diamond geezer

 Monday, June 21, 2010

I do like the London Festival of Architecture. It celebrates buildings old and new (especially new). It picks bits of the capital and focuses on their heritage and future. It only runs every two years, making it a bit of a rare treat. And it's on right now. Did you notice?

I've been a fan of the LFA ever since it started six years ago. It was called the London Architecture Biennale at the time, which proved rather impenetrable a name and has since been dumbed down. 2004's festival was focused around Clerkenwell, and was small but fascinating. 2006 expanded to cover King's Cross and Southwark, and then 2008 extended further to reach Kensington and Docklands. Mini-installations, temporary pavillions, architectural talks, and all sorts of out-of-the ordinary events. What's not to love?

This year we're back to three geographical hubs, the first of which (this last weekend) was based up and down Regent Street. It's 200 years since John Nash planned this grand thoroughfare through the West End, cutting across the existing street pattern to create a right royal shortcut from his new Regent's Park to The Mall. The street would have been straight, except the rich houses of Cavendish Square were in the way so he added a bend at Langham Place (where BBC Broadcasting House now stands). It was Nash who created colonnades at Oxford Circus, previously a mundane crossroads. South of here Regent Street swallowed up an existing street called Swallow Street, which now exists only as a severed narrow rump down to St James. A sweeping Quadrant curved to meet Piccadilly at another new Circus, before continuing south to meet Pall Mall at Waterloo Place. Central London had seen nothing like Regent Street before, and has seen no large scale intervention like it since.

Following NashIf this sort of stuff is up your street, you'd have enjoyed the display of 16 information panels that was erected along the Broad Walk in Regent's Park over the weekend. Most people walked straight past, from what I saw, even though there were willing volunteers handing out Festival information at each end. Shame, because the panels were well-produced and fascinating, focusing not just on Nash's original plans but also future plans to make the full route pedestrian friendly. If you're interested, the boards should still be up for another fortnight, or you could always download the Nash Ramblas iPhone app if you happen to own the correct proprietary hardware. Don't ask me if the app's any good, I'm a boards person through and through.

I had less luck enjoying the rest of the Festival's weekend events. The launch event finished early, so when I reached the top of Primrose Hill the Grand Old Duke of York had already marched back down again. I didn't book for the tour of Broadcasting House quickly enough, and I failed to spot the BBC history installation supposedly in one of its windows. I knew there were two design agencies open to the public in Great Portland Street but neither was labelled, so far as I could tell, so I found neither. I didn't pause for a lecture under the temporary pavilion at Park Crescent, and I wasn't thrilled by the dressed windows in Regent Street. Most worryingly, if you're the head of the LFA's marketing, I wandered inside the RIBA building on Portland Place without once realising it was hosting a variety of free events and workshops. There weren't enough signs, anywhere, so I missed loads of things because I didn't realise they were happening. Without a detailed printed programme, or a summary map to print out off the website, I had no chance of finding everything.

plaque at Lewisham stationBut there was one fun installation on the Duke of York Steps - a prototype water-powered lift resembling a giant hydraulic tank. "It was working this morning," apologised the LFA volunteer despatched to assist the device's creator. A small crowd waited, and waited, and was eventually rewarded with a downward journey. Brave souls assembled on the platform, which was launched by the pulling of what looked like a loo chain. Water gushed out of the upper tanks, most of it into the tanks immediately below but some of it splashing wildly over the sides. The lift speeded up somewhat in the middle of its descent, which spurred the volunteer to tug on the brake when she shouldn't have, leaving the passengers stuck awkwardly halfway down. They did reach the bottom shortly afterwards, many by now rather damp, sorry, it's not meant to do that. You'll probably not be seeing one of these gizmos providing step-free access near you in the future, but you've got to love a festival that attempts to break new ground without the aid of a safety net.

Next week the focus switches to Aldgate, Stratford and all points inbetween. That's High Street 2012, of course, which is the pre-Olympic tarting-up project devoted to the road on which I live. There'll be a Temporary Stratford Museum in the shopping centre, some as-yet unannounced Routemaster bus tours, an exhibition of potential future Aldgate landmarks, and several walks and talks round about the Olympic site. I'm preparing to be surprised by what some Austrian students have got in store for Stroudley Walk, and perturbed by the Urban Gardening along the Lea by the Bow Flyover. There's lots more, if you've got the patience to click through all the events listed on the website and work out what's worth seeing where when. Let's hope they improve the listings in time for the LFA 2012. But don't you wait that long.

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