Designing London : In Conversation with Ike Ijeh

Ike Ijeh's book, Designing London: Understanding the Character of the City, published in March, takes a bold new look at the architecture that defines our capital city.
Here, Ike Ijeh talks to Meris Ryan-Goff about the process of writing his book, the development and definition of London's character, and the future of urban design in a world post-Covid-19. 

The River Thames is London’s largest public space and a key component of the city’s character.

Your book looks at London from a brave and interesting new angle. When and why did you settle on the specific topic/title for your book?

I’ve always loved and been fascinated by London, as well as it being the city of my birth and the place where I live and work. I almost view it as a friend who is constantly present and in whose company I can never feel truly dejected or alone. For me, this kind of relationship lends the city human characteristics and I thought it might be fascinating to explore what these characteristics might be and how they contribute to the overall image and identity of the city.

The other reason I settled on the topic is because I feel we’re in a period where London’s unique character is under threat. Urban character has never been more frequently deployed as an aspirational buzzword by architects and planners but nobody ever makes any real effort to quantify or define what exactly that character is. This lack of definition and understanding makes that character easier to ignore or undermine which is exactly what I feel a host of insensitive and inappropriate developments have done in recent years. I wanted my book to be a rallying call not to suppress development but to try and make it more responsible in terms of character and context.

Finally, there are lots of books on London’s architecture, less on its urbanism but hardly any on the character that both combine to generate. I liked the idea of my book being one of the first.

Can you describe to us your research approach for assessing London’s urban character?

Lots of walking, looking and listening! As an architect I’m a big fan of grounding any design intervention in intense analytical rigour and I tried to do the same for my book. I also have a pretty good knowledge background about the history and development of London and know the city extremely well, so I used all of this to try and draw out the characteristics that I feel make London what it is.

Despite its height, the Shard embeds itself into the character of London by evoking the familiar traditional form of a supersized church spire.


In tackling London, you’re dealing with a vast and varied city landscape - as you mention in your introduction! How did you narrow down the book’s case studies?

For the case studies I tried to select larger representative schemes – usually though not exclusively in central London - that encapsulated many of the wider themes to be found across London development today. For instance the Shard, 22 Bishopsgate and 20 Fenchurch Street cover the impact of tall buildings in the city, Eccleston Yards and King’s Cross Central deal with public spaces, McGrath Road, Nine Elms, Chapter Spitalfields and One Cartwright Gardens refer to housing etc.

Informality and Irregularity are two of the key features of London’s architectural profile that you draw out in your book - how is this effect created through design?

Historically in the design of buildings these characteristics are generally reflected by an accentuated residential emphasis to London’s architecture, perhaps best illustrated by London’s squares. In terms of London’s urban design it is best reflected by its unplanned and undisciplined street layout, the extreme degree to which natural landscapes contribute to London’s character and the traditional loose empiricism and organic nature of its planning system.


How might we notice this effect in our experience of London as a city?

The City of London provides a fantastic example and is full of crooked, narrow alleyways, asymmetrical views and a generally chaotic charm that sometimes makes London appear less like a formal, planned capital city and more like some aberrant steroidal village. Spaces like Horse Guards Parade are also good at demonstrating how London embraces informality and irregularity, the space is large and grand but isn’t quite symmetrical. I once led one of my architectural tours there, and after studying the square closely, a German attendee demanded, “but where is the masterplan!?” As so often in London, the simple sometimes maddening answer is that there isn’t one; but that is exactly what helps generate London’s special charm.


At Gasholders, WilkinsonEyre has ingeniously inserted new housing into the retained Victorian cylindrical structures that are revered remnants of the industrial past of King’s Cross. © John Sturrock


Within the book, which case study do you admire most for its design?

Probably King’s Cross Central. It’s come in for some criticism when it comes to its perceived privatisiation of public space and the alleged social surveillance proclivities of its management plan, some of which certainly in the latter instance might be justified. But it’s undeniable that it’s been an astonishing regeneration success and really sets a benchmark for imaginative conservation of formerly derelict buildings within a buoyant network of vibrant new public spaces.


And which do you regret most?

Probably 20 Fenchurch Street, it has inflicted colossal visual and reputational damage and makes it very hard to take the City of London seriously as a credible architectural and historic centre.


20 Fenchurch Street, otherwise known as the ‘Walkie Talkie’, looms apocalyptically over Lombard Street.


If you could pick an area of London where the architecture shows excellent attention to preserving urban character, which area would this be?

In central London, probably Covent Garden and Clerkenwell. Both display their proud heritage roots but have, I feel, been very successful in embedding bold contemporary interventions into their historic fabric. Both also retain their residential village roots and feel, and have a distinctive sense of place and identity that is unique to their respective neighbourhoods.


