Cultural Quarters for the Future

from London Essays #4
By Adrian Ellis

Reposted from London Essays

Policymakers looking to develop new cultural districts need to be aware that audiences’ experiences are changing everything.

Rapid urbanisation and globalisation have a tendency to reduce cities to a samey blur; and given the fierce competition for inward investment, tourists and knowledge workers, political and civic leaders are always looking for ways to refine and assert their own cities’ identities. Where those have a strong cultural base – London, Paris, New York, Montreal – leaders flaunt that base and burnish it. But citizens’ expectations of their cultural districts – of buildings, of what goes on in them and of the spaces in between them – is changing. The elements that create pulling power, buzz, and a significant contribution to a city’s identity are not what they once were, and require a new kind of design and planning.

London’s cumulative cultural offer today is stunning, from the high arts, sheathed in iconic architecture, old and new, to rich, animated street life. Some of London’s cultural clusters are historic, like South Kensington’s Albertopolis, or the West End’s theatre district; others ‘naturally occurring’, like Hoxton and Shoreditch. And now we are witnessing a new generation of strategically-conceived cultural areas, with Bankside to South Bank the pioneering example, and others in the pipeline, like Stratford’s Olympicopolis – the cultural precinct planned for the south end of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park that will include extensions to the Victoria & Albert Museum and Sadler’s Wells and new campuses for the University of the Arts and University College London. The construction of Crossrail is providing the context for the creation of a new culturally-defined district, including the Barbican, its anticipated new concert hall, and a relocated Museum of London. All these projects, with their various venues and – just as importantly – their smaller interstitial spaces, represent a complex meshing together of urban and cultural planning designed to create distinctive identities.

It is not easy to do this well. Newer cities like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi, without significant cultural infrastructure, are spending billions trying to create cultural identities from scratch, motivated as much by fear as by desire. Their leaders feel they have little alternative to investing in a full suite of distinctive infrastructure if they are to compete for resources on a global scale. Entertainment – theme parks, casinos and seven-star hotels – can take them as far as, say, a match with Macau or Las Vegas, or even Miami and LA, but culture potentially takes them further to ‘World City’ status.

Building high culture from a cold or luke-warm start at speed is a fraught, high-risk business: failures outnumber successes. Essential ingredients are simply absent in some cities – available content for performing arts centres, say, or a critical mass of visitors and locals for museums. Sometimes, the complex recipe required for a vital, vibrant cultural ecology is misunderstood or misread by civic leaders feeling the global pressure to catch up. The result can be over-built, under-programmed and decontextualised cultural transplants struggling to figure out how to live comfortably in their arresting dollops of starchitecture. Ironically, as a result of the search for architectural and programmatic distinction, a new, perverse form of homogeneity can easily assert itself, in a fine display of the law of unintended consequences: ‘This one-off, authentic museum is coming soon to a city near you!’

Top-down cultural planning is not new. What else was Albertopolis, or Schinkel’s master plan for Museum Island in Berlin? Or, to go even further back, the very deliberate planning of Paris’ public spaces over the three hundred years from the Pont Neuf in 1606 to Haussmann’s master plan of the 1850s? What is new is the speed and scale of developments. Berlin’s Pergamon Museum opened in 1930, a full century after the completion of the Museum Island masterplan. ‘Olymicopolis’ is planned to be completed by 2022. What is also new are the expectations of cultural experience – of what goes on inside and around buildings, for whom, and the relationship between culture and adjacent communities. That alters how and what we need to design.

New Spaces for New Cultural Forms

A significant complicating factor for cultural planners is that we are entering a new chapter in cultural production and consumption – and so a new chapter in what we want from our buildings. Doug McLennan, the pattern-recognition guru who curates the news aggregator, wrote recently: ‘The dominant cultural issue of our time is the change in how people are finding and getting culture. In response, business models supporting culture and the kinds of culture being made are also changing’. (1)

We are experiencing a generational shift in the experience and location of cultural vitality. Traditional audiences accessing traditional forms of culture in traditional ways are under threat throughout Europe and North America. Increasingly, people are enthused by experiencing the arts in new spaces and contexts, particularly ones where they can socialise, hang out and come and go according to their own timetable. Museums have an advantage here vis-à-vis the performing arts – you can arrive and leave when you want and pay as little or as much attention to the art as you like and, if you do focus on the art, then you can ‘curate your own experience’ through supportive media. Indeed, museum directors are increasingly criticised for being more preoccupied with the quality of the social experience than the art, which is reduced to a backdrop for social interaction.

