Thursday, October 02, 2014
Last week TfL launched a consultation on upgrading Cycle Superhighway 2 between Bow and Aldgate. Yesterday they finally got round to releasing data on how it will impact other road users. That's peculiar timing, especially given that half of CS2's four public consultation events have have already taken place. Why the delay? Perhaps TfL held back because backroom staff couldn't churn out the numbers in time, or perhaps they delayed things deliberately to hide some nasty surprises in the figures. Let's investigate...
Smallprint: The datasheet is here. Before we dive in, you should note the following. TfL have compared journey times now with journey times two years hence, and assumed that traffic volumes in 2016 will remain at current levels. They've analysed road journeys to the nearest second, but I've rounded times to the nearest half minute to aid clarity. TfL's data considers only the morning and evening rush hours, because that's when the roads are at their busiest. They've taken into consideration 20 traffic upgrade schemes elsewhere in London which might have additional impact along CS2. And they've assumed the introduction of enhanced traffic signal phasing, as was used for Olympic traffic management.
We'll start with eastbound journeys from Aldgate to the Bow Roundabout. Eastbound traffic is busiest in the evening, and runs against the general flow in the morning. How long do these journeys take now, and how long will they take in 2016 after CS2 is upgraded?
CS2 Average eastbound travel times
(Aldgate to Bow)
Morning peak Evening peak 2014 2016 change 2014 2016 change Cyclist 16m 17m +1m 18m 17m -1m No. 25 bus 22m 23½m +1½m 24½m 25m +½m Car driver 11½m 12m +½m 13m 13½m +½m
Interesting. Cyclists won't see much of a change in journey time, with speeds slightly slower in the morning peak and slightly faster in the evening. The real benefit for those on bikes isn't in getting from A to B more quickly, it's in getting there more safely. Buses will run a little slower as a result of the carriageway changes, but only by a minute or two, which the average passenger may not notice. And journeys by car will barely be affected at all, running only fractionally slower even at the busiest times. No road user faces a change in journey time greater than 7%. That's not too bad is it?
But things are different going the other way, that's from Bow to Aldgate. This is the direction that's busiest in the morning, and against the flow in the evening.
CS2 Average westbound travel times
(Bow to Aldgate)
Morning peak Evening peak 2014 2016 change 2014 2016 change Cyclist 22m 19m -3m 22m 19m -3m No. 25 bus 26m 27½m +1½m 28m 29½m +1½m Car driver 14½m 21½m +7m 15m 18m +3m
In very good news, come 2016 westbound cyclists will be able to travel along the Bow, Mile End and Whitechapel Roads faster than they do now. That's a full three minutes faster from one end to the other, no matter what the time of day. The number 25 bus will take an extra minute and a half, again no matter what the time of day. But oh dear, things will be much worse for car drivers. They face a mammoth 50% increase in journey time in the morning rush hour, up from 14 minutes to 21, and a 20% increase in the evening. That's a highly significant slowdown, the equivalent of spending one extra day on the road each year, deliberately and directly caused by upgrading three miles of cycling infrastructure. Car drivers, truck drivers and taxi drivers aren't going to be happy.
Something else significant changes westbound in the morning peak, and that's the fastest form of transport. Normally cars are faster than bikes, indeed if you check all the other scenarios above they still are. But for those commuting into the City in the morning, by 2016 cycling will be quicker than driving your car. If anything's going to encourage modal shift from four wheels to two, it's the realisation that bike journeys might be both safer and faster.
Meanwhile, tucked away at the foot of TfL's CS2 datasheet are some figures about how pedestrians will be affected. Here the impact comes from the rephasing of traffic lights, and subsequent changes in how long it takes to cross a road. Four existing pedestrian crossings will change from staggered two-part crossings to straight-across, and this'll speed things up for those on foot. But at the six typical junctions sampled in TfL's data, pedestrians will have a lot more waiting around to do.
CS2 Average pedestrian waiting times Morning peak Evening peak 2014 2016 change 2014 2016 change Aldgate Gyratory 43s 64s +21s 42s 61s +21s Whitechapel station 48s 72s +24s 48s 70s +22s Cambridge Heath Rd 54s 68s +14s 54s 69s +15s Stepney Green 64s 74s +10s 64s 77s +13s Mile End station 66s 83s +17s 57s 73s +16s Bow Rd/Fairfield Rd 73s 98s +25s 73s 98s +25s
It seems pedestrians are the biggest losers. They're going to have to wait longer at junctions all along CS2, on average 10 to 25 seconds longer, as the traffic lights are rephased in favour of cyclists. TfL's plans require safe passage for bikes, which often means additional cycle-only phases and the introduction of early start lights. And this means that traffic lights will take longer to change, and so average waiting times will increase dramatically, by anything from 15% to 50%. I am not happy about this.
The worst figures are for my local road junction on the corner of Bow Road and Fairfield Road. At present pedestrians have to spend an average of 1 minute 13 seconds waiting for the green man, but in 2016 that increases to 1 minute 38 seconds. The extra 25 second delay is because two new right turns are being created for cyclists, which sounds great, but requires specific bike-only time in the traffic light cycle. What's more, relatively few cyclists use Fairfield Road at present, so this extra time may be entirely redundant for most of the day. More agile pedestrians are unlikely to hang around on the pavement for nearly two minutes, they'll carry on dashing across gaps in the traffic like they do now. But those of us on foot are clearly bottom of the heap in the CS2 upgrade, like it or lump it.
Have you responded to the CS2 upgrade consultation yet? If you're a cyclist, it's your chance to say how much you approve. But if you drive into the City in the morning, or if you're a lowly pedestrian, you may have harsher words. Speak now to prevent TfL wasting your time in 2016. Or buy a bike.
posted 07:00 :
Wednesday, October 01, 2014This really happened.
TfL have decided that the time is finally right to consider an extension of the Bakerloo line into southeast London. Such plans were first mooted 100 years ago, so they haven't rushed. But there is now broad agreement that the rail black hole in northern Southwark needs plugging, and that extending the under-used brown line from Elephant and Castle is the best way to do it. You lucky lucky people.
Many routes for the Bakerloo extension have been proposed over the years, but nobody's ever been able to make up their minds which of them is best. Hence the motivation behind this latest consultation is to put some ideas on the table and ask the public which they prefer, with the aim of firming up which alignment needs proper planning for the future.
[consultation] [map] [FAQ] [background] [analysis]
Only one thing is certain, which is that the extension will at some point reach New Cross Gate and Lewisham. But there are then three things to decide, marked in blue, brown and pink on the map above, and the first of these is the most important. Which way will the Bakerloo line tunnel head immediately after leaving Elephant and Castle, will it be east towards the Old Kent Road (option 1a) or south towards Camberwell and Peckham (option 1b)? Both are deserving cases.
