Peter Murray, Chairman of The London Society
“When I was here last, the tables weren’t here” said Ed Jones as we studied the diners spread out across the streets around South Kensington station. Cars, cyclists and pedestrians - as well as those just sitting down - shared the space. Ed - of Dixon Jones Architects - was giving the Society a tour of his firm’s designs for Exhibition Road to see how this radical experiment in road layout was working.
Jones explained the concept of shared space, developed by Dutch designer Hans Monderman where the lack of certainty generated by the removal of road markings allowed different road users to intermingle in safety. The idea was taken up by Cllr Daniel Moylan at Kensington and Chelsea council who was responsible for the ‘decluttering’of Kensington High Street in 2006 before commissioning Dixon Jones to revamp Exhibition Road in order to provide a more civilised ‘front door’for the major institutions which face onto it and to improve the pedestrian experience around South Ken station.
Jones’ reaction at finding the streets colonised by the surrounding restaurants was one of delight - this was the sort of thing the spaces designed to allow. They had taken a decision not to fill these new places with art and permanent seating as so often happens. Jones quoted Daniel Moylan “My grandmother would say ‘You can always put salt in the soup, you can’t take it out’.”Permanent fixtures that can’t be moved are at a minimum. Elegant lamp standards march up the centre of the space, there are fewer tress than the architects would have liked because of all the pipes and wires under the street, and the signal that you are in a different sort of place is signalled by a criss cows pattern in the granite setts that stretch from the Underground station to Hyde Park.
As our group promenaded up past the V&A, Science Museum and Goethe Institute, Jones commented how the street improvements had prompted most of the institutions to give their own premises a facelift and how the changed relationship of the street with Foster and Partners’Imperial College building had transformed the grand modernist portico into the de facto entrance to the university’s campus.
The disappointment of the Exhibition Road project is that car and taxi drivers do not seem to understand that they should reduce their speed; the wide avenue perhaps lacks the levels of uncertainty needed to fully exercise Monderman’s ideas.
It was a most enjoyable meander through one of the capital’s great streets. The weather was fine, Jones is an enthusiastic and erudite guide (he is also co-author of The Guide to the Architecture of London); and as the stainless steel lamp standards sparkled into life, the group split up, marvelling at the civilising nature of such transformative design and wishing more of London streets could be like this.