Julian Lewis of East discusses how context flourishes in the spaces between spaces.


Cities have changed over the last sixty years in ways both sublime and shocking. In London, Rotterdam, São Paulo, and Paris, to name just a few, the process by which city clients and their designers threw layers of infrastructure and ambitious housing projects across and into the existing urban fabric was often propelled by a profound disregard of context coupled with an enviable clarity of purpose; a simple aim to deliver singular projects for new futures on behalf of the whole city.

But big ambitious projects often have unintended consequences at their edges giving rise to unplanned relationships. Their drive for a singular future has given way to the various demands of the city’s complex history, texture, and social-economic layering, rawly exposed around these unplanned edges.

In London, these edges are part of a mesh that constitutes a vast hidden landscape in full view. It can be found where masterplans clash, where Boroughs join, where streets roam, where the geometry of a 20th century road greets the footprint of an 18th century pub. Iain Sinclairs’ peregrination around the acoustic footprint of the M25 orbital describes a special example, but this is only one of the more emblematic of the extraordinary catalogue of spaces that constitutes London’s biggest asset. These are the areas where complex relationships exist, usually unnoticed, between unalike conditions created for different purposes. Unique places. They are not about the future, and as they are rarely properly identified, they barely exist in the present. They are the spaces between buildings, structures and facades that resist typological identity. Look out of your window now, and you will see it; that part that was never drawn in plan or elevation; that view, that space, that colour. Ugly? Beautiful? Neither word says it.

In losing sight of the future we have also forgotten the city that exists. London’s economic success has thrived in recent years without much regard to its spaces, producing crops of city towers and batches of new housing within sites of economic opportunity. These developments are popularly ‘launched’ in the guise of fashion products, offering a frisson of contemporary living and working, with architectural identities rendered in ‘CGI’ using images of similar buildings; urban design using selfie sticks. The inward looking stance of these projects is the opposite of what urbanism is for and we need to be looking outwards to do justice to the city.

‘Context’ is what conventionally describes urban relationships in the jargon of urban planning, but in reality it is a weak and neutral tool aimed at proving the suitability of urban proposals at planning stages. ‘Context’ is rarely used to mine the raw vitality of the uneven qualities of an area; and fails to address time as a human component in experiencing the city. More precise tools are needed to identify such urban heterogeneity.

When we design, it is possible to engage with the city environment not as a closed fact, but as an open condition that only comes into being upon observation. Observing the city requires dynamic reading. Building on a site means redesigning what exists next to it; the resulting urban constellation is what should hold our interest, not just the red line of the planning application. Careful methods of representation are required. Artists are sometimes better at this than architects.

With increased financial constraints; the need to enhance use of existing energies, and a fractured idea of what improvement even means, we not only need to relate to the uneven edges of the city, we need to validate them, perhaps even to like them. New redevelopments can provide enhanced social and economic value in orchestrating better relationships with the existing city. This will also lead to much better architecture. We can be excited about what we have already got, and improve our awareness and ability to know how to make use of such a rich terrain. The city exists simultaneously at all scales; in proximity, time and distance, from the door handle to the street to the skyline. Design teams can be more nimble and adept in designing our city spaces and buildings together. The city is not a monolithic fact; a second hand entity one step removed from life. It is available for use, ready to change, ready to be noticed.


Julian Lewis (East)

East are Supporters of The Architecture Foundation