As part of the Society's High Streets theme, high streets expert, business owner and former head of Design For London, Professor Mark Brearley took a group of members on a stroll down Clapham High Street. Finbar Bradley was there.
Current fears regarding the condition of our High Streets have been heavily linked to a drop in visitor retail and the movement to online shopping. It is interesting to consider this whilst simultaneously walking through one of London's ~600 bustling and growing High Streets. Though set in Clapham, Mark Brearley instead took a walking tour through the idea of high streets in general; what they are and how they currently hold a place in our lives.
Mark was a partner at East architecture and landscape before taking up roles under the Mayor for London in the Architecture and Urbanism Unit and Design for London. Currently he is an owner at Kaymet, a company which began as a radio store and slowly transitioned into the manufacturing world before producing beautifully pressed trays metal work.
Starting at Clapham South tube Station, we are introduced to the idea of localities, of which there are some 600 in London. Each locality is essentially a node point or destination within the city and will have it’s own High Street. In a retrospective moment, perhaps the missing link in this thinking is the interstitial spaces between these points. For it is more often through these in-between points that people will experience the high street and Clapham is a prime example of “the in between.” As you join these spaces together you will typically get none retail uses; residential, light industrial and educational. Jut on the edge of the common for example is a series of houses extending from the period before the Metropolitan Commons Supplemental Act, 1877. Fortunately residents managed to fight this movement of construction in Clapham early enough to save the majority of the green space however in places such as Wandsworth Common, the Act was unfortunately all but too late.
One of the features which extends through the high street and on into the in between is the need to be adaptable. High streets are always a result of demand and as this alters, so too do the uses that line the road. Gisela Kebab for instance is housed in a building marked by an insurance society whilst most properties in the in between will house a garage or offices intertwined with the residential.
The most defining feature of High Street buildings however is there depth. Pulling people from the street and into the spaces behind is the main objective. The night club infernos, formerly the Majestic Cinema designed by John Stanlet Beard in 1914, has a small entrance but opens into the yard at the rear. This move frees up space on the street for other uses and pulls people by the hundreds into the depths of the site. The market at Venn St (named after Rector John Venn, the creator of the Venn Diagram) also draws people off the high street, in this case toward the ecclesiastical building forming the axial vista, and acting in many ways as an open air high street building in themselves.
The growth out of the buildings and on to the street demonstrates a growing need for further accommodation, and conversion and adaptability in old building stock are paramount. At Clapham Common tube station, WC Clapham have taken the underground toilets and converted them into a Charcuterie and wine bar, whilst Joe Public occupies the Ground floor area. It is not that these spaces were particularly good, but because of the need for more accommodation that entrepreneurs have gone out of their way. At Clapham High Street overground station you will find cafes and restaurants occupying arches which would have normally been used for car repair shops. Strangely enough, once you pass under the bridge, these uses begin to reappear, perhaps signalling the end of this locality.
On the streets off of the main road you tend to find uses that avail of proximity to the rush of people but do not require the frontage. Generally these will be uses that you go to as a destination rather than use through an impulse such as ecclesiastical and leisure uses.
“Is that leisure?! - A gym?!”
As we continued toward Stockwell we took a minor detour around and through the Stockwell Bus Garage, a grade II* listed designed by Adie, Button and Partners in 1952 and has the ability to hold 200 buses and freely span 59m.
It almost appears an odd point of juxtaposition to compare a purpose built piece of architecture with the adaptability of the high street. But everyone has their goals, their activities they want to bring to the area…
“What a great football pitch that would make” - AGREED