INTERVIEW

Forgotten Spaces 2013

London

4 October 2013

The winner of this year's RIBA Forgotten Spaces competition is a plan to restore London's buried Fleet River, a proposal from the architectural practice 4orm to regenerate the city's King's Cross area.

The competition, now in its third edition, is an open call for proposals to renovate, re-imagine and regenerate rundown sites around London. The 26 shortlisted proposals for the competition are currently on display in an exhibition at Somerset House.

Forgotten Spaces is intended to be democratising, inviting entries from both professional studios and students. The diversity in entrants is reflected in the eclectic quality of the proposed schemes. The proposals range from the fanciful – a plan to flood Aldwych tube station to form a swimming baths - through to small, installation-like gestures, such as the conversion of an abandoned riverside platform at North Woolwich into a communal pavilion.

The winning entry, 4orm's Fleeting Memories, was announced last night by a RIBA jury. Fleeting Memories is a proposal to restore the Fleet River, a now subterranean waterway that flowed through King's Cross until the 19th century. 4orm's plan would involve destroying the Pancras Road and replacing it with a park to accompany the restored river.

4orm was founded in 2009 by Richard Gooden and Stephen Coleman. Below, Gooden speaks to Disegno about Fleeting Memories, the redevlopment of King's Cross and the importance of the Forgotten Spaces competition.


Where you familiar with the Fleet River before this competition?
I’ve lived in that bit of London for many years and if you look down from the bottom of Royal College Street to the north, you can really see in your mind’s eye the course that river once took. Then as research for the proposal we found a couple of very poignant early 19th-century engravings that showed people bathing in the Fleet, in this slightly bucolic landscape. The Fleet is one of seven or eight buried, forgotten and overlooked rivers in London and it’s natural that there be interest in reviving those waterways – bringing them back into the city in a more meaningful way than just keeping them underground or as concrete lined canals.

Why propose it as a site for redevelopment though? Why restore the Fleet?
Well it’s quite nice that that area is underused and forgotten, but equally that means it’s a resource that isn’t beingused to its maximum. Furthermore, within a couple of hundred metres is the King’s Cross redevelopment site, one of the largest in Europe, which has big players coming in like Google, and The Francis Crick Institute. That's going to lead to a densification of the population and we wanted to provide another resource for that.

Part of the entry would involve replacing Pancras Road with a park. What infrastructural effect would that have?
We didn’t major on it as part of our entry, but of course if you put a river where a road is, you’ve got to think about what happens to the traffic. But both Royal College Street and Pancras Road are dismal oneway streets that suffer from all of the usual things that make oneway streets very aggressive. By looking at how you might reconfigure the traffic patterns around there, you could immediately make the area much more civilised.

Is this idea likely to be taken further than a concept?
Forgotten Spaces an ideas competition, so it’s not necessarily going to end up in reality. But we do think that our idea has some legs. It goes back to the big players. Google has just won planning permission for something like 1 million square feet of office space a quarter of a mile up the road. It would be well worth talking to them to see if they wanted to make a further investment in the local area.

What do you think appealed about your project to the jury? It seemed more grounded than some of the more speculative entries.
We coined a little phrase we were going to say if people asked us, which was “ambitious but achievable.” Obviously it’s an ambitious idea in the current economic climate and we don’t think we’re going to have lots of people ringing up saying that they want to uncover a lost river. But it is easily possible to imagine what this place would be like. I think maybe what the jury saw in our idea is that it immediately demonstrates a place that anyone would feel would be a congenial place to be. It clearly gets the best out of the existing qualities of a place, while dealing with the not-so-congenial bits as well.

What is the value of competitions like this?
I think it’s a nice competition. It’s anonymous and gives people of all sorts of different levels of experience and training an opportunity to pitch. There are entries from practices like us, lone individuals, students, people working at other practices who decided to get together and do this in their spare time. When I started training in architecture it was still possible to enter competitions as an unknown. But that’s less and less the case now sadly. I think the decline of the competition system is a real loss. It’s become much less a route for people to get known, get their ideas out there and, most importantly, get their buildings built.