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Destination: periphery

Locating major cultural venues within communities
22.11.2016

Alexandra Palace, Mohammad Abdullah - flickr CC

In an interview with CLAD magazine, Kengo Kuma proposed a new approach to designing new cultural destinations. For him, the priority is connecting with local communities, and “to be part of the street and neighbourhood”. Kuma believes this connectivity will better stimulate local economies, and will inspire humbler and more accessible architecture.

Renzo Piano also recently called to “transform the peripheries [of cities] and fertilise them with great public buildings such as universities, concert halls and libraries”. For him, new cultural destinations are tools to regenerate the suburbs and define suburban town centres.

In London, cultural destinations are indeed pushing outwards, into brownfield sites and communities on the edge of the city centre. Projects include the new Design Museum in Kensington, the Museum of London at Smithfield, ‘Olympicopolis’ in Stratford, Battersea Power Station and Old Oak Common. The edge of the city centre is where the biggest property deals are now being made. Developers realise the value of culture to placemaking, and the importance of connecting culture with other local uses, as Kengo Kuma advises.

It is not a new idea to place a major destination within a peripheral community. Many UK cities boast an imposing cultural building, set within parkland, given to the people through municipal or philanthropic largesse. We are working on plans to regenerate two of the largest: Alexandra Park & Palace in North London, and the Burrell Collection in Pollok Country Park in Glasgow. Both sites combine indoor and outdoor pleasures through impressive buildings set within beautiful gardens, and by offering a mix of uplifting, healthy and fun activities. There are many further examples to take inspiration from - our favourites; the Whitworth Gallery and Park in Manchester, and VDNKh in Moscow.

The challenge is to restore these sites to their former glory while reinventing them for a 21st century audience. In both, the connection between building and park has eroded; a maintenance backlog has built up; and the sense of specialness has diminished. Meanwhile the ecological value of the green space has increased, which brings its own restrictions. A range of interest groups have established themselves; not all helpful. The local community has become more diverse, and in some ways has become more deprived.

For us, the answer is to take inspiration from the grand founding vision. Providing inspiring and positive experiences that bring together all city residents is as valid in London and Glasgow now as it ever was. There are further agendas to play to: to grow tourism and disperse it from overcrowded central attractions; to regenerate deprived neighbourhoods; and [in London] to provide a foothold for the decentralising creative industries. We don’t see the restoration of Alexandra Palace or the Burrell Collection as heritage projects. These are valuable investments that drive forwards regeneration and economic growth.

Kuma and Piano’s calls to stitch cultural destinations into communities are encouraging. But let’s apply their ideas to the restoration of our historic assets, before we build anew.

- Alex Homfray, Director