Camberwell has been in dire need of a railway station ever since the last one closed in 1916, and is one of the last significant urban centres in Zone 2 not to have a rail connection. A Bakerloo line station here would transform the area, removing the need for the local population to have to catch the bus first before they can get anywhere. But then the same could be said for the alternative route. The Old Kent Road has been in dire need of a railway station ever since the last one closed in 1917, and is one of the last significant urban centres in Zone 2 not to have a rail connection. Two Bakerloo line stations here would transform the area, removing the need for the local population to have to catch the bus first before they can get anywhere.
What's intriguing is what's not on the table. A route via Burgess Park had long been a potential option, that's roughly halfway between options 1a and 1b. This missed the main roads but scored a direct hit on the least accessible spot in inner London - the heart of the Aylesbury Estate. From here the route could have continued to Peckham or to the Old Kent Road, meeting other long term needs, but no, this central option is dead in the water. Also defunct is the option of a station in Walworth. This ought to be an obvious halt on the run to Camberwell, but no, it's been skipped in favour of a two kilometre run without stopping, no expense spent.
So who wins? There is only one logical outcome to Southwark's tunnelling tussle, which is that the Camberwell option will lose. It's ridiculously indirect, for a start, wiggling around all over the place to tick off a few key stations along the way, and increasing journey time for anyone trying to get into town from further out. It only creates one new transport node rather than two, and it doubles up on an existing direct link between Peckham Rye and Lewisham, which could only be a waste of money. Whereas two new stations along the Old Kent Road would be in an almost straight line from E&C to Lewisham, and create a more direct hit on the heart of the existing railway-less zone. There's also more potential for residential development along the way, plus the Old Kent Road in Monopoly is brown, QED.
Lewisham might be the end of the line, or it might not, that's the second important option. Lewisham is the extension's key target, so why go further? It also marks the point where the line would come out of tunnel and run overground, so stopping here would save plenty of money. This would be an unambitious choice, for sure, but it remains the most likely austerity option. But if a further extension goes ahead then a new connection would be made and the existing railway line to Beckenham and Hayes would be entirely absorbed into the Underground. No longer would the residents of Catford be able to catch a direct train to London Bridge, but they could instead get to Oxford Circus, which might be deemed an improvement.
The third and final option concerns an extension to Bromley. A new tunnel would be built from somewhere beyond Beckenham Junction, stopping somewhere, terminating somewhere - the plans aren't any more than woolly thoughts at present. In reality the connection wouldn't be as brilliant as it sounds, indeed the journey time to Oxford Circus would be much the same as it is today. But imagine the joy if the Underground ever came to Bromley, not to mention the political capital to be made.
Excited by all this? Don't be.
For a start, a Bakerloo line extension won't be completed before 2030, probably later. We're only at the route consultation stage, there are no concrete plans, nothing that could be enacted under the ground in the immediate future. And 2030 is miles away, as far into the future as the opening of the Jubilee line extension is in the past. Time was when a new underground line could be thrown together in a few years, maybe even a decade or so, but today's technological advances only ever seem to slow things down. Nobody in Clock House, Catford or Camberwell will be catching the Bakerloo any time soon.
More importantly, there's absolutely no money. The extension isn't funded, indeed has no likelihood of being funded, at least not from the public purse. TfL don't run a speculative construction company, so can't just dig tubes in the ground to follow crayoned lines on maps. Indeed the most telling paragraph in the entire consultation document is this one...
As has been the case for other major infrastructure projects (such as Crossrail and the Northern Line Extension), any funding package is likely to include contributions from new residential and commercial developments along the proposed extension. This means that in order for the Bakerloo line extension to be progressed, further development along the proposed route is required. It is unlikely the extension can happen without this new development.If a Bakerloo line extension is built, it won't be to improve social capital. Just as Crossrail is only stopping in Woolwich because Berkeley Homes paid, and just as the Northern line is only going to Battersea because the Power Station's owners threw cash, so the Bakerloo extension will join up the places where developers can find the most money. The new line may benefit some existing residents of southeast London, but its unspoken intention is the attraction of incomers, bringing the greatest windfalls to those who sell property and build shops.
Don't get me wrong, a Bakerloo line extension would be far better built than unbuilt, and this corner of London needs a leg-up more than most. But don't get your hopes up that anything'll happen soon, indeed best not get any hopes up at all.
posted 07:00 :
Tuesday, September 30, 2014Of all the Underground's abandoned stations, one looks more deserving of its fate than most.
Blake Hall was less a station and more a halt in the middle of nowhere. It was located at the far end of the Central line, about halfway between North Weald and Ongar, on a remote country lane in the rural south of Essex. Trains paused regularly to open their doors to birdsong, if not to passengers, then clattered off across the fields to fractionally busier platforms elsewhere. It's said that Sir John Betjeman's dream job would have been to be the stationmaster here, holed up in a redbrick house that could have been 200 miles from the City but was instead swiftly connected by train. By 1981 Blake Hall famously boasted only six passengers a day, a fact which makes perfect sense if you've ever visited the spot. And when economic truth finally caught up with this humble backwater, the trains still clattered by, but the birdsong went unheard.
After closure those half dozen passengers found other ways to travel, probably involving cars, and the station building was sold off as a private residence. Trains still ran by, peak hours only, and the platform was subsequently removed in case drivers ever felt tempted to pause and let a sneaky traveller disembark. Things must have got quieter still in 1994 when the entire branch line closed, and then very slightly busier again ten years later when the Essex Ongar Railway began tentative services. The line's owner loved Blake Hall's railwayside isolation so much that he bought the place, and now lives behind grand gates at the foot of a long drive in a somewhat extended house. Last year he even rebuilt the station's platform, not so that scheduled steam trains could stop, but I suspect the odd special pauses here out of hours when nobody else is looking.
By rights Blake Hall station should never have been built. When the railway came to Ongar in the 1860s the local landowner had insisted that a station be built to serve his stately pile, a 36 bedroom mansion that's not actually anywhere near the railway. Blake Hall (for that was its name) lies over a mile away in the village of Bobbingworth, exactly the same distance from its own station as it was from Ongar, just to add to the pointlessness of construction. It would have made better sense to name the tiny halt after a closer village, or rather hamlet, of which there were several. Greensted Green would likely have been the winning candidate, but I'd love to have seen Upper Bobbingworth Green on the tube map, or better still Toot Hill.
All of which correctly suggests that reaching the site of Blake Hall station these days is a bit of a challenge. If you've got a car, fine. Take the winding lane off the A414 and drive down to the humpy bridge across the railway, then look for somewhere to park. If it's the weekend you might get away with pulling up in the forecourt of the only other building hereabouts, that's Stationbridge House. This metal shed looks like it'd be more at home in Debden, and serves a company that supplies disposable cleaning, catering and hygiene products - that's paper towels and plastic cutlery to you mate. I suspect they have enough employees to have more than doubled passengers numbers at the station across the road, if only it had stayed open, or run at sensible times.