Was there a case study that you didn’t get to mention, that you would have liked to? Tell us about this building…

LSE's Saw Swee Hock Student Centre by O'Donnell and Tuomey. It’s such a powerful and expressive little building because with its splayed angles and folded surfaces it acts like a knotty three-dimensional pivot that reflects its position at the confluence of a number of narrow lanes and alleyways. In so doing it celebrates all the awkwardness and irregularity of London backstreets in a very dramatic and dynamic way that remains contemporary yet utterly contextual. Its use of brickwork also provides a radical reinterpretation of a traditional and very familiar London building material, as is also the case at Herzog and de Meuron’s Switch House extension to the Tate Modern. Altogether Saw Swee Hock proves that you can understand and respond to London’s urban character in a way that is still thoroughly innovative, uncompromising and contemporary.


Your discussion of ‘Democracy’ in designing and influencing urban character was very interesting. Are you concerned that the social situation in London is becoming less equal because of the spatial situation?

Yes and no. London has never been equal, historically the rich and poor have always dwelled together often with levels of inequality that far surpass our own. But historically the key to London’s success and its humanism has always been this very porous and non-hierarchical social structure where princes can dwell with paupers with relatively little enforced physical segregation between them. Unlike many European cities, you’ll find council housing even in the wealthiest parts of London and there aren’t many cities that would build a market hall next to an opera house. But as house prices rise and those on lower incomes are forced out of the city, particularly the centre, that delicate but vital social balance is potentially at risk.

At 80m wide, 22 Bishopsgate is almost three times as wide as the M25 motorway.


You have talked about the importance of green spaces and trees in London’s character, and how this is unique to the city.
How well does nature interact with newer urban spaces? Could you point to us to some examples of good or bad practice in this?

Generally I think newer urban spaces embrace nature well, with some of the best large-scale recent examples being found at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and King’s Cross Central. That said, there’s a peculiar historic problem that London has sometimes found with its public spaces where, in an effort to conform to its proud naturalistic heritage (obviously a good thing), trees crop up in sometimes inappropriate places and randomly obscure important architectural frontages. This happens at the west front of St. Paul’s, Selfridges, much of Whitehall and until recently, even the Banqueting House.

This very English nervousness about having public spaces without trees sometimes seeps into contemporary schemes too; personally I don’t think there’s a need for them at Stanton Williams’ new King’s Cross Square. It’s a difficult balancing act, obviously trees are a hugely positive part of London’s urban character and we want to see as many of them as possible. But sometimes public spaces should be a little more judicious with their usage and shouldn’t be afraid to assert their urban credentials and limit trees where appropriate. London’s natural character is robust and well-established enough to withstand the odd expanse of hard landscaping here and there.


Do you think that the ‘public benevolence’ which inspired the Boundary Estate is still a feature of city planning today?

To a degree, but definitely not to the extent which inspired the Boundary Estate. Efforts are made to provide social housing and London’s three modern mayors have made various adjustments to the various affordable housing quotas which they require private development to meet. But in order to address London’s chronic affordable housing shortage and follow in the barnstorming tradition of its London County Council predecessor, social housing on the scale of the Boundary Estate is precisely what the GLA, with the help of central government if necessary, should be spearheading. The GLA and the government need to be much, much more ambitious if London is to retain its reputation as a humanist and socially inclusive city and tinkering with quotas won’t do it. If the GLA can’t address an issue of such massive concern to the future of London, then what is its point?

Historic Georgian terraces like those on Gower Street still remain an incredibly popular and familiar housing model for the capital more than 300 years after they were first erected.


Your book goes into great detail to define London’s character, but if you had to describe London’s character in three words, what would they be?

Vibrant, unpredictable, humane.


Where do you see urban development trends heading in the future?

The answers I would have given before the coronavirus crisis are completely different to the answers I’ll give now. The pandemic has changed everything and like previous historic outbreaks, is going to leave a lasting impact on the city. Some of the development trends I now envisage are: a huge glut of unwanted office space as the desire to work from home rises exponentially; a subsequent radical and welcome reduction in the amount of commercial and residential high-rises proposed in London; an intensification of the reallocation of public space away from cars and towards pedestrians and cyclists; more pedestrianisation (hopefully, finally at Parliament Square!); a significant cooling of the housing market which just might be sedate enough to finally prompt meaningful quantities of affordable housing development; and, sadly, profound financial problems for London’s public transport system which will potentially threaten future expansion plans like Crossrail 2 and the Bakerloo line extension. 


Do you have any reflections on the way that London, as a living city and as a space, is coping with the current crisis?

I think the crisis has shown some of the best of London. We haven’t quite had the wonderful balcony opera singers we’ve witnessed in Italy but we’ve had impromptu string quartets performing at the weekly key worker appreciations and spontaneous musical performances on London residential streets. The reaffirmation of this enduring sense of community has been one of the few positives of the pandemic; I strongly believe that that sense has always been there and that the pandemic has not created it but merely amplified it. For years London has long been erroneously maligned as a place where people don’t even know their own neighbours. Well, it turns out that it was those detractors who didn’t know London all along.

Photographs © Ike Ijeh, unless otherwise stated


Ike Ijeh's book, Designing London: Understanding the Character of the City, is available to buy here.

Hardback • 160 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
119 colour illustrations
 • ISBN: 9781848223264 
Publication: March 27, 2020


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