Thursday, 5 February 2015

Underneath the arches

Foodie hide and seek: Bermondsey's spa terminus is a collection of food wholesalers who open to the public on Saturdays

Last Saturday (Feb 1st) we went to visit Spa Terminus, the collection of food wholesale businesses that operate under the arches around the remoter enclaves of residential Bermondsey. This is a weird combination of private space and public space – Network Rail owns these arches. But Network Rail is a publicly owned company, so in a way this space belongs to us. Anyway, thanks to an enlightened agreement negotiated collectively by these foodie business owners, they have long term, affordable tenure and are able to run their high quality food wholesaling businesses from cool and spacious premises during the week, opening up their doors to the public on Saturday mornings so that everyone can share in their bounty. It's highly priced bounty. But it’s worth it. 

Browsing for food in this manner – searching along the bleak back streets, with little street life to speak of between blocks of dog-eared social housing and handsome private flats - there’s an appealing ‘hide and seek’ quality to the experience; not knowing what you’ll find from one set of arches to the next. And it was always worth taking a look.

There’s something about the vendors’ isolated units that highlights the extraordinary colours of the produce when you come across it stacked high and casually in boxes; something about the un-manicured setting, the rough brick and concrete structures, that really sets off the rich purple of Italian aubergines, the flamboyant frills of purple frisee lettuce, the delicately coloured garlic bulbs, or the voluptuous contours of exotic tomatoes. In this antithesis to the supermarket setting – away from the entrances reeking with the artificial odour of freshly baked bread, or the scent of cappuccinos trailing from the nearby Starbucks – the nostrils seek out and savour the subtle delights of bunches of fresh basil; the citrus scent of ruby oranges sliced in half; the eyes feast on the vivid raspberry red colour of Yorkshire rhubarb. It cost a fortune (£10 for a generous stack of rhubarb!!) but for the sheer sensory enjoyment and the taste of the produce, you can’t resent it. Well, not as a once in a blue moon experience.

The colours of purple and white frisee lettuce pop out against the brick and concrete industrial setting

England Preserves tasting bar shows what a lot of skill, time and top quality produce can yield to the conserve-ator
There’s such pleasure to be had in the artisan offer and presentation. We fell heavily for the Gooseberry and Elderflower jam we experienced at the tasting bar for England Preserves, not to mention the most divine biscuits I’ve ever eaten (possibly). Made with the left over egg whites from egg yolks needed for their lemon curd, we sampled unbelievably delicious macaroons made just with oranges, almonds, egg white and sugar (fat and flour free), as well as some pistachio biscotti. They were the perfect complement to a latte from Monmouth Coffee next door.

Possibly the best macaroons ever
And as you look, you dream, you savour and you plan. It’s like food foreplay. After a spot of gentle browsing, I already had some lovely meals in my head (and my rucksack) for the week coming up. This felt like an incredibly civilized alternative to the weekly supermarket shop.  Why would you want shop any other way? Because it took a whole morning, and I spent over £60….and only had enough food for four meals. And one hell of a rhubarb crumble.

But I came home and arranged the groceries along the kitchen counter, like one gorgeous still life, so our eyes could feast on it for the whole weekend. So if you add in the amount of pleasure to be had from the experience along with the food - and the fact that my 12-year-old daughter, who has never fancied mushrooms, has now fallen in love with them after seeing such an interesting array laid out in the stalls (and then tried them fried, with butter and garlic) and you might recalculate it as time and money well spent.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

House of Memories

Museums have never been so vital to us as they are today: the physical custodians of all that has mattered over the ages; totems for the community and for culture at large, framing its evolution within their walls and archives, they also offer precious opportunities to sit or muse, to share the same three-dimensional space with their collections while we contemplate their making and their meaning. As the world moves to the overwhelmingly virtual (with handheld devices facilitating more and more of our work, education, entertainment and friendships), I think we need to realise how much our identities as a species are wrapped up in the objects and places and people that have surrounded us. So I applaud an initiative by National Museums of Liverpool (NML) to bring the wealth of their physical collection of objects, texts, film footage and photography to life in virtual form so that those whose memories and identities are being ravaged by Dementia can have the world they still inhabit brought back into focus.
I was privileged to attend the House of Commons launch last week of the My House of Memories, a free App developed by NML, with the help of Innovate Dementia, the Department of Health and a great number of carers for people with Dementia, along with the Dementia sufferers themselves.

Health Minister Norman Lamb with NML's Carol Rogers and
David Fleming, at the House of Commons launch

It was inspired by a House of Memories toolkit developed by NML two years ago, comprising a series of exercises and engagement topics developed using NML’s extensive local history collection, to help start conversations and improve relationships for Dementia sufferers and their carers.  Around 5,000 carers in the North West and Midlands have been trained to use it so far. But the launch of the App is potentially taking this inspirational idea to a massive new audience. The App, designed by former Sony games designer Dave Burrows, provides a simple, accessible route into a fine-tuned range of topics, identified through workshops as the ones most likely to generate a response (they include music, entertainment, family life and local history). Through these topics users can access 110 objects, 350 photographs and 30-40 videos and sound clips, providing thousands of hours of potential conversation, with features that help users to create their own personal mini-Museum, including a personalised Memory Tree.
Launched on itunes last month (with 500 downloads in the first couple of weeks), there is interest from Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even as far as Brazil. Content can be adapted for each nationality, region or city.