Or you can catch the train and then walk. Normally the nearest station's in far-off Epping, but that's not a problem because this is the starting point of the Essex Way, an 82-mile waymarked trail to Harwich. Toot Hill comes about five miles in, from which you can walk another mile up the lanes to Blake Hall bridge. But on EOR days you can walk in direct from North Weald or Ongar, each in this case about an hour distant. I'd recommend Ongar, partly because you follow the Essex Way for longer, but also because roughly halfway you pass the oldest wooden church in the world. St Andrew's Greensted includes 51 timber planks that predate the Norman Conquest, although there's evidence of 6th and 7th century wooden structures beneath the chancel. Step inside and it's gorgeous, all atmospheric beamwork and stained glass, plus a table of jams and preserves for sale at the back.
Or you can catch the bus. Toot Hill merits a tiny number of buses a day, but on Sundays the Epping Ongar Railway run three heritage services on route 381, departing North Weald as part of your general admission. They use an old Green Line coach, beautifully restored, which hurtles round a circuit of narrow lanes no double decker could cope with. On Sunday the bus was packed out, but that was because the End of Tube event coincided with a mass gathering of old vehicles which many came specifically to admire. The main draw was an extra-rare line-up of the first four Routemaster prototypes, which excited the MWLB beyond compare, while the more Essex element of the audience were more thrilled to see a silver New Bus For London from Bow Garage.
I caught the 381, and persuaded the driver I wanted to alight at Blake Hall. I wasn't the first - a number of other folk had made the same journey by other means, and were standing poised beside the low brick wall along the side of the bridge. There's only one decent reason to visit Blake Hall station these days, other than if you live here, and that's to watch a train go by. More to the point this weekend that meant watching a tube train go by, an occurrence not seen these past twenty years, hence the presence of several gentlemen with cameras and other filming devices. Breakdowns and delays meant we waited rather longer than timetabled, long enough to see a young man emerge from the station building and sit down on the platform with a snack and a bottle of Sarson's in hand. Too much information, I know, but that's what you get for sharing a vantage point with the owner of a telephoto lens.
Eventually a tube train appeared round the bend, proper red end first, and edged closer to the Blake Hall platform. The bloke with the vinegar had gone back inside, as if living here made the passing of rare trains somewhat less special, thereby recreating the more familiar passenger-free scenario. Cameras flashed and lenses whirred to capture the moment, then the group dashed to the other side of the lane to watch the entourage continuing its journey towards Ongar. From this angle the deception behind the illusion was revealed, with four chunky yellow diesels shoving along the three carriages from behind. And as they sped off through the cutting and into the trees I smiled. I'd come all this way to the middle of nowhere to catch an impossible train at an abandoned station, and grabbed the money shot. We may not see the like again.
» 50 photos of the End of Tube event (15 of North Weald, 14 of Blake Hall and 12 of Ongar) [slideshow]
» Today's 15 extra photos
» Video of a ride on bus 381 (Blake Hall is at 10m 45s)
» Blake Hall station: disused, abandoned
posted 07:00 :
Monday, September 29, 201420 years ago tomorrow, the last tube train ran between Epping and Ongar. The last that is until this weekend, when the very same train returned to the very same line and transported many more people than it ever used to do back in 1994. So that was a grand day out.
The railway opened with high hopes, and longer ago than you might think. Ongar was first served in 1865 when the Great Eastern Railway extended their Stratford-Loughton branch deeper into the rural heart of south Essex. Their station at Epping did well, but the line was always single track through the fields beyond and passenger numbers never really took off. London Transport took over in 1949, running only a shuttle service between Epping and Ongar, initially with steam, then later with electrification. The Green Belt prevented major housing development and kept patronage low, and with no more than 650 passengers daily the line became ripe for termination. LT tried in 1980 but succeeded only in cutting the service to peak hours only, and closed an intermediate station the following year. The end came on 30th September 1994, when of course miraculous numbers of passengers turned out, and for the next ten years the line fell silent. Volunteers then began the long job of restoring the line to steam, culminating in a grand reopening in 2012, though still not quite the full line. At present westbound trains terminate in woods at Coopersale, but there are plans to extend to almost-Epping to facilitate interchange with the Central line. End of potted history.
It's not in any way simple to restore tube trains to an ex-tube line. For a start the carriages have to be preserved, as these three have been by the Cravens Heritage Trains trust. The end two date to 1960, while the middle carriage is much older 1938 stock, and has comfier seating to boot. But the biggest problem is that the line's no longer electrified so the trains don't actually work, hence a bit of mechanical sleight of hand was called for. Two Schoma Diesel locomotives were brought in to shunt the three carriages down the line, and then when they proved slightly unreliable their number was doubled up to four. Viewed from outside, from one end of the train, the combination looked most peculiar. But viewed from the front it appeared that the trains were motoring under their own power, just as they would have done 20 years ago. And for those of us sat inside the illusion was complete, so it really did feel like we were speeding through the countryside on a proper tube train.
One other catch, obvious if you think about it, is that the sliding doors didn't work. A member of Epping Ongar Railway staff had to come along and flick an external lever to close the doors mechanically, and even then they often needed an extra tug from one of the volunteers within. Ditto at the end of the ride we had to wait to be let out, and even then only via one set of doors per carriage. Generally that was fine, as we didn't mind being trapped in a carriage decked out with adverts circa 1994 (for Travelcard extension tickets and Oranjeboom lager, amongst others). But by the end of the day the carriages were masquerading as mobile greenhouses, in part thanks to the unseasonably warm weather but also due to the increasing numbers of passengers within. Those who turned up for the first train of the day faced mostly empty seats, but by mid-afternoon it was standing room only - unheard of on the Ongar line!
They came in great numbers, the trainkeen. You could tell most by their enthusiasm, and by their sharp-lensed cameras for the recording of the day. People stood nicely to give everyone their turn to photograph a train, and engine, whatever, or at least they did for most of the time. Ladies were very definitely in the minority, and girls under 18 almost non-existent... unlike their extremely trainkeen brothers. Many had made the effort to come despite not being in the prime of health, and hats off to the young gentleman in a wheelchair for enduring what was very much not a step-free service.
A really nice touch was that the usual station names had been replaced by roundels. The cover-up was only for this weekend, and occasionally you could see the paper flapping off, but the overall effect was highly realistic as if these were the enamel signs that had always been present. Up at Ongar another special sign had been added, indeed unveiled by the Managing Director of London Underground, showing the 0.0km point from which all distances on the network are still measured. And Met 1, the Underground's new pet steam locomotive turned up to run a few of the journeys down the line. She looked magnificent in her polished Metropolitan maroon, but alas she performed less convincingly and broke down (with injector issues) before the first of the day's designated round trips was complete. That buggered the planned timetable somewhat, with a diesel brought in to run the steam service, and later replacing the proper tube service too.