A symphony or a play, however, can only start once, and it will make more sense if you get there at the beginning, so performing arts programmers have a tougher time. They are constantly looking for ways to break down the hard start and end that long-form theatre, opera and classical music entails. New types of spaces are being sought to support cultural activities – more informal, more flexible, more accessible and more fluid than those that have tended to preoccupy politicians and policymakers around the world over the past few decades. Park Avenue Armory in New York (a former barracks specialising in immersive performances and installations) and Carriageworks in Sydney (former railway sheds, programming contemporary arts) are examples of the sorts of large-scale spaces and adventurous, hybrid programming that represent this trend. (2)

The cultural sector is abuzz about the right design brief for the next generation of arts buildings and design ‘solutions’ are beginning to emerge. Miami’s New World Symphony Hall is a robust attempt to introduce technology and informality into the traditional concert experience without frightening the horses. It seems to be working. New York’s planned Culture Shed, part of the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project, is scheduled to open in 2019, hosting art, performance, film, design, fashion and more. Next up are the plans for the new London concert hall that will seek to acknowledge these trends while satisfying demands for an acoustically highly-specified classical hall for Simon Rattle’s London Symphony Orchestra.

The demographics of our cities are changing. People are using their sliced-and-diced leisure time in different ways, with wholly or partly technologically-mediated entertainment and arts experiences becoming the norm. Artists are increasingly working in ways that cross traditional boundaries between the visual and performing arts, between high and low culture, and between the subsidised and commercial sectors. Meanwhile, cultural institutions are under ever-growing pressure to attract wider and more diverse audiences, as study after study shows that large proportions of the public simply don’t engage. Last year’s Warwick Commission report concluded that inequalities and barriers to participation are denying many people in Britain their cultural human rights.

A Simple Recipe for Success

The responses to this changing environment will have to be both about placemaking and cultural expression. In other words, the ways in which cultural ‘anchors’ relate to their surroundings and are open to them is probably as important as what goes on in them. London is privileged to be unusually if not uniquely sensitised to these issues, perhaps as a result of the intense experience afforded by the National Lottery – that transformational spigot of infrastructure funding for arts, heritage and grands projets that John Major opened in 1994. Tate Modern’s new extension, opening this June, promises to offer not only a new building with new spaces for new art, but also new ways of engaging with art and new places to meet and relax. Those priorities capture the zeitgeist pretty well and there is probably no other city, with the possible exception of New York, that has such a refined sense of the part culture can play in identity and the effect cultural infrastructure can have.

Internationally, the preoccupation with placemaking continues to command resources, political will and attention from both the arts and the urban planning sectors. In America, cultural and creative placemaking is defining priorities for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and for many of the foundations that have long supported the arts. As Inside Philanthropy put it, somewhat breathlessly, last February: ‘Last year, we listed three reasons why creative placemaking represents the future of arts funding […] we can safely say the future has arrived.’

The mashing together of cultural and urban agendas is no bad thing. Culture has something important to contribute to the urban fabric, and figuring out how it can best do so is exciting and demanding. What makes a great cultural district is fairly easy to define. If you think about the city areas you love, they probably have some of the following features, irrespective of whether you are in Siena or walking along New York’s High Line, or strolling between the South Bank and Bankside in London:

  • human scale
  • a well-maintained public realm that draws people pretty indiscriminately from all walks of life to see and be seen (the agora)
  • animated street life
  • light programming, with public performance and appropriate spaces
  • street fairs, food fairs, periodic festivals, public art that is intelligently curated
  • mixed use, of a non mono-cultural kind – including restaurants, cafes, retail and residential.

