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Designing For London: Fiona Scott

Reframing London’s arterial high road

Fiona Scott runs London-based architecture practice Gort Scott with Jay Gort. Thepractice’s current projects include a London gallery, a pub/guesthouse in Cambridge and a secondary school recreation area. Previous projects include an urban design research project for transport interchanges, and consultancy on a transport corridor in Accra, Ghana. Scott has also worked for Adjaye Associates, MVRDV and DSDHA.

My project aims to go a step further than the pervasive model of urbanism that focuses on the polycentric city connected by public transport corridors. I wanted to frame a new sensibility of that so-called ‘corridor’, London’s arterial high road.

This project proposes a new understanding of London’s urbanism, one focused not on the point, but on the line. This is not to deny the importance of the city centre, which has both historical and cultural precedents in its own way, but to take into account another history – that of the city which grows along linear space (in this case a Roman road), and has its own gravitational pull. It is both ‘place’ and ‘connector’ at the same time.

This linearity is not the American ‘strip’, nor a gestural, modernist streak of speed and movement. This is a low-key, disorderly London linearity; a line drawn with an uneven hand with varying pressure and intensity. It doesn’t just connect discrete places, but makes an infinite number of new places along it. It doesn’t cut through the city – it is the city.

The high road doesn’t cut through the city - it is the city

My site for the Urban Design Scholarships programme was a stretch of road between Ilford and Chadwell Heath in the London Borough of Redbridge, part of the road running from the City of London to Colchester in Essex. Despite its Roman origins, I initially found it an unremarkable bit of road, either taken for granted or ignored. Its properties and characteristics had been poorly recognised and documented, and certainly not valued. The streetscape was polluted, unloved, with few immediately outstanding features.

I found that observational hand-drawings of buildings and blocks along the road, documenting their relationships to the street and adjacent buildings, were a way for me to understand and learn to value their characteristics and qualities. After a Christmas spent drawing this building fabric, I zoomed out, taking a more analytical approach that dealt with the road as a singular element. The aim was to present more quantifiable information and historical fact as a counterpoint to the first, more observational part of the project.

It is always hard to draw a tidy conclusion when you feel something is a broad synthesis of different variables. This is a project about the dignity and the economic importance of local spaces outside the ‘centre’. High roads have important, robust, recognisable features. They are accessible by a critical mass of residents along their whole length, and have unparalleled connectivity, allowing them to accommodate a mix of users from both local and wider areas.

I used a George Orwell quotation at the beginning of the project: ‘The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the arterial roads.’ Orwell was talking about democracy and breaking down traditional class distinctions, but, without taking the quote too literally, I have learned that there is something uniquely modern, un-hierarchical and accommodating of change about the structures that make up the arterial London high road.

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