But End of Tube was a splendid event all told, possibly unrepeatable, and much enjoyed by the crowds who turned up. I could write more but I've chosen to illustrate the day via 50 photographs you can click through and view. I'll have more to tell tomorrow about what was going on elsewhere, but for now let me applaud the teamwork and organisation that bought electric trains to a non-electric line. And the best bit of the day was the repeated realisation, speeding through the woods, trees or fields, that I was actually on a tube train shuttling between Epping and Ongar. Never thought I'd see the day again.
» 50 photos of the End of Tube event (15 of North Weald, 12 of Ongar, and 8 of inbetween) [slideshow]
» Possibly the best five photos
» Epping and Ongar Railway [Facebook] [Twitter]
» My report of the opening of the EOR in 2012
» 40 photos of the opening event in May 2012
posted 07:00 :
Sunday, September 28, 2014Time was when most Londoners lived in houses, now most of us live in flats. And the building that kickstarted that change, it can be argued, was a concrete block in Belsize Park.
The Isokon Building on Lawn Road was completed in 1934, the brainchild of Jack and Molly Pritchard. They were designers by trade, mostly of furniture, but wanted to create somewhere completely different to live. What they came up with was a sleek block of flats built from reinforced concrete, unheard of at the time. There were 32 flats in total across four floors, each accessed via an external walkway - another pioneering first. The kitchens were on the small side, but that was fine because there was a communal kitchen on site with a dumb waiter to bring up the meals. Up top was a penthouse, which the Pritchards took for themselves, and downstairs an amazingly eclectic mix of artists, designers and socialites moved in. One of these was Walter Gropius, German architect of the Bauhaus, fleeing from increasingly intolerant conditions in Nazi Germany. And at least four foreign secret agents became tenants, easily disguised amongst the bohemian foreigners on the slopes below Hampstead.
It wasn't long before the communal kitchens became a restaurant - wittily named the Isobar - cementing the Isokon's status as a cultural meeting place. In 1940 the block's most famous resident moved in, none other than Agatha Christie, whose output during the ensuing six years included Sparkling Cyanide and the spy whodunnit N or M? But postwar the building's sparkle faded, entering council ownership in 1972 and falling gently into a state of disrepair. English Heritage Grade I listed the Isokon around the turn of the century, at which time a housing trust took over and restored the building. Rejoice, it's not all been snapped up by oligarchs, it's now shared ownership housing, and rather more affordable than you might expect.
And it's beautiful. The Isokon stands out from the neighbouring housing like a sleek off-white ocean liner, improbably moored up in the shadow of the Royal Free. Every line is clean and measured, if semi-obscured behind a canopy of trees. And no, you can't sneak up the stairwell to walk along the well-scrubbed balcony, this is a private residence after all. But as of this summer you can go inside the garage, which has been kitted out as The Isokon Gallery. Open Saturdays and Sundays, 11am-4pm, should you be in the area or tempted over. [video] [5 photos]
It's not a big space, but there is room inside for a free exhibition on the history of the building nextdoor. Rest assured it's detailed too - the National Trust's had a hand in its curation - combining information with artefacts from the top. Chief amongst these is a set of plywood furniture from the Pritchards' design company, Isokon, perhaps most famous for their angular Long Chair. Also present is a Penguin Donkey Bookcase, a striking low shelf unit with space for 90 Penguin paperbacks and centrally-stashed magazines. It should have been a roaring success but World War Two interrupted after only 100 had been produced, and the plywood supply chain was cut. Budding 21st century Modernists can now buy their own from a revamped Isokon company based in Hackney, but at £670 a shot you'd have to be particularly keen.
Further displays reveal how the building came to be as well as some of its famous residents. Peruse a menu from the Isobar, from an era when Stewed Rabbit and Camp Coffee were deemed socially palatable. A period radio belts out period songs to stir the soul while you glance at period adverts. The penthouse's original copper-coated door is in one corner alongside a recreation of an apartment's kitchen - tiny by modern standards, indeed the walls had to be shifted by 10cm during modernisation to ensure a fridge would fit. A map shows where to find similar Modernist treasures scattered around the Hampstead area. And there's also a small shop stocked with appropriately progressive books, badges and gifts, in case you're already wondering what to get the designeroholic in your life for Christmas.
The Isokon Gallery's only open at weekends and only until October, so don't come without checking it's open first. And it's only a fifteen minuter, but don't let that put you off because there's plenty of other stuff to see nearby. Immediately behind the Isokon is Belsize Wood, a small but perfectly formed nature reserve whose trees have blessed the residents' lounge window views for 80 years. Hampstead Heath's just up the road, as are Burgh House, Keats House and Fenton House, each of which is worth a look. Me, I paid a quid for the Gallery's Hampstead Trail, a map which led me round half a dozen 1930s Modernist houses in the immediate locality. Ernő Goldfinger's home at 2 Willow Road I know well, but the others less so, hence I enjoyed my reinforced concrete tour of the backstreets of Frognal. You'll no doubt know if you would too.
Houses on the Hampstead Trail [3 photos]
posted 07:00 :
Saturday, September 27, 2014A new hotel opened in Holborn this week, and the Evening Standard wrote about it.
You could click through and read their article here. Or you could try my special quiz.
In each of the pairs that follow, one paragraph is taken from the newspaper story and the other paragraph was written by me. I wonder if you can perhaps spot which is which.
Click the sentence you think was written by the genuine journalist and published in an actual newspaper. And then check at the end of the quiz to see how many you got right.
1a) Central perks: why Holborn is the new Hoxton
Coffee is grinding, beards are trimmed and MacBooks are online — Holborn is getting a new eastern flavour, says Susannah Butter
1b) A new hotel has opened
Visitors and local people may use it, says DG
2a) If you go down to Midtown this afternoon you may be pleasantly disorientated. The streets are lined with shops and places to eat and drink; all gleaming and new, yet strangely familiar. The feeling that you've seen them before is correct — for Hoxton has come to Holborn. Central London's cafés are populated with yo-pros, busy on their MacBook Airs in between meeting for cold-pressed juice or figs with ricotta and seasalt and soon the streets will be full of people drinking coffee from white Shoreditch Grind cups, except here it is called Holborn Grind.
2b) In parts, Holborn is quite nice. But the hipster twats are moving in.
3a) All this action is centred around The Hoxton Holborn hotel, which opened this week in a former model toy shop on High Holborn. It’s the latest London branch of The Hoxton Hotel, which reinvigorated Shoreditch when it opened in 2006, with flash-room sales, DJ sets and food tastings. For its big move it has brought along all its friends from the East. Collaborators include everyone from Cheeky Parlour beauty pitstop to the Soho House Group’s Chicken Shop, a downstairs dirty food den, full of hardworking Midtowners in need of fortification in the form of toothsome fried meat and chips.
3b) Hoxton Holborn is not a purpose-built hotel, but has been squeezed into some refurbished BT office space and a former shop for sad men who like model trains. The reception area is quite loud, and the fried chicken is bloody expensive.
