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London Festival of Architecture 2012

Entrance/pebble courtyard/pool area of the Re-union public house by Exyzt

The Reunion public house opened its doors on June 23rd and closed on September the 2nd Unfortunately I managed to get there only a couple of days before its closing date otherwise I believe I would have been a regular visitor. It was constructed on Union Street by the Southwark railway arches at the usual space where Exyzt (the architects’ and artists’ collective that designed and built it) have been experimenting with different themes of pop-up public spaces since 2008. (see more of them here)

The room-capsules for overnight guests/entrance ramp/the pool

This year’s space was a public square which opened itself to the street through a series of doorways that implied a boundary but simultaneously ‘invited’ the street in. The doors when opened laid on the floor to form a deck, an in-between surface that one stepped on in order to access the pebbled courtyard. Tables and chaises-longues where there for the visitors to relax at, while children were playing by the shallow pool. The room-capsules for overnight guests were placed by the arches, on a deck that was covered by canopies. Apparently most of the builders/designers stayed there throughout the summer. Under the arches was also the cinema and concert space, the toilets, the bar/kitchen and the dining area. The ‘Reunion’ was inspired by the Beer Act of 1830 according to which any householder could apply for a license to sell and even brew beer from their own front room. Thus beer was served at the bar without a fixed price, but donations were accepted.

Sitting area on the deck by the room-capsules/kitchen-bar/dining area/under the arches

Going around the bar and behind the toilets, the visitors came across a beautiful secret garden where the sauna (which was free for everyone) was placed. In the garden was also a large table with benches for people to have a drink or eat. Furniture, rooms, the sauna, everything in the ‘public house’ was built by the collective.

We chatted a bit with one of its founding members Nicolas Henninger who told us that Exyzt are architects and artists from different countries that are interested in experimenting with public spaces. The Reunion was included in the program of this year’s London Festival of Architecture. The land is privately owned but has been used by Exyzt in different projects, a number of times already. A building permission was required and issued for its temporary use but ultimately the collective got together, designed and built it. He also told us that all the wood that was used was going to be recycled when the place closed down.

The secret garden/Sauna and dining-drinking area

Apart from the overall arrangement and aesthetics of the space that was beautiful in a simple and effective way, I particularly enjoyed the details: the drawn carpet on the floor in front of the shop, the idea box, the wooden mosaic by the pool, the sculptured wooden howl in the window of one of the toilets. Those additions made evident that the people involved truly enjoyed themselves and left their mark. Since I visited the space towards the end of its existence I had the opportunity to witness a lived-in and enjoyed space.

View from the sauna/table at the secret garden/view of the Shard between arches and canopy

I have to admit that in the past I have not been too keen on the whole trend of pop-up spaces. I believe that this was the reason why I barely managed to visit the Reunion before it was torn down. To my experience pop-up restaurants, bars, shops etc exist in order to take advantage of the financial opportunity that presents itself within the intense urban environment, where people consume spaces and are constantly searching for new ones to spend their money at. There is loads to be said on this subject of places being absorbed in the capitalist game in order to quench the consumers’ thirst for new experiences. However the Re-union public house did not give me this impression at all. It seemed like an inspired architectural hub where people experimented and enjoyed both building and using it. The local community and visitors that frequented it, seemed to embrace and enjoy it to the fullest and for that reason I believe that the experiment was truly successful.

Read more about the Re-union public house by Exyzt here

Details:The painted carpet/the wooden mosaic at the pool/the idea box/the howl at the toilet window

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photo via LFA website find it here

This year’s London Festival of Architecture revolved around the theme ‘The Playful City” in an attempt to examine the Olympics’ effect. Checking the program it seemed that a debate aspiring to decide if ‘London needs to learn how to play’ was a must-attend event. However it was unclear to me from the beginning if by ‘London’ the organisers were referring to the city’s public spaces or the actual Londoners and if it was the latter how could the citizens’ playfulness be separated from the spaces they were supposed to play at. The political dimension of the subject was totally ignored by chairwoman Daisy Froud in her introduction. Instead she defined play as the process of ‘taking risks together’ adding that she was reintroduced to this concept after becoming a mother.

The speakers invited were Peter Murray, author, LFA’ s founding director, and former chairman of international consultancy Wordsearch, Peter Fleming professor of Work and Society at Queen Mary college and author of ‘Dead man working’ and Clive Dutton, Newham’s executive director for regeneration.

Peter Murray’s presentation. Images of pall mall game/2004 LFA/Londoners playing

Peter Murray was the first speaker and he started by stating that Londoners do not need to learn how to play. He attempted to be controversial suggesting that it is not accurate to examine playfulness in association with the Olympics because for the athletes sports are work. He also said that athletes are not really healthy as they put their bodies under tremendous stress and they have high mortality rates in relatively young age. Additionally, since the Olympic sponsors are junk food providers, this is what is mainly consumed at the games hence they are unhealthy for the visitors as well. That was already quite contradictory as this year’s London Festival of Architecture title ‘The Playful city’ was chosen exactly because of the Olympics. He explained that the LFA’s aim was not to reproduce the games in the streets of London but to make the city generally more playful. In the images projected while he spoke, random Londoners engaged in sports like pall mall and ping pong. He finished by showing a photo from 2004 LFA where turf was laid down on a London street and mentioned that people knew how to sit down and enjoy it by having a picnic.