The places we like are usually neither wholly historic nor wholly contemporary, but with a sense of living, organic development; the buildings are at different scales, with the larger anchors alongside smaller (an obvious point, yet absent from some of the less successful district planning of the past decade). Small-scale production and opportunities for consumption often sit alongside one another.

These favoured places are usually neither totally pedestrianised nor overwhelmed with traffic; neither wholly sanitised nor overly branded. They tend to include careful historic restoration and to be walkable; you can orientate yourself by landmarks or water, rather than by intrusive signage; and there are clear connections to the rest of the city, whether through clear sightlines or proximity to stretches of water. There are probably some thriving anchor organisations with international resonance, heft, scale and an impressive architectural carapace.

Who is not going to vote for that? The point, of course, is that the conditions in which these elements can thrive are difficult to create and rarely occur spontaneously. That’s why people are prepared to travel to find them. Take one important example from that list of attributes: the co-location of production and consumption, which gives a cultural district depth and a sense of texture. The very success of a district drives production and consumption apart because of their different economics: driving rents up, making production prohibitively expensive – the process we call gentrification. The only way to preserve that character is to plan in market-curbing antidotes: rent subsidies, live-work spaces, and so on. A similar point can be made about each of the attributes listed. It is not that the ends are challenging to define: it is that the means need to be baked into the mix at the outset. It is difficult to add them afterwards, just as it is difficult to repurpose a concert hall for a multi-media participatory event.

The success of districts like the Thames between Bankside and The London Eye or Montreal’s Quartier des Spectacle are the result of highly-nuanced strategies. (3)

They don’t always follow the same pattern but they have certain features in common. These would be my top three:

1. Some sort of indicative planning framework that creates a master plan or map, early on, so that short-term moves don’t prevent the realisation of a longer-term vision;

2. A willingness by the public sector to assert the importance of the public realm and to stand up effectively for it in the face of commercial imperatives; to provide pump priming for infrastructure; and to be prepared to use development pressure and planning regulations to protect and promote the vision; and

3. Strong leadership, usually of a sort that can pull together the private, public and cultural players so that their longer-term interests can be made subservient to the short term.

I would add a fourth, for the 21st century:

4. A vision that addresses the reality that art forms are changing, audiences’ expectations are changing, and that the context in which they meet needs to embrace flexibility and informality.

So: a city’s cultural offer has historically always been an important part of its global positioning and competitive armoury; but as patterns of cultural production and consumption change, so must the components of the offer. Alongside the legacy of historic art forms – symphonies, plays, operas, great art exhibitions and the spaces they occupy – new art forms are providing an impetus to develop new building forms and urban spaces.

Montreal’s Quartier has been wired to allow artists to program video, sound and water installations that are projected onto the city’s buildings and into the streetscape; Durham’s light festival, Britain’s largest, allows artists working in the medium of light to project images across the city in extraordinary and arresting ways – London got a taste of it in this January’s Lumiere Festival. Sydney’s Opera House is an iconic draw, but the VIVID light festival, projected onto its roofs, attracts more people than the operas and orchestral concerts programmed inside. This is art, some of it indifferent, some of it great. What it points to is that London’s urban planning, as it rightly prioritises culture, needs to be informed by an awareness of the rapidly evolving nature of art forms and of the subtle alchemy required to incubate and distribute them.


(1) For a case study see Gastil, Ray, et al. Success Looks Different Now: Design and Cultural Vitality in Lower Manhattan, Architectural League of New York (2013) that documents the decision to abandon a large-scale performing arts centre in Lower Manhattan as an understanding of its irrelevance to the cultural appetites of the community slowly spread through stakeholders.

(2) For a good overview of this territory see, for example, Why “Where”? Because “Who” – Art Venues, Spaces, and Tradition by Brent Reidy (December 2014): “Facing waning audiences and challenged relevancy, many arts organizations are paying closer attention to place – the settings where arts experiences are offered – as a way to attract and more deeply engage new audiences.”

(3) See for example Future of London’s analysis of ‘Partnerships on the South Bank’ at (June 27, 2014).

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