4a) This is not the only Eastern migration to an area that is more accessible and yet to be colonised by those with beards and fixie bikes. Timberyard, which was born in Old Street, has expanded its coffee shop to Upper St Martin’s Lane, while Dishoom whose Boundary Street branch is always packed out, has just announced a new location in King’s Cross. But this isn’t a case of copying Hoxton. Holborn has its own particular swagger, including Hubbard & Bell restaurant, an exciting new venture from the Soho House Group at the Hoxton Holborn that describes itself as “a Brooklyn style grill”. That means steak and eggs for breakfast, truffle chips and a belting banana split. The bar will serve mead made from the honey of local bees.
4b) There are at least two food and drink outlets in the area, or three if you're labouring under the misapprehension that King's Cross is near Holborn. Some insects excrete nearby.
5a) “This part of town is turning into somewhere you’d actually cross the city to eat or drink in,” says Catherine Hanly, editor of the Hot Dinners website, an authority on London’s restaurant scene. “The Hoxton’s arrival in Midtown is a big deal for Holborn. Coming less than a year after the ultra luxe Rosewood opened on the same road, the two hotels are transforming the area. There’s a perception that Hoxton has an edge, so bringing East London brands west is an easy way for more mainstream parts of London to get a little of that cool by association.”
5b) Nobody has ever heard of Holborn before, so thank goodness Catherine Hanly noticed a couple of hotels opening and alerted us.
6a) As soon as you enter the vast lobby of The Hoxton Holborn there are options. The low sofas in muted colours are perfect for casual meetings or catching up with emails. Should you want refreshment, the Hubbard & Bell coffee shop has a special machine with parts imported from America, Origin coffee and House Press juice. For the healthy there are breakfast power smoothies — try the oat, blueberry and almond milk — but there is also a counter piled high with croissants and doughnuts.
6b) Anyone can walk in off the street and hog the leather sofas, at least until the doorman chucks them out. But when the coffee machine breaks down it takes a long time for the replacement parts to arrive.
7a) The other coffee option, because one is not enough, is the Holborn Grind. It’s opening soon on the ground floor, with floor to ceiling glass windows on either side. It was chosen by the Hoxton to supply coffee after coming out top in a blind tasting, with nine out of 10 connoisseurs voting their brew the best. This branch will have its own special single blend coffee, and of course serve up the Grind’s famous espresso martinis. Co-founder David Abrahamovitch says, “It’s going to be amazing. Holborn can often be left out as an inbetween place but now it’s becoming a focal point and a great meeting spot.”
7b) "Please come to my coffee shop," says David. "We have great windows."
8a) People who work in the area, at tech giants including Yahoo!, Google and MediaCom, are delighted that they have new places to play. “We chose to open in Holborn as it’s an under-the-radar creative hub,” says Toby Garden, general manager of The Hoxton Holborn.
8b) Nobody has ever heard of Holborn before, so thank goodness Toby Garden opened a hotel on the doorstep of the biggest search engine company in the world.
9a) The hotel hopes to become a place for these people to gather. Nick Jones, founder of the Soho House Group, says: “Holborn, much like Shoreditch before it, has really evolved. You only have to look at the companies opening and moving offices in the area to see this. So, when we were offered the opportunity to partner with the Hoxton, we jumped at the chance. We look forward to getting to know our new neighbours.”
9b) No Shoreditch start-up could possibly afford the rents in Holborn, so multinational companies are moving in instead. Expect WC1 to be crawling with beards within weeks.
10a) Executives who need to fit some grooming into their day can head to The Cheeky Parlour, which has expanded from its Redchurch Street home off Shoreditch High Street to beautify the people of central London. It has pink neon on the walls, six nail stations and three pedicure chairs that make it easy to escape from the strains of professional life. There are parties planned, so what are you waiting for? Quick, make a reservation now while you can still get in to Midtown.
10b) Everyone calls Holborn 'Midtown' these days, don't they? Everyone except the new hotel, which calls it Holborn. It's a new hotel, get over it.
[Check your answers]
posted 07:00 :
Friday, September 26, 2014It's not often that TfL admit they were wrong.
Back in 2011, when Cycle Superhighway 2 opened, they said...
'These vivid blue routes make the world of difference for cyclists on the streets of London, and prove a powerful and visible statement on our roads that assert to every Londoner, whether on two wheels or four, that the capital is a cycling city. Our pilot routes have proved a great success with lots more Londoners leaping into the saddle, and telling us they feel safer on the road.'But this week, with a major upgrade to CS2 planned, they say...
'We are determined to ensure London’s roads are as safe as they can be for cyclists. CS2 runs on a busy and intimidating road, but currently offers cyclists no physical protection from motor traffic.'It is indeed as some of us long suspected, that Cycle Superhighway 2 isn't super at all, nothing more than a blue stripe of paint down the road providing no protection at all. You'd at least expect a cycle lane to be separate, but for much of its length CS2 is merely half of an existing lane of motor traffic, as if someone signed the plans off and said "oh that'll do". When a bus meets a cyclist on CS2, one often gets stuck behind the other. When CS2 comes across a bus stop it gives up, directing cyclists out into the main body of traffic by means of disjoint painted rectangles. And CS2 of course rounds the infamous Bow Roundabout, which at least TfL have tried to fix, but the rest of the Superhighway not so.
Until now, that is. A consultation to improve CS2 was launched this week, following many months of planning behind the scenes to try to get the details right. The lengthy delay is because Bow/Mile End/Whitechapel Road is a tough nut to crack, being a single carriageway trunk road with no obvious parallel backstreets. It'd be lovely to shunt cyclists onto quieter east/west roads but there aren't any, with canals and railways and cemeteries amongst the obstacles creating impenetrable barriers along the way. For precisely the same reason it wouldn't be acceptable to hand over an entire lane both ways to cyclists, because the displaced road traffic has nowhere else to go and central Tower Hamlets would be at risk of seizing up.
So what we're due to get is along the lines of the superhighway extension to Stratford which opened last year. This means proper segregated lanes rather than open blue stripes, plus early start lights plus bus stop bypasses. But the original CS2 is along a narrower road than its extension, which means a lot of the improvements will come at the expense of roadway and pavement. We do have some stonkingly wide pavements along the Bow/Mile End/Whitechapel Road, making width reduction relatively simple, but they also narrow considerably in places which is going to cause issues.
For example I still can't quite work out what TfL's proposals for CS2 mean for the pavement area immediately outside my front door. Seven very detailed maps have been produced, really excellently detailed compared to what public planning processes usually provide. But I'm still having trouble picturing precisely how perilously close to my front step the segregated cycle lane is coming, and whether the amount of pedestrian space will be adequate or not. What I can work out is that TfL propose to close the bus stop immediately before the Bow Flyover because there isn't room to stick a bus stop bypass behind it, so passengers will suddenly have further to walk. And I can also tell I'm going to have walk further myself on my commute to work because various pedestrian crossings are being realigned in ways that make them less direct. I know you're wonderful, cyclists, but all these changes so close to home are making you hard to love.