Peter Fleming started his presentation by saying that being playful in London is not a psychological question but a sociological one and was more related to the neo-liberal favouritism towards privatisation of public places, than the Londoners’ ability to play. The increasingly authoritarian companies promote conservative ways of playing in order to satisfy people’s inherent need to play which is a fundamental need of humanity. By ‘conservative play’ he meant the childish games invented by fun-sunltants (consultants of fun employed by companies to entertain their over-worked employees). He added that a meaningful emancipatory way of playing springs from the joy of pure democracy and he used the Paris Commune as an historical example. This sort of care-freeness challenges and changes society and should be a civic norm, not the privilege of a very small elite. He concluded by posing the question:” Do we actually dare to play like that?”

Clive Dutton mainly presented statistics and numbers in order to show that Newham (Olympics’ host) was the loveliest, happiest and most playful area of London. Apparently this is proven by the fact that Newham has one of the highest birthrates in the country and the majority of its inhabitants are under 34. We additionally learned by Clive’s speech that London is playful, stimulating and exciting because it has 7.000 pubs 25.000 acres of parkland, 14.000.000 tourists per year and organised 10.000 street parties for the Queen’s diamond jubilee, consequently it does not need to learn how to play.

Top photo Peter Fleming/middle and bottom photo Clive Dutton’s presentation

After the panel’s presentations, the audience contributed to the discussion with very interesting comments. An architecture school graduate suggested that cities are places where people come into contact with systems and negotiate social landscapes. He also said that since the 80’s law and order has increasingly been more oppressive, discouraging the inhabitants’ interaction with their environment. Additionally he mentioned that the ‘right to the city’ as it was introduced by the Situationists, has nothing to do with the ‘right’ to have a picnic on a patch of grass that has been temporarily installed somewhere. Meaningful play is about the evaluation and transformation of social relationships.

Someone else in the audience mentioned that playfulness is largely associated with youthfulness and that most people are actually terrified of playing.

A man shared his personal story of having played football at Hackney marshes every weekend for years and recently not been allowed to do so because of a BBC Olympics related event. Peter Murray turned this argument around by saying that he should not complain as he was allowed to play football all weekends except that particular one, which proves that London generally is a playful city.

Another man in the audience mentioned that he had recently spent 6 months in China and Londoners should not complain as freedom to play is much less in Shanghai.

Clive Dutton kept asking the audience ‘what would you do if you could sprinkle magic dust and change London in order to increase its playfulness’. Several people replied that they would undo the privatisations and remove some of the rules and regulations. Still Clive disregarded those comments and insisted that people were not replying his question with a valid proposal. He also sidetracked the discussion by reading a list of the 10 most miserable places to live in the US in order to make London look like paradise. The audience admittedly found that amusing.

Finally Peter Murray said that upsetting the counsellors at school or stealing apples from the orchard is an anti-authoritarian practice that is ultimately pleasurable. Contradicting himself once again he admitted that at times London is a difficult place to live in but that is where its beauty derives from. It is not clean, it is not Singapore, it has chewing gum on the side-walks and police in the streets and that at times he finds amusing to be chased by security guards when cycling through private places. When chairwoman Daisy Froud agreed with him adding that play would not be as fun if there were no restrictions, Peter Fleming intervened telling them they were playing a dangerous game as this argument could be pushed to extremes in order to justify any authoritarian neo-fashist society to which one should be ‘grateful’ to, for aspiring a sense of rebellion to the people. He concluded by saying that the magic dust that Clive kept referring to was the fact that Londoners are somehow still managing to have fun, regardless of the impossible neo-liberal system that increasingly deprives them of their rights and playfulness.

What I concluded from this debate was that it was similarly informative to the ‘Defence of the Public realm’ event but had a totally different feeling to it. It was more conservative and supportive of the statement that London is playful enough and does not need any alterations. Even the chairwoman did not do such a good job in being impartial, in my opinion she was rather biased in favour of the idea that London does not need to learn to be more playful . However a vote by raising hands was held in the end and the outcome showed that the audience believed the opposite.

The debate took place in the RIBA on the 26th of June 2012

Listen to the whole debate here

LFA 2012 program here

Defence of the Public Realm was an extremely interesting debate that took place on the 25thof June in Bishopsgate Institute as an event within London Festival of Architecture 2012. It was very informative as far as actual facts about public, semi-public and private ‘open’ spaces are concerned. However most importantly, it was a place where poetic justice was attributed. For an hour and a half logic was restored and it was rather obvious who was interested in the well-being of people and who was interested in profit, regardless of anyone’s well-being.

Photo by Grant Smith shown at Defence of the Public Realm. Find his website here

The event was organised and hosted by photographers Grant Smith, Jonathan Warren and Marc Vallée and the speakers were Marc Vallée, Mark Camley Director of operations at the Olympic Park, Anna Strongman co-manager of the King’s Cross ‘regeneration’ project on behalf of Argent Development, Anna Minton author of Ground Control and Olly Zanetti, free-lance journalist and pHd candidate.