The App is all about ease of use, with pink and white having the strongest
impact for text or background
As with so many acts of great generosity, the benefits will hopefully ricochet back to the creators, not just in increased recognition for NML and the chance to play a role in the fight to preserve life quality for those with Dementia, but also with physical visitors to Liverpool’s museums, which already host ‘Meet me at the Museum’ events for the elderly. But, most of all, the App and its wider uses demonstrate - ironically, through their new virtual platform - the ongoing relevance and value of three-dimensional museums to their communities.
Details of how to download the My House of Memories app on ITunes and Google Play can be found at  

Friday, 13 June 2014

Generosity is the antidote

Bob Hoskins dies and his advice to his daughter is to be generous in life, as you can’t take it with you when you go.

Chris Huhne writes a piece in The Guardian about how the selfish  model – dog eat dog greed – of capitalism is worse for everyone.

Thomas Piketty’s book on the failings of capitalism and the need for a more considerate, egalitarian model for society and prosperity, is a runaway bestseller….

The case for generosity and inclusivity is badly needed at a time when, certainly in London, it feels like the city is being plundered by the very wealthy and the greedy with no thought for the cost to the rest of humanity. Vast status symbols of vanity and one-upmanship, like the Shard, designed only for the obscenely affluent to lord it over the multitudes of have-nots, are shooting up across our skylines. The most offensive of all is the ‘Walkie Talkie’ building which looms over its neighbours like a particularly loud and boorish drinks party guest, with no sense of style (and probably severe halitosis), who stands far too close to you and won’t get the hint. For owners Land Securities, this top heavy design is all about maximising views for their top floor inhabitants, no matter how much they ruin the skyline for those of us who have always enjoyed the courtly dance being played out between the ancient and modern geometries of the city – a more considerate architectural conversation which evolved when it seemed some rules of moderation applied. Badly needed homes are being constructed in Battersea, Deptford and Bankside and sold off in seconds to the highest bidder from Malaysia, Shanghai or Sharjah before anyone who actually lives and works in this city can get a look in. 

An inspiring conversation between ancient and modern - the London skyline pre Walkie-Talkie building
This blog is here to celebrate a more socially sustainable and intelligent use of design, from the creation of spaces that express and enhance the culture and connections of those who live or work there, to the thoughtful integration of new buildings into old communities in ways that help celebrate the past and work towards a more connected present - and future. It’s also a way to highlight some of the really innovative thinking in how we design and consume, knowing that we need to consume less and design more carefully (banish built-in obsolescence, encourage re-use, recycling and adaptation) in order to bring our economies and eco-system into something resembling balance.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

An inspirational building for Sydenham youth

I’ve just visited The New Generation youth centre in Sydenham (TNG to its users). Completed in 2013 for Lewisham Council by RCKa, taking advantage of the last dregs of the MyPlace funding put in place by the Labour Government, it entailed a huge amount of consultation and engagement with various stakeholders – the future users, the locals, the providers of youth services and the council who have to run the building. The scheme went through many revisions as a result of local and user feedback. Its entrance was shifted from facing the main road to facing a side road, with a park entrance opposite, setting up a pleasing connection with this green space (Sydenham Wells Park) and also providing users with a sense of privacy and occasion. The interior is all pale wood, with large graphics and a dearth of dayglo colours – at the request of the young people, who wanted something more aspirational than the youth centre norm.

TNG youth centre glows like a beacon at night

What I love most about this building is its connectivity. For example, when you’re in the main, double height entrance space/gathering place, you can see into almost every area: the climbing wall beside you, the cafĂ© below, the outdoor games court beyond and the smaller games area inside and up a storey, as well as all the smaller rooms where dance, music and drama activities are visible through large windows. It reminds me of the ‘start page’ of my teenage son’s Nokia phone where, at a glance, he can see a whole menu of enticing options and entertainments. 

Views through to surrounding areas heighten connectivity 

I imagine its population of ‘digital natives’ also love the way the building lights up at night, its windows glowing like gems set within the semi-translucent polycarbonate cladding, evoking the luminous electronic screens of their beloved laptops/phones and yet opening up a very real, physical, interactive and life-enhancing community to them.

A state of the art climbing wall

Of the finished result Kleiner says: ‘‘It was a pleasure working with these young people (and seeing) how sharp and engaged and intelligent and forthright they are about what they wanted. It was great seeing how many positive things can come out of having (the stakeholders) on board. It can be slightly more challenging and the goalposts have to shift a bit more. You have to work a bit harder as an architect and be a bit more nimble but when you get to where you want to, there’s so much more buy in.’

The building works for two as well as it does for 200