Here's the line from the consultation that's making non-cyclists nervous.
'Our latest analysis shows the proposals would mean longer journey times for motorists and bus, coach and taxi passengers along most of the route, both during construction and once complete. There would also be longer journey times for users of many of the roads approaching the proposed route and longer waits for pedestrians at some signalised crossings.'As yet TfL haven't got round to quantifying what they think the extent of this disruption might be. They've promised to release some timing predictions later on during the consultation period, but they only erected a string of survey cameras along Bow Road on Wednesday night, so maybe they're still collecting the data. If the flagship East/West and North/South Cycle Superhighways are anything to go by, the impact may spread wider than the immediate vicinity. According to a consultation addendum released yesterday, that project will see westbound traffic on the A13 deliberately held up at lights to control the flow of traffic at Tower Hill. A driver heading from Limehouse to Hyde Park Corner in the morning rush hour can expect their journey time to increase from almost 35 minutes to over 50... a complete change of tack from Boris's original policy of "smoothing the traffic flow".
One significant change on CS2 will be the banning of a handful of right turns to make the cycling infrastructure safer. Two of these near Mile End station sound ridiculous, because there's no obvious way for traffic to find an alternative route. Banning the right turns from Mile End Road into Burdett Road and from Burdett Road into Bow Road will instead nudge drivers round what are currently quiet residential streets, and all because nobody can design a junction properly to suit everyone. Elsewhere, however, cyclists will get a wider range of options than currently, for example with a newly permitted right turn from Fairfield Road into Bow Road.
I have particular concerns about how long the upgrade of CS2 is going to take and how much disruption will be caused. We're promised a start date in early 2015, at which point a substantial amount of digging, realignment and restructuring will begin. That's going to mean lane closures and coned-off pavement on a far greater scale than the original construction of CS2, more like the mess that beset Stratford High Street throughout much of last year. Slower journeys (and increased exhaust emissions) aren't solely the preserve of the upgraded Superhighway, they'll be with us all the way through construction.
There are so many proposed changes along the road from Aldgate to Bow that local residents and road users really need to engage. The best way, you'd think, would be to attend one of the public consultation events that TfL have organised. But there are only four of these, and you've already missed one because it took place less than 24 hours after the consultation was announced. The remaining three all take place at the Idea Store in Whitechapel, with one this Saturday (11-3), one late on Tuesday 7 October (3-7) and the last during the daytime on Friday 10 October (10-4). Compared to the number of consultation events the EW/NS Superhighways are getting, this is utterly pitiful. But you need to get in there with your comments by 2nd November, because TfL will only reconsider their plans if people go to the effort of pointing out positive ways in which they might be improved.
So yes, obviously a segregated cycle lane along Bow/Mile End/Whitechapel Road is a bloody good idea. It's what TfL should have built originally rather than merely painting the road blue and pretending this was good enough. But don't imagine it'll all be rosy, and don't think that only car drivers will be penalised. My pavement's going to be compromised, my walking routes are going to be extended, my waiting times at pedestrian crossings will be increased and my bus journeys are going to take longer. I wish the East End's cyclists well, obviously, but don't expect me to be pleased.
posted 07:00 :
Thursday, September 25, 2014Sorry, I did go on a bit about Open House this year. The event is like Architectural Christmas for those of us who love London but, all the same, five days of reporting back might be too much. What most people want to read isn't reports of what they could have seen but didn't, but previews of stuff they could still enjoy. I'd hope that my enthusiasm might make you more likely to take up the Open House gauntlet next year, but that's 360 days away and you'll most likely have forgotten by then. So instead let me nudge you towards two events you might enjoy this weekend, so you can't complain afterwards that you didn't know.
» Ramblers and strollers should take up the challenge of Walk London's Autumn Ambles, with 40 free guided walks taking place across the weekend. Most are short and central, but some are proper outer London adventures. The really keen amongst you might like to attempt the 21½ mile Green Chain Megawalk on Saturday.
» The last tube train to Ongar ran 20 years ago on 30th September 1994. To celebrate, the Essex Ongar Railway are running that very same three-car train along the very same line tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday as part of their End of Tube event. North Weald and Ongar stations will be decked out with roundels, and the Underground's managing director will be at Ongar on Friday to unveil a commemorative 0.0km sign. Throw in TfL's pet steam engine Met 1, and (on Sunday only) a shedload of vintage buses, and I suspect that some of my railway-oriented readers might have a jolly good time. (Central line to Epping, £15 ticket, heritage bus to North Weald)
posted 07:00 :
Some buildings are on the Open House list every year and I always mean to go but never do. So this year I did two of them.
Open House: Royal Geographical Society
Follow Exhibition Road right to the end, past the Natural History and Science Museums, and you'll reach Kensington Gore. At number 1, overlooking Hyde Park, is Lowther House, since 1913 the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society. The RGS is rather older than that, born out of gentlemen's dining clubs, for the advancement of geographical learning. Many a global expedition has been planned here, including the first successful assault on Everest, although modern patrons are more likely to surf to the Himalayas than actually visit. Anyone can enter the exhibition pavilion out front (currently home to an excellent display of People in London). But to walk in off the street and explore beyond requires booking an event, membership, or waiting for the third weekend in September. [3 photos]
Many great discoveries have been announced in the lecture theatre, although the current version is a relatively recent sponsored revamp and a little gloomy. The names of various organisations and luminaries have been carved into the staircase to balcony level, including the last but one President Michael Palin CBE. Climb a little further to discover the Members' Room, whose bookshelves and alcoves are named after the continents and regions of the world, but whose contents turned out to be two centuries of geographical journals. More interesting is the ground floor Map Room, a treasure trove of globes and portraits, plus a scale model of the Everest massif - alas not a Hillary original. In common with many delicate artefacts at the RGS this is emblazoned with officious messages warning bystanders not to touch, or in this case not to place their canapés and wine glasses on the Khumbu Icefall.
I've often thought that if I was ever going to join a London-based organisation the Royal Geographical Society might be for me. I used to subscribe to their monthly Geographical magazine as a sixth former, and there were current copies lying around as freebies for Open Housers to purloin. But a visit reminded me that the RGS is as much about mud hut villages as oxbow lakes, and aligned more towards adventure than armchair travel, so the £127 annual membership subscription probably wouldn't be worthwhile. Maybe. Oh we'll see.
