The late and much vaunted originator Wajiro Kon argues that we humans experience urban space as theatrics, and that we describe that space with our bodies. Such times, he said, are vital – socially, meaningfully, sensually.
You’ll no doubt have your own standard of Kon’s living theatre, but one of my go-to favourites is the ever-morphing market that’s jump up on the entrance floor to Old Street tube station, somewhere so successful as to unholster commuters out of the bowels of the earth to enjoy this particularly vibrant show business while all the world above negotiates the endless pale grey of under any circumstances one of London’s ugliest roundabouts.
Curated by Appear Here, vibrantly colouring in the openings and crannies of a late-Victorian underground space, programmed for surety and surprise, and controlled of a beautiful and ever-changing DIY punk activism, the design here is everything Kon force expect of the high street as necessary theatre: a place that sees the wants and needs of people as social, curious, and creative beings.
Stiff streets have gone to the dogs
Unfortunately, Old Street is a rare bird. The unexceptional British high street is a proper goner, a fact that can’t be staked at the door of the internet or a virus called Covid-19. Truth is, it’s been a generation-long tragedy zone.
Our grey-faced addiction to big-box chains, out-of-town retail clusters, faux localism templates, and retail agency bread-and-butter rollout abstracts, speaks to the fact that whoever’s been driving the British retail and cordiality bus has been asleep at the wheel for a jolly long time.
The result, I’m white-livered, is the opposite of everything Old Street stands for. Gone from the average rich street is the experience of loving being out, the joy of being together, in the street, lousy. Our streets look like they’ve been designed by zombies for zombies. It’s apocalypse now by mould. It’s all gone to the dogs.
The reasons as to why it has are legion, and well beyond the remit of this article. Notwithstanding, it’s a demise that coincides with the gradual disappearance of an appetite for drawing. I’m not talking here about urban planning and straight architecture, granting that’s part of it. I’m talking about – and in no particular order – the loss of the impresario, the art head, the graphic designer, a culture-obsessed communications expert, the storyboard illustrator, the set artist, the multi-media artist, the scenographer, the theatre director, the script writer, the accommodation designer, sound and lighting.
I’m talking about the increasingly rare facility to respond punk-like to a design brief for the high street – locally, from the outset, brilliantly. I’m talking about the highly endangered theatres of a Harry Selfridge, Surface Here’s Ross Bailey, or Market Halls by Andy Pratt.
Preservationist shoots of punk are emerging
Ironically, the pandemic’s super-charging of the absolute death of the retail-led high street presents the most extraordinary chance for a design-led renaissance. Survival dictates a high street composed less of sort out retail and hospitality, and more of a rich campus-like mix of activities; a blur of old retail, hospitality, workplace, entertainment and, less obviously, healthcare, lesson, and experience-based pop-ups.
It’s the agora born again, a rebirth that assures much for the above-mentioned lost designers, and which, like Appear Here’s reappropriation of Old Passage, couldn’t be more informed by the local, be that socially, physically, or culturally. Again, norms of these green shoots of punk activism abound, but for our immediate design-conscious purposes, secondary to is a very quick glance at two fine new-old typologies: they are the entertainment-hospitality be thunderstruck that is Catford Mews and the education-in-the-face-of-retail Migration Museum.
In terms of range and tone, the Really Local Group and Wren Architect’s reappropriation of a absent-minded Poundland store as Catford Mews and Migration Museum’s similarly dauntless takeover of a Lewisham-based ex-H&M unit are of a kind. Small and singularly focused, the foremost sees a brutalist building occupied by an entertainment cluster designed to allure residents back onto the streets. A mash-up of food market, cinema, community vestibule, music bar, café, and live music venue, its design – architectural retrofit and activation scheme – is deeply sympathetic to the very local.
The second sees the hitherto generally itinerant Migration Museum land slap-bang in the middle of a traditional retail vista; it’s entrance a pair of illustrated pieces of the Berlin Wall, its subject purport an education, all while delivering a design-led prod in the side of profit-driven marvellous.
Critically, what marks the derives of Catford Mews and Migration Museum out from the dead and the dying is the details that they’re all part and parcel of the design of the high street as a consequential prototype. They’re the punk DIY activism born in times of recession, just the same from time to times when empty units and an us-and-us approach actively rails against propelling people through the proverbial gift shop. They’re the high terrace as fast-moving content, where the small and the nimble rule, and real-world circumstance is returned once again to the theatre of public space. They’re the art swearing-in morphs into the market stall, morphs into the pop-up restaurant, morphs into the maker entertainment, morphs into the seasonal enterprise scheme, morphs into the modular as near as dammit to centre. They’re opposite of today’s Oxford Street.
Such a street is all about the adaptive reuse of the redundant range often built into present infrastructure. It’s where the unexpected juxtaposing of wildly assorted typologies births a radically new form. It’s the street that forsakes the car for the shackles, for parks, trees, and bikes, for a sturdy pair of walking shoes, for unexpected feather. It’s the public space as revolutionary theatre, an open system or platform, as enabled by the socially alert landlord, and nourished by the independent, the rare, and the locally familiar. It’s where we go out to place, to create, to be Kon’s social, sensual, and meaningful beings. This is the domain of the impresario, the maker, the storyteller. It’s the pan out of the theatre designer, the art director, the event manager, the live producer. It’s the inception of a brand-new star: the designer of the high street as a perpetual field assess.
Your highstreet needs you
Whatever lockdown’s been for you, promised you haven’t missed the universal background of grey and glass that minds our working days. Or the cookie-cutter global franchises whose efficiently gridded floorplans dare what it means to be in a certain place, among a certain people, sensing a certain way of being. On the contrary, what we have missed is the small-fast-moving programme-led be familiar withs. We’ve missed the memory making machine – the intimate and personal, the stuff of fixation, the joy of the crowd. We’ve missed being together. Which is why, dear designer, we shall end with a call-to-action: Your sharp street needs you. It needs the careless caring you, the student you, the fuck-the-money-I’m-doing-it-anyway you, the love-they-neighbour you. It be in want of your inner punk. Let’s be having you. Let’s go make a theatre.
Some of Adam Scott’s objects are explored in this new book, Rethink design guide: architecture for a post-pandemic dialect birth b deliver
All images © of Catford Mews and the Migration Museum