Dixon Jones’ shared space overhaul of Exhibition Road, London’s premium museum quarter, gives visitors the time to linger and look at some of the capital’s finest architecture
Shared space is a simple concept: one road surface for pedestrians and road users with a low speed limit and no road markings, signs nor other superfluous furniture.
This way users become more aware of their surroundings, make eye contact more often, whether walking or behind a wheel, and so have less accidents.
Statistics show this to be true. Ben Hamilton-Baillie of Whitelaw Turkington, the architect behind the Ashford Ring Road shared space project, told the BBC in 2011: ‘[Three years on] it looks as if there has been a significant drop, particularly in more serious accidents – maybe as much as 75 per cent.’
Shared space is a Dutch idea and one shaped by economics. The first examples were developed by traffic engineer Hans Monderman in Oudehaske when, in 1982, he was appointed as the town’s road safety investigator at a time when budget cuts scuppered plans for traffic calming measures.
This is the great triumph here, the allowance of time to pause and reflect
As his biography on the Project for Public Spaces website explains: ‘To save money yet keep the streets safe, Monderman hit on the idea of removing signs and street furniture to create a flat, even surface where travellers of all modes had to negotiate rights of way among themselves.
Exceeding even his own expectations, Monderman found that the plan cut vehicle speeds by 40 per cent. The absence of all traffic controls increased drivers’ awareness and thus forced them to slow down.’
Shared space is in essence a very architectural endeavour: a pared-down design challenge on an urban scale. Forget smoothing the curves on a door handle. This is minimalism that matters. And, besides, good street design makes buildings look better. The huge mass of Leslie Jones’s County Square Shopping Centre in Ashford, for example, with its overscaled windows and bland terracotta rainscreen infills, seems more acceptable when seen alongside Whitelaw Turkington’s textured road surface design. Elevations read well placed alongside a flat ground plane.
The elevations along London’s renowned Exhibition Road are among the finest in the capital but they still look better as a result of Dixon Jones’ £25 million shared space makeover, which has now been in use for a little over a month. This is the capital’s museum quarter: the V&A, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are located in the southern half, while the Albert Hall, Albert Memorial and Hyde Park crown the north end.
Stood outside the Henry Cole wing at the V&A, I was rooted to the spot for about 10 minutes, lost in the detail of Aston Webb’s 1874 terracotta and brick facade. It was chemically cleaned in 2010 and, on a sunny weekend in late February, the burnished, arcaded balcony on the skyline looked magical.
It looked pretty good last year with railings and roadworks in the way. And it looked pretty good before that, when Exhibition Road was a sad streak of grey, a two-lane roadway, with narrow strips of pavement on either side. The Henry Cole wing has always been a landmark building and was once the tallest in South Kensington. But now, because one half of the road is given over entirely to pedestrians, you can actually stop and linger and do something other than fidget with your iPhone. Stop and look.
Fascinating details will absorb you. A keystone at the centre of an arch framing a basement window of the Eastern Block of the Science Museum looks fresh, new. (It’s an appliqué. Apparently critics at the time passed over the fact it was a concrete building with stuck-on stone. ‘Modern, but soberly British; post-war, but not fantastic, or “cranky” like certain science institutes on the Continent,’ said the AJ on 18 April 1928.)
The Ferrero Rocher gilded spire of the 1961 Church of the Latter Day Saints literally dazzles. It brightens TP Bennett’s concrete and stone facade. Beneath it, a stained glass window by Pierre Fourmaintraux, made in the world-famous Whitefriars Studio, is another treasure made a little more public. Beyond the issue of road safety this is the great triumph here, this allowance of time to pause and reflect. It’s a new way – or, perhaps, an old way – of experiencing the city.
But what of the 800-metre long highway itself? Transformed, into a wall-to-wall chequered granite deck, laid in black and