Open House: The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
Despite sounding like it ought to have been around for centuries, the UK's Supreme Court is barely five years old. It was established out of the Constitutional Reform Act which split parliament and the judiciary, creaming off a dozen Law Lords to arbitrate in the trickiest cases in the land. They never sentence, only decide, and thus far only one of the twelve is a Lady. And the court's location could hardly be better, poised between church and state on the corner of Parliament Square opposite Westminster Abbey. This is the former Middlesex Guildhall, completed in 1913, the seat of government for London's lost county. Much of the interior was ripped out when the building was redesigned, but the surviving remainder looks a lot older than it is thanks to its art nouveau gothic styling. Queue for the security patdown on Open House Open Day and you'll be given pretty much free rein to roam inside. [6 photos]
First up beyond the lobby is the main library, a stunning triple-height space stacked with legal tomes. And then there are three court rooms, the largest of which is on the top floor. This was originally the main council chamber, now with less adversarial seating, beneath an impressive hammerbeam roof. Court 2 is rather more plain and modern, with an Eleanor Roosevelt quote etched into the glass facing into, and away from, the main corridor. Both courts strongly feature the court's logo, a quartered circle featuring stylised versions of the national symbols of the four Home Nations. It's simple but very attractive, and I fear most of the carpets in the building would have had to have been torn out had Scotland voted for independence last week. Or perhaps cases would have shifted to Court 3, where commonwealth and dependency cases are heard, be that for the Bahamas, the Falklands or the Isle of Man.
Members of the public are welcome to visit the building during opening hours, and to sit at the back of the courts when a case is in session. Tours are available for a fiver, or you can simply go get a drink from the cafe at the foot of the lightwell, and maybe buy some Supreme Court souvenirs while you're there. I resisted the mug, the notebook and the cuddly teddy bear, but I suspect victorious claimants may be more easily tempted.
» 64 Open House photos (Canary Wharf Crossrail, Tower 42, Balfron Tower, Worlds End Estate, 20 Triton Street, Hackney Marshes Centre, Royal Geographical Society, UK Supreme Court)
posted 01:00 :
Wednesday, September 24, 2014When visiting an Open House property, the type of tour guide you get makes a big difference.
The resident: Worlds End Estate
For vigour and insight, it helps to be guided round by someone who lives in the building you're visiting. In this case that's a set of buildings, the Worlds End estate, a large area of council housing by the river in Chelsea. That such a location was even considered in the 1960s is some evidence of how far upmarket this part of London has become, but then this was a mighty plan, replacing 750 Victorian terraced houses with something utterly completely different. Seven tower blocks were built, of varying height, with an asymmetric rippled exterior. These were linked by nine low-rise blocks to seal off two large internal courtyards, their overall shape a bit like a pair of spectacles viewed from above. The finished project resembles a redbrick castle, although the buildings are really reinforced concrete underneath, with bevelled slabs that help to hold the brick exterior in place. And that's just one of the unexpected facts divulged over an hour and a half's tour by local experts, not just someone reading facts off a sheet.
Worlds End used to be the site of some of London's plague pits, we were told. When Joe Strummer sang "London is burning and I live by the river", he was living here. That knocked-down cottage opposite Chelsea Reach Tower is Bryan Adams' new house, being rebuilt from the double-basement up. This is what you really want to know when traipsing round a maze of walkways, past some rather desirable pre-affordable flats You want a guide who remembers which of the many front doors is an original. You want people who know the 15th floor is the place to go for a fantastic view down the Thames, but only if you cross to the narrow raised recess beside the lift and step up. And you want a support team who know everyone needs to keep quiet fifteen storeys up for fear of upsetting residents in the neighbouring apartments. What came across strongly was how much those who live here enjoy and respect their home, and their enthusiasm was duly passed on to the dozens of us who turned up. Plus we got free tea and jaffa cakes in the community centre at the start of the tour - easily the warmest reception of the weekend. If a poke round out-of-the-ordinary social housing is your thing, be sure to tick the Worlds End estate on your Open House advance list for next year. [2 photos]
The employee: 20 Triton Street
In the shadow of the Euston Tower, between Warren Street and Great Portland Street stations, is where you'll find Regents Place. It's described as a mixed use campus, for which read 13 acres of mostly offices, some of them relatively old but others much more recent. Everything's owned by developers British Land, and the fact you've probably never heard of the Regents Place hints at its unwanted anonymity. For Open House access was granted to the very modern office block at 10 Brock Street, but only to the ground floor, which was nothing over-exciting bar the chance to walk up to Facebook UK's reception desk and watch its employees ride some rather snazzy lifts. For proper interior access the OH programme offered up 20 Triton Street, another in the peculiarly modern tradition of naming giant buildings after the address of a small portion of their footprint. This is the home of Australian building company Lend Lease, swallowers of Bovis plc and architects of 2012's Athletes Village.
For the tour we were led round by the offices by one of the building's sustainability managers. Keen and lively he may have been, but the nature of his role placed a sustainability spin on everything we were shown. The sealants in the walls emitted minimal particulates, the elevators ran on eco-settings, even the floors were made from recycled railway carriages. He enthused about breakout spaces and touchdown booths, as certain people do, and saw not a top floor cafe but a networking space for maximising employee interaction. Having said that it was fascinating to compare this workplace with my own, ten years older, with few of the green benefits employees here currently enjoy. Oh for a roof garden with bee hotel, and tables to sit outside several floors up and look out over, well, Santander HQ and a digital artwork. Oh too for eight potted plants per member of staff, rather than the scattering of almost-cacti they've dished out in my office. Worth the tour for the reminder that how we work is just as much part of London's architecture as how we live. [6 photos]
The council worker: 5 Pancras Square
What's in it for us, asked Camden Council, when the current round of development north of King's Cross rolled round. St Martin's get their art school, Google get their UK headquarters, but what can the burghers of north London get? And the answer is a 14-storey building incorporating a library, cafe and offices for council staff. Best of all there's a leisure centre on the ground floor and a swimming pool in the basement which doubles up as an event space when appropriately covered. You're welcome. For this tour a member of council staff was deployed, complete with on-brand purple t-shirt, to lead a motley crew round the building. This was easily the most "normal" tour party I joined all day, comprising mostly ordinary members of the public rather than the usual culturally-skewed crowd Open House usually attracts. They were not disappointed.
She told us all about the building as we went, but her facts came entirely from a centrally-prepared set of notes. Thus on reaching the lift lobby we heard not about the architecture but instead a council-led competition for the artwork on the wall, while downstairs in the "Contact Camden" zone she focused only on the customer-facing services the new space provides. As we entered the library she enthused about £70K's worth of resource spending, whereas I was thinking "blimey that's not many books for an inner city library", an opinion echoed on the letters page of the free newspaper stacked up nearby. In the gym area she praised the council for buying disabled-friendly exercise machines, while pumped-up patrons tried to ignore the motley crew of tourists invading their privacy. And on entering the multi-storey office space she pointed out that all the stair treads on each different floor are different colours, as if this was the most fantastically original detail, so amazing that she mentioned it again, and then later one more time. I was hoping we'd go out onto the 11th floor roof terrace, but that's still sealed off two months after the building opened while contractors attempt to lay the tiles down properly, so a great view up the Eurostar tracks was visible only through glass. Ultimately this was a slightly too sanitised visit to a slightly too sanitised space, but good on Camden for grabbing part of King's Cross rebirth for themselves.