To briefly present some of the key points of the speakers’ presentations Marc Vallée spoke of his interest in photographing places that have been designed and constructed in order to avert certain users from using them. Some examples are open air spaces where architectural ‘accessories’ have been installed so that skaters cannot skate or homeless people cannot lay down to sleep. Those spaces seem public but in fact are privately owned and are intended mainly for commercial use.

Anti-skateboarding devices on the Spitalfields Estate on Sunday 1 April 2012 in London, England. Photo by Marc Vallée, find his website here

Anna Strongman was there to support the developers who produce those commercial spaces and to quote her she “will not apologize for that” as “the owners have invested in them”. According to what she said, 40% of King’s Cross regeneration project is meant for public use and some of it will be adopted by local authority. However Granary Square will be privately managed by an estate team to their cost. She stated though that the management regime is not an arbitrary one and that the legislation that regulates public behaviour will be followed. She also mentioned that private developers ‘give’ to the public high standard spaces that were previously unused and in order to maintain their high standards matters of excessive drinking, public decency and proper protesting are constantly discussed and renegotiated.

Mark Camley spoke about the Olympic Park which aims to reflect the ethics of the Queen. His presentation was accompanied by many slides of CGI renderings and diagrams that supported the view that the Olympic Park is the ‘missing stitch’ in London’s fabric that will transform derelict and overgrown areas in order to ‘create wealth and reduce poverty’ by creating healthier environments.

Slides from Mark Camley’s presentation

Anna Minton spoke of large scale privatisation in London that basically creates segregated high security places. Referring specifically to the Olympics she said that initially they were meant to be funded by Land Lease (Australian developer) but because of the economic crisis and the bank bail-out, the company was unable to get the funds hence the development was financed only 2% by private companies while the rest of the budget was met by the public sector. Regardless of that, private companies currently manage the venture and will take advantage of the estates in the future. She also mentioned Boris Johnson’s manifesto (read here) according to which: “..this type of ‘corporatisation’ occurs, especially in the larger commercial developments and Londoners can feel excluded from part of their own city.”

Robin Priestley spoke of Space High-jackers actions in various occasions and their declaring themselves the London 2012 official protesters. Naturally this has already caused them considerable trouble as they have actually attempted to use the trademarked Olympic logo. Priestley very specifically stated that the group has no objection in people being interested in sports but their actions aim to show that the large multi-national corporations are using the Olympics in order to gain the maximum profit by controlling public spaces and imposing extreme security measures.

Finally, Olly Zanetti said that a good public space should include a great deal of ‘bad’ otherwise it only promotes segregation. He argued that people who are excluded from some areas, are also excluded from society itself. Being physically banned from public spaces by definition renders them unwanted in other areas of social life as well.

Following the presentations, the audience engaged in a very interesting discussion with the panel where it was mentioned among other things that  the exclusion of some users from private-commercial spaces promotes mainly the owners interests and ultimately only protects people from each other. Also that relying on CCTV makes people feeling less responsible for each other and that unfortunately public spaces are no atopia either as they are highly monitored and many restrictions apply to them as well.

What stayed with me the most was Robin Priestley’s story about a Space Hijackers action when they challenged a group of tipsy bankers in the City to a game of cricket (see photos and read more about it here). The square that hosted their game was private hence no such conduct was allowed there. Soon the police arrived and when the players where threatened, the high-jackers took a step back and let the bankers take on the fight with the police, stating that they had every right to play there as their office overlooked that open space and they deserved to use it as they wanted. The beauty of this story is its utter absurdity, when one realises that rules imposed on quasi-public places are rigid and random and truly only manage to protect people from relating to each other and the environment.

Robin Priestley during his presentation projected behind him Space hijackers website. Find it here

Many stories were heard on how protesting, photographing etc. are not allowed in half of London as it is private land by now something that unfortunately it is not known to most  Londoners, simply because the majority of private spaces are not signalled as such. In fact the people who have been labelled as vandals, trespassers and radicals are merely trying to inform the rest of us about the freedoms that we have been deprived of. Unfortunately this deprivation was achieved gradually in a concealed manipulative way. In fact some of the presentations were rather patronising and manipulative as well. For example, when Mark Camley said that the majority of people when presented with a blank piece of paper and asked what would they require from a park or a public space the only thing they can come up with are toilets and parking spots. Not that there is anything wrong with this request, still it was mentioned in a cynical and patronising tone, implying that people are ignorant like children hence the developers should do the planning for them.

Debates as this one are extremely valuable events because they provide a plane for discussion and disagreement, which should be facilitated and celebrated. After all most good ideas emerge as the synthesis of opposite views. However they are also valuable in reflecting painful truths that are meticulously concealed by those who have interests in doing so. What I am referring to is what Anna Minton mentioned in her closing argument, that public spaces are a reflection of our society and its structures and what is being demonstrated in the public spaces within contemporary cities and particularly London is that we are members of a society that increasingly promotes social exclusion.

Listen to the whole debate here

London Festival of Architecture 2012 program here

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