Bond St to Brick Lane via Borough
London should stop selling faded pomp and circumstance to tourists and get modern. Ekow Eshun offers his personal itinerary
How is it that London chooses to advertise itself on the basis of its historic monuments rather than its vibrant contemporary culture? Millions of tourists arrive each year only to be herded like dumb cattle in the direction of Madame Tussaud’s, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Little wonder that, despite vociferous attempts at rebranding, Britain is still seen from abroad as uptight, insular and tradition-bound. Capital-dwellers know that the London tourist’s visit, with its narratives of pageantry and past empire, bears little relationship to the complex, culturally diverse modern city in which they live and work. So what should be on the map for the discerning 21st-century tourist?
For the most exciting new area in London, head for Bankside. Previously a dead zone between Tower Bridge and the South Bank Centre, it is being redeveloped with energy and creative flair. At its centre is Tate Modern, the £134m building that houses the gallery’s 20th- and 21st-century works. Clearly the Tate is eager to emulate the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, which acts as an international landmark for the city, because although there are already Tate galleries in Liverpool and St Ives, this is the first to dwarf in scale and ambition the original gallery, now called Tate Britain. Constructed out of a 1955 power station, with an enormous central atrium, it also boasts a building-length box of light for its top two floors, which glows spectacularly by night. Tate Modern opens on 12 May, at about the same time as the Millennium Bridge, a slender steel pedestrian walkway designed by Norman Foster, which links the gallery and St Paul’s.
Part of the reason the redevelopment of the area is so exciting is that Bankside, or more properly Borough to its residents, has not simply been remade by money-hungry property speculators. Conscious of the neighbourhood’s image as a grimy, grubby thoroughfare to south London, Southwark council has invited young architects to remodel some of the local street signs, paving stones and benches, giving them a new vitality. Visitors who arrive by tube at Southwark Station alight in a chamber lined with a 15-metre high glass wall, inset with tiles designed by the artist Alexander Belenschenko, which reaches up to street level and draws natural light all the way down to the platforms.
The Bankside project feels optimistic in a way it is difficult to find accurate parallels for elsewhere in the city. Perhaps it is the willingness to embrace modernity that impresses so much. One of my most hated areas in the capital is Covent Garden, which epitomises the faux-traditionalism and conceited classicism that held sway during the Eighties, when contemporary architecture came under dual assault from Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles as standard-bearers of “heritage”. Bankside, by contrast, is about how we might like to live in London, today, right now.
Although the scale of Tate Modern risks overshadowing many of the capital’s smaller art spaces, there are others that should be on the discerning tourist’s list. In St John’s Wood, the privately owned Saatchi Gallery has been among the most influential in the capital. Showing pieces from the collection of Charles Saatchi, it was the first place to display Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank, Tracey Emin’s tent naming everyone she’d ever slept with and other, now iconic, works of Young British Art. On the Mall, just down the road from Buckingham Palace, the Institute of Contemporary Arts mixes cinema, art, debate and digital media to create an exploratory space for new ideas. After some years in the doldrums, the ICA is enjoying a renewed reputation as one of the most stimulating cultural spaces in the capital.
Next stop: Bond Street. There is no better place to see how wealth is affecting the capital. For most of the Nineties the street’s fashion retailers sold pared-down, restrained designs epitomised by the cool black nylon minimalism of the Milan-based label Prada. Now ostentation is back. And with the strong pound abroad and a healthy economy at home, shoppers are buying clothes in luxury fabrics such as cashmere and the softest leather, and dressing for show and for status. Bond Street, home to UK flagship stores for most of the world’s biggest fashion houses, is their mecca. It’s an instructive experience to walk down there on a Saturday afternoon, snaking your way through crowds of hungry customers queuing to get into Gucci or staggering, bag-laden out of Versace’s marble-floored, gilt-embossed emporium. Close your eyes and you might think you were back in the vulgar old Eighties. Hang on, open them and you might still think it was the Eighties. These days, it’s getting hard to tell the difference.
Yet shopping in London is not all about excess and glamour. Some of the most vibrant areas of the capital are its street markets such as Southall and Brixton, which are, respectively, nexus points for the Asian and African-Caribbean communities of those areas. On Sundays, London’s cultural diversity is best experienced in Brick Lane. A traditional home to immigrant communities, Brick Lane wears its history on its sleeve. Like the sedimentary layers in a primeval rock, its previous inhabitants have all left their marks on the street. One building, for instance, began life as a chapel for French Huguenots in the early 19th century, before being converted into a synagogue for the growing Jewish population. It is now a mosque used by many Bangladeshi and Somalian immigrants, who are the area’s newest occupants. Yet recently Brick Lane has also been settled by young artists, fashion and furniture designers and musicians, all of whom have moved east searching for cheap studio spaces. On Sundays clothes designers and hip furniture-makers sell their wares next to sari shops, while waiters from the Indian restaurants that line the street stand outside and tout for custom at the tops of their voices.
Brick Lane seems beautiful to me in ways that only urban spaces ever can. It is a street whose character is made over in the image of those who live along it, and as such it is a street that is always changing, always surprising, always alive.
The same can be said of the annual Notting Hill Carnival, which has grown from humble origins in the 1950s as a celebration among West Indian immigrants, to become Europe’s biggest street festival. Or for that matter, of Soho’s Old Compton Street at 2am on a weekend. The gay capital of the capital, the street’s bars have a 24-hour life that is at its most vibrant late into the night after the pubs have shut and the straights have gone home. Then the newly pedestrianised streets are full of people whose only aim is to spend the night talking, drinking and flirting. Gay culture has civilised once sleazy Soho and turned it into a place of bright lights and loud music, where gender and sexual orientation are less important than a capacity for enjoyment.
I have friends whose idea of a good time is to become members of the Reform Club, because there they can see the Establishment at rest and play. For them it’s a little bit like going on safari and seeing a strange exotic species in its natural habitat. I’d rather watch from the impressive lozenge-shaped Media Centre at that other bastion of the Establishment, Lord’s Cricket Ground. Designed by the cutting-edge architectural practice Future Systems, it is inspiring to see bold, modern design in such a staid environment.
While most of us visit hospitals reluctantly, the Chelsea and Westminster is worth heading for, even without the aid of an ambulance. Far more than the Dome, it expresses perfectly the ambition of new Labour, in that it is a public-sector building with the sheen of private enterprise. Built in 42 months after the closure of the old Westminster Hospital, it is a sleek, architect-designed seven-storey space built around a central atrium, with a ground-floor mall featuring a seating area, a pharmacy, creche and hospital chapel. A combination shopping centre, art gallery – there are works by, among others, Patrick Heron and Allen Jones – and health service provision centre, it marries style and substance with apparent ease.
For an example of how hard that is to get right, it is actually worth visiting the Dome. Here are all the horrors of old Britain – the insecure insistence that everything British is the “best in the world”, the mediocre, provincial quality of the attractions, like a transplanted British seaside resort – come face to face with a very new dilemma: just what is Britain any more? Go to the Dome if you want to agonise over the question without any satisfactory resolution. Better by far, take a turn on the capital’s other millennium attraction, the London Eye. At 135 metres in diameter, it is visible across central London and, in its short life so far, it has achieved something amazing. Catch sight of it and the skyline of London is transformed into a place of play and possibility. In a city where the potential of the future has often been stymied by the weight of the past, it suddenly feels as though anything might be about to happen.