Some cities do winter merriment better than others. They have the Christmas markets, they have the gluhwein, they have the blankets and hot chocolate outside ornate cafes. London is not like that. London’s winter life is interior: it’s the “the pubs and the bookies where you spend all your day”, as the Pogues’ Shane McGowan put it. All the more kudos then to the new Strand Aldwych public space scheme, which opened to the public last month.
Aldwych’s arc marks as abrupt a transition as any in London. To the west, Covent Garden and theatreland, to the east, universities, lawyers, consultants and bankers. It has a rich history – Aldwych was at the heart of the post-Roman city of Lundenwic – and fine buildings, including Marconi House and Bush House (birthplace and nursery of the BBC) and St Mary le Strand Church. But Aldwych and its hinterland can easily be shrugged off as an interspace, between the cities of London and Westminster, rebranded as Midtown or Northbank, identified by what it is not.
It was terrifying too. The traffic tearing round the gyratory made Aldwych and Strand a glorified roundabout, where pedestrians and cyclists risked their lives darting between buses and taxis. It was no place to linger.
The Strand Aldwych project is designed to change all that. In 2014 Northbank Business Improvement District, led by Ruth Duston, appointed research and urban design specialists Publica to rethink the public spaces on their patch, and then to develop the idea of reinstating two-way traffic on Aldwych, thereby allowing around 200 metres of Strand to be pedestrianised between Bush House, King’s College and Somerset House.
Traffic plans were refined, project boards set up, stakeholders engaged, options reviewed, visions workshopped, artists involved, traffic orders drafted, “meanwhile uses” planned and consultants appointed – including LDA Design – who led the Games-time and legacy landscape design of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – as lead designers of the new public spaces.
In 2020 Westminster City Council allocated funding for traffic rerouting and new public space. Works commenced in January 2021, with Strand closed to motor vehicles between Waterloo Bridge and Surrey Street from September of that year. From conception to opening the scheme took around eight years – lightning fast in London terms.
The new public space, which is (of course) “the size of a football pitch”, is divided into two by St Mary’s, an elegant early Baroque building whose vicar was enthusiastically welcoming visitors the afternoon I visited (and which has a ‘Sound and Light Installation’ explaining its history until the end of February).
To the east, between the King’s Strand Campus and Bush House, there are benches interspersed between flowerbeds and new street trees, and a slightly scruffy lawn in front of the church. A few cars and vans are still allowed in for servicing and for a hotel car park, with sliding bollards to control access. Watching these glide is hypnotic, though the paint scalps on their flanks suggest they have already encountered some over-confident drivers.
West of St Mary’s is a more expansive space in front of Somerset House formed of stripes and slabs of differently toned asphalts, feeling almost oversized. Tables and benches for summer carousing sit to one side – it will be interesting to see what rules will be applied – and spindly coloured chairs are bolted to the tarmac in a slightly awkward row, as if hanging around on the fringes of a teenage party. It is a stage waiting for a show and has been made big enough to accommodate temporary pavilions and installations.
But even on a grey January afternoon, with the temperature hovering close to freezing, these new spaces are busy. Students and workers sit around the church, chatting, smoking, eying phones and laptops. Cyclists weave between bollards (there has been some criticism of a lack of segregated cycle routes) and walkers saunter through the square with boulevardier relish rather than with the pace and momentum that drives most London journeys on foot.
Precise numbers are hard to come by, but I get the impression that the traffic rerouting took most of the budget. That is to say the landscaping, though well-designed, is functional rather than sumptuous. The flower beds and benches are edged by brown-painted steel, perhaps intended to look like costlier CORTEN from a distance, and most of the road surface is asphalt rather than stone paving.
This is not really a criticism. City centre spaces need to be robust and flexible rather than perfected and fragile, and Westminster City Council has already copped some criticism (including from Westminster Labour before they took over the Council in May) for spending money here rather than in needier parts of the borough. The expanses of tarmac can give these new spaces a bare look, more like the road they used to be than the public piazza they are becoming. However, the 45 new trees and 2,000 square metres of planting will soften them over time, as will more people spilling between the buildings as the days lengthen.
And I think they will come, drawn by temporary events and artworks such as Nick Ryan’s ‘The Voiceline’ – an audio installation drawing on 100 years of BBC archives – by new perspectives on previously half-glimpsed buildings and by the chance to watch the amazing gliding bollard show (or perhaps that’s just me).
The scheme creates a peaceful and breathable space, a pause on one of London’s major crosstown routes and an open-ended quadrangle for King’s College, though it is a shame that, unlike other London universities, the King’s campus remains sealed off from passers-by.
My only remaining kvetch, which has dogged me in almost every paragraph of this piece, is that there doesn’t seem to be a name for the space or spaces. ‘Strand Aldwych’ is the project, and ‘Strand’ refers to a longer road. Is this to be Strand Place, Bush House Plaza, King’s Court, St Mary’s Walk? We need a name we can complain about, adapt and eventually adopt, for this well-conceived and promising new piece of city.
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