickering bonfire of old master canvases lit an anarchy sign, unveiled by a mural of the Queen. A blood red painted slash became the graffitted red carpet that was read as a short-hand signifier for the event, hailing an anarchic, underground premiere.
Another Carmody Groarke project, Studio East Dining, was situated on top of a 35m high carpark located on the live building site of the 2012 Olympics. It was effectively a viewing machine or crashing together of inhabitable telescopes, focused to create a 360 degree panorama of the site. The project’s very short lifespan of only three weeks dictated the scaffolding and thin skin construction, with materials ‘borrowed’ from the surrounding building site. All was dismountable, and reuseable after the event.

There is a tendency among the Temporal projects, with their short life spans, to reduce the architecture to signifier. One element is abstracted out and magnified to symbolise an activity. In the way that Jacques Tati’s workplace is simplified and exaggerated to become a iconic grid of work cubicles, so here a simple, loaded element is singled out to represent the entire architectural programme. In this swiftly shifting world, the twilight zone between life and entertainment is made into a tangible object. A CURTAIN = THEATRE in Cineroleum, at Studio Dining East, a single long TABLE = RESTAURANT, at The Lambeth Palace, the painted slash of a RED CARPET = PREMIERE. At Frank’s Café & Campari Bar, where a simple all-saturating, red fabric canopy oversails a bar on the rooftop of a multi-storey car park in Peckham, PINK LIGHT = CAMPARI; here the pop-up and the sponsor merge into one, where the product, a pink aperitif, is made spatial through light, and turned into an immersive, inhabitable space.

Insights & Outside
Temporal, Stealth and Ex-Territorial schemes all offer insights to London in different ways. Temporal schemes are often located in parts of the city that are not normally occupied, and so give a privileged, secret view for a limited time. Stealth projects are sited in spatially or legally complex or compromised sites which drive the geometry or design. Here the challenge is to avoid overlooking, encroachments or breaches, and the means for bringing in light or creating views out can become quite convoluted spatial games.

Caruso St John’s Brick House was built in 2001-2005, effectively in an irregular well of a plot in Notting Hill Gate. It is surrounded and overlooked on all sides. The architects explain the choice of a site ‘of almost insuperable difficulty’ as the result of the will of their clients; ‘their determination to [build] in a particular part of the city where conventional plots were used up many years ago….The accidental but wildly spatial shape of the site has been used to form the living spaces’ . The architecture is conditioned by the site to such a degree, that the effect is of an ‘internal force pressing the walls and roof out against the buildings around it’ . The views are internalised and self reflective, the building form is sculpted by physical and legal constraints and focused into looking back on itself.

Blind-Spotting is a project we are currently working on in London. It is a three story extension that is designed to be invisible on top of a three story building. Literally invisible to the eye from the surrounding streets, and metaphorically, to the legislation that hangs over the site like a net.

An initial raked cutting away makes the building disappear from street level, with the form set back behind sight lines. Trajectories of the Ancient Rights to Light sculpt the remaining form, which is carved away wherever it would otherwise obstruct one of its 27 neighbouring windows. This has reverse engineered a finely calibrated form that while visible, has zero impact on the Rights to Light of any of the surrounding properties. The sculpted form of the building is not a willful one, but one that crouches below and in between invisible legal and economic relationships, or that opens up a hollow core to let transverse views penetrate through. Based on these multiple layers of invisibility the project develops an architectural strategy out of the London condition: ‘blind-spotting’ architecturally subverts the notion of the building as ‘trading floor’ for the abstract monetary titles of the Ancient Rights to Light. In a further game of ‘selective vision’, Amwell Street uses optical devices, such as periscopes, to draw specific views into the internal space, and to block others.

Skin & Bones
The skeletons of many of these projects are often part revealed, and part concealed under their skin, sign or signifier. These transitory projects are often assembled with the bones of scaffolding systems, which remain partly exposed like anatomy drawings that illustrate the completed whole and the composite layers in a single cut-away image. The theatrical effect and the means of producing it are simultaneously on display.

The materiality of many of these projects is the result of quick negotiations, cheap or temporary materials and found, donated or sponsored elements that then have to be incorporated and designed around. They become constraints in a hierarchy of others that have to be unpacked like Russian dolls to reveal the architectural heart. Scaffolding bars which can be rented at short notice, for brief periods, are robust and easy to reconfigure. They recur as the semi-exposed skeletons in many of these examples. The skins which need the combined qualities of paper, film and cloth, include the industrial grade, heat retractable, high density polyethylene roof membrane of Dining Room East, the glamorous silver spunbonded, olefin sheets that make up the curtain of the Cineroleum, the fibreglass scallops of the Filling Station and the saturating red canopy of Frank’s Café.

Practice Architecture’s ‘Bold Tendencies’, 2011, was sited in a multi-story car-park, and constructed of barley straw. It was in the architects’ words, “hairy organic bale walls sandwiched between two slabs of raw concrete [to] create a space that feels somewhere between an farmyard, a womb and a monastry”. Its simple ‘omega’ plan is a space for performance: orchestral, contemporary dance, talks, poetry and film. The cost, availability and ease of building with hay bales, as well as the smell, associations and acoustics of the material, make it ideal for its purpose here. From the outside, the form reads like a drum, with decorative brass verticals, and a ribbon of electrical cable hanging in swags around the perimeter. Straw must be the epitome of incendiary materials that were chased out of London after the Great Fire to be replaced by bricks, and could only be used this raw as a building material now through its temporary status. Cruikshank’s cartoon ‘London Going Out of Town – or -The March of Bricks and Mortar’ of 1829, about London expansion, shows haystacks fleeing from the progress of development. Now they have snuck back into to town.

Richard Wilson’s Slice of Reality, 2000, that sits on the foreshore of the Thames on the Greenwich Penninsula, was the result of an active act of dissection that removed 85% of the original ocean going sand dredger, leaving only a core, habitable segment. Its open skeleton lets the tide flow through it. According to Wilson, its relative permanence in the Thames Tideway was made possible by describing it to the planning authorities as ‘art’, rather than as architecture or a section of boat. The metaphysical nature of building then, or an underlying intention, can then be a loophole. In the same way MUF created Barking Town Square, a 7 metre high folly recreating a fragment of the “imaginary lost past of Barking” and included decorative terracotta, broken gargoyles and a bronze ram. Liza Fior of MUF described the process of building itself altered by the different categorisation; the process was normal for “an old fashioned act of construction, but so far away from the new norm that it could only be an art commission”.

Flow Softly…
The architectural escapes are fragile. What at one moment appears as a crack within the powerful continuity of London will eventually be absorbed by it. In the way that the South Bank has been a site of brothels, bear-baiting and theatres, pleasure is the thread of continuity that has always run through and remains, institutionalised, in the South Bank Centre of today. London’s precedents are replayed in a constant cycle. Similarly, the ‘pop-ups’ have been taken up by fashion houses and corporate brands, incorporated and co-opted. The surface is closing again. What will be the next architectural escape route?