urban Jigsaw
exhibition review

The following review first appeared in BDOnline on 13 June 2016:

Joanna Day chews over some of the ideas for London’s mis-used spaces that surfaced through a Royal Academy competition 

Is the metaphor of a jigsaw apposite for the evolving project that is the city? In many ways not. There is no finished state, and no one knows what the overall picture will be. There are, however, spaces in the urban puzzle of difficult shapes and sizes, which would benefit from vision and imagination in the mission to find a part to fill them.

Credit should go to the Royal Academy for tackling the idea of brownfield sites in London with this in mind. Recently displayed in their architecture gallery were four speculative, competition-winning approaches to the question of how we can creatively develop brownfield areas in a way that could contribute to the overall puzzle in a valuable way. After all, in the context of increasing population, gentrification and environmental fragility, the stakes of future development are high. I’m sure I’m not the only one in love with London, who finds themselves sometimes pessimistic about its future.

The exhibition was a good demonstration to the wider public of what architects do best, and that’s create alternative versions of what might be. There were also four approaches to the communication of these possibilities, which comprised a compelling overall picture. Techniques included physical models, colour-saturated visualisations, changing digital screens and cartoon-like axonometrics.

The four architects who won the competition to further develop and present their ideas are: Atelier Kite, Chetwoods, Alma-nac, and Maccreanor Lavington with East. The proposals included the Hackney Kitchen where kitchens become communal spaces; the Well-Line, which revives the six-mile long underground Post Office Railway; the introduction of a network of “making” studios in Waterloo; and the reconsideration of courthouses as civic assets.

These projects cover the pressing issues of our time: the need for new models of housing, congestion and pollution, the meeting of the digital and the everyday, the provision – in spatial, social and economic terms – for production as well as consumption, and the importance of public space for civic society.

The presentations were colourful and fun. I would like to visit Atelier Kite’s Food Palace that replaces the “nuclear kitchens” in tiny rented dwellings to propose a new model of shared living and food production, like something out of the pages of a graphic novel. And if anywhere might embrace this idea – not a far cry from the experience of student life – it might be Dalston. And who knew there is a disused underground line ready to be appropriated to deliver your Amazon purchases faster and, in the bargain, unlock roads to become parks? Chetwood’s overhaul of a large stretch of central London might be a little far-fetched, perhaps, but I’m all for bringing infrastructure into the architectural discussion. Likewise, I’m drawn to Alma-nac’s vibrant imaginings of how creative workspaces could be knitted into existing spaces and leftover gap sites like funky mistletoe.

The Maccreanor Lavington / East case for readdressing the design and programming of courthouses is perhaps the most earnest proposal of the four. It deftly uses the examples of both historical civic buildings, and contemporary buildings of other types, such as airports and schools, to reimagine the fate of our court buildings. They currently face a pretty dismal future with several sites about to be lost from the public realm. The analysis aptly demonstrates what happens when blind economics and security concerns dictate the form of our cities unchecked by an overview of the wider social consequences of decision-making. The manifesto is argued in terms of understanding value in terms of social value, urban value, cultural value and future value. It’s a cogently made argument which it’s hard to disagree with.

I hope the new mayor visited the RA and, perhaps on his way for a cup of coffee in the cafe, paused to look seriously at the four proposals on display there. They presented some refreshing and considered thinking about the missing pieces in what makes a city equitable, sustainable and forward-looking. And who’s to say that any of them is unachievable? Is it too much to ask for some imagination from our policy-makers as well as from our creative industries?



The Royal Academy is planning an Urban Jigsaw Revisited event in the autumn, with the winning teams invited back to talk about how their ideas are progressing