We're asking for your thoughts on what will change and what should change in London in the post-covid world.
Here, Alistair Barr of Barr Gazetas says that we need to return the West End to being a place of real production and work.
Central London could be creating, making and selling locally-made products and food when lockdown ends. This would be a sustainable solution to the many units which will never re-open again as conventional retail. We must find new uses for the thousands of spaces which will otherwise be empty, diluting the vitality of central London. Oxford Street and Regent Street would remain in some form but I have been thinking of the streets between and want to prevent many years of retail wasteland. Our practice, Barr Gazetas, has been working in the West End since we began in 1993 and we believe that the area’s history shows the way to a better, more sustainable future.
As recently as the 1970s Central London was a thriving mix of manufacturing, production and warehouses in the streets behind the glamorous shops. Soho, Marylebone and Covent Garden had been production centres for hundreds of years until these vibrant and diverse uses were squeezed out. When workers, residents and visitors return to town we can build on this heritage to offer varied and sustainable uses again.
This movement has been happening in inner suburbs for many years now as empty buildings are taken over by incubator units and creative start-ups, which the UK is famous for. It is only 50 years since this making and selling together left central London so no complex building or infrastructure changes will be needed. We can take the many empty spaces and make them relevant again. Some examples below illustrate these local legacies.
The famous Fitzrovia agent Irving Brecker says “the garment industry and showrooms were important in Marylebone from the 1870s to the 1970s. The area was buzzing with showrooms, tailors and associated industries. Buyers from Oxford Street came to Fitzrovia to source garments and as they were so close that fashion was fast and forward looking.”
Carnaby Street was radical, innovative and responsive in the 1960s because the production and assembly was next door. David Bowie posed in Heddon street in 1972 when it was full of clothing makers and wholesalers. All these areas will have spaces ready to revert when we are back and they can mix naturally where conventional retail still works to regain active frontages.
Covent Garden Market only stopped food distribution in 1974 and now is full of chain stores selling unsustainable items. The Crown Estate already encourages office tenants to grow food on their roofs, so this is easy to replicate. We are growing tomatoes, chillies and herbs on our roof with the scheme and we have combined with many more wellbeing initiatives across the office. The office space at One Heddon Street is currently the healthiest measured co-working space in the UK and the post-virus office spaces should be hitting these aspirations as well.
In a recent conversation, Jon Eaglesham, our MD, noted that, “…two of our projects show how important adaption is. In Covent Garden we are restoring a former seed sorting factory into an innovative, people focussed head quarter office building with wellness at its centre. On York Road, Cottam House is being refurbished to be host to world leading technology that recycles post-consumer garments into clean and wearable clothes…”
When BHS on Oxford Street closed everyone agreed that the era of department stores was over and conventional retail would never work in such a large space. Instead it was quickly stripped out and is now a vibrant food hall providing fresh, exciting food from independent and growing businesses. Let’s also grow food on the roof of this food court for full sustainability.
In recent years more people have moved back to living in Central London and the newly empty units allow proper live work uses to prosper. Co-working, incubators, design and manufacturing can spring up in many side streets, mews and small spaces in post-virus London. We want all architects and designers to look for the balance of necessary change and useful change in their designs here.
Production was squeezed out of Central London for four reasons in the 70s and we have already solved two of those as shown below.
Firstly, old manufacturing was dirty, noisy and created issues for delivery and refuse collection. Milan has just announced that 22 miles of central Milan will be closed to unnecessary private traffic to allow a rapid experimental expansion of cycling and walking. This Strade Aperte plan could easily work here, even if it begins as an experimental response to extraordinary times. 3D printing, CAD/CAM, and recycling initiatives means that production is no longer dirty and noisy. Secondly, Westminster has implemented innovative refuse collection regimes which now efficiently clear and efficiently recycle rubbish.
To realise this vision, Westminster and landlords would have to accept that the post virus retail world will never be the same again and be prepared to make radical changes.
The planning use classes are already blurring the edges of pure office versus manufacturing prompted by new ways of producing and assembling. Westminster should let the crisis nudge them into formalising this and welcoming back creative uses where the items designed above the shop and manufactured in the basement are sold in the ground floor shop.
And landlords would have to recognise that many empty shops off the primary routes will never be occupied again by old model retail. A reduced rent with all floors occupied is better than no rent at all. Most of the landmark shops will survive, even prosper; Hamleys, Apple, Selfridges and John Lewis can adapt well if they are agile enough. But they can also interlock into a Central London of 50 years ago when creative designers and makers are nearby.
The day before lockdown I was in Liberty’s. A high percentage of the exceptional goods I saw there could have been designed, made, assembled, and created in the West End, next door. Many of the clothes, jewellery, household items, souvenirs, furniture, stationery and food could be locally designed and sourced from repurposed retail shells nearby. We owe it to the post-virus West End to make sure the vibrancy and activity returns to all those streets as soon as possible.
WhenThisIsAllOver is the London Society's debate about what the post-virus, post-lockdown world will and should look like. Contributions so far include:
Please give your views in the comments below, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org