The architect: Hackney Marshes Centre
In Open House terms, meeting the architect is the jackpot. In this case we met two, both of whom had worked with Stanton Williams on the design of what's essentially a set of glorified changing rooms. And they need a lot. Hackney Marshes is the spiritual home of Sunday league football, where more amateur players than anywhere else in the world come together for a structured kickabout each weekend. Before 2012 they changed in a grotty shed, but this new building (not Games-related) provides a step change in facilities. The very very long horizontal structure consists of two wings, one behind gabion walls, the other with weathered steel cladding. Part of the latter slides back at night to protect the glass across the entrance, while the shutters across the upstairs windows are fully permeable to allow those within to watch the football. The Centre had to be wholly vandal-proof, that was the designer's brief, and every choice of materials was made with low-key security in mind. [2 photos]
"Shall we go and look at the changing rooms?" is not an offer you'd normally get as dozens of muddy football teams limp in from the pitches. We entered an empty one, obviously, to admire the integrated facilities and the dappled light shining through gaps in the rocky wall. The Centre runs a shift system to shuffle teams through the changing rooms, before and after matches, with every player's kitbag stored in an external locker while they're outside. Upstairs is a bar which opens out onto a roof terrace, and whose catering team served up the biggest tray of chips I've ever seen to tablesworth of beery post-match players. And upstairs too are two large function rooms, allowing the council to use the building for school groups and conferences midweek when all the football action goes quiet. Had I not been inside and given the full spiel I might have thought this a very mundane building, whereas now I understand its award-winning brilliance. And that's the maximum impact the right Open House guide can make - the difference between what a building is and why.
posted 01:00 :
Tuesday, September 23, 2014Open House: Balfron Tower
Some iconic buildings are remarkably easy to get inside, so long as you wait for the right moment. And so it is with the Balfron Tower in Poplar, the slightly smaller sister of the much better known Trellick Tower in Notting Hill. Both were designed by Ernő Goldfinger, Balfron first, with lessons learned here used to improve plans at loftier Trellick. Ernő even moved into a flat on the 24th floor for a few months, to better get a sense of what his community in the sky was really like. Since the 1960s it's been social housing, but maintaining a listed concrete building is expensive, so the time has come for major renovation work throughout the block. And that's meant moving the existing tenants out, a gradual process which has left several flats vacant in readiness for a full refurbishment starting maybe at Christmas, probably next year, nobody's really sure.
Into these empty apartments have parachuted dozens of local artists as part of a programme organised by the Bow Arts Trust. And these artists are keen for visitors to come and see what they've been up to, hence the Balfron Open Studios event was part of Open House weekend and anyone could get inside. Exciting stuff, not least because as many as two dozen flats were open, and because visitors could wander at will round the building on several different floors. The concrete! The views! The art! And oh, the decay. [20 Balfron photos]
The Balfron Tower's well known as a Brutalist masterpiece, hence attracts the attention of an arty trendy crowd as well as architects who know their stuff. But the building still remains home to many less well off tenants, while the surrounding area exists somewhere near the bottom of the UK poverty league. So on occasions like this I always find it somewhat awkward when Hoxton decamps to Poplar to inspect its societal quirks, and local residents are left wondering who the hell's invading and why. They've not read the Open House brochure nor checked the Balfron Season website, so the presence of special artistic opportunities on their doorstep generally passes them by.
So we shared the lift nicely on the way in. Ten of us at a time, so as not to overwhelm the place, with instructions to head for the top floor and then work our way back down via the stairs. I seem to have spent a lot of my Open House weekend in lifts, and Balfron's was the least glam of the lot. At least it didn't smell of that liquid you hope lifts never smell of, but the interior had more than the usual feel of metal box about it. Our ascent was a little slow and perhaps disconcertingly rattly as we climbed to the 24th floor and alighted.
Ernő kept the lift shaft entirely separate from the rest of the building, hence the unmistakable silhouette of the tower. Here too are the rubbish chutes (not to be used after 9pm), the peeling stairwells and the drying rooms that were essential before the advent of the automatic washing machine. Slit windows are cut in the concrete shell, for that modernist castle vibe, and a buzzered security door grants access to the walkway beyond. The first few yards are suspended in thin air, in this case over 70 metres up, so this is not the place to live if you've no head for heights - you'd never get home.
Each walkway is tiled in its own colour - on the 24th floor that's royal blue - with front doors along one side and windows on the other. There are a lot of doors, which might suggest tiny flats but not so, some lead to stairs that lead either up or down to flats on other floors, with walkways only on floors that are multiples of three. While security grilles cover some of the doors others flap forlornly open, with months of post and junk mail splayed out on the floor, revealing that all is empty within. The door of Ernő's temporary flat at number 130 was firmly shut, but other numbered portals led to the art installations we were technically here to see.
Walking into each artist's flat, you never quite knew what you were going to get. In some the artwork was obvious and its creator bubbling over to talk, explaining why they'd draped the room with sheets or projected a film on the bathroom mirror. In others some right peculiar stuff assaulted the senses, from sculptures that looked like litter on the floor to soundscapes recorded from the neighbouring Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. A few encounters were plain awkward, as the artist anticipated you'd want to engage deeply with their meaningful concept, while others had a lightness of touch and a flavour of fun.
I enjoyed the photographic exhibits, the industrial lullabies and the room filled with a giant sculptural X. I smiled at Kate Pelan's herd of folded shapes, and the room overrun with coloured glass mice. But I did wonder, after a while, if some of the artists in residence were simply using the Balfron Project as an excuse to have somewhere to stay for a few months. Shove some objets on the wall, annotate them with supposed meaning, and validate your bed for the night with art. Having said that, most of the flats had no electricity and had had all their kitchen fittings ripped out, so staying overnight looked somewhat impractical.
But sorry, Open Studios team, what I enjoyed most was the building you were exhibiting everything in. While you were trying to engage me with your artworks I was staring at the stairs, the walls, the entryphones, and wishing I could rush over to the balcony to take some photos. The really amazing Balfron artwork, used by many in the tower as inspiration, was the view across East London stretching out in all directions below. Oh to wake up to that panorama each day, or to watch a succession of blazing sunsets beyond the City. But then the sky was once the place where we hid the poor, and now it's all penthouses for the rich... as I suspect the revamped 24th floor will ultimately be. [9 panoramic photos]
If you want to take a look inside before refurbishment begins, before each of the hundred plus flats becomes a private space again, 2014's your only chance. The Balfron Season runs until mid October and offers a range of experiences including exhibitions, workshops, dinners and debates. I think you've missed the Open Studios, sorry, but the National Trust are opening up Ernő Goldfinger's top floor flat to visitors between 1st and 12th October. It'll be fitted out in Sixties style, hence far more evocative than anything I saw, although the hour and a bit tour will set you back £12. Places are limited, but then it's not every day you get the opportunity to visit a community in the sky and a tower block people actually want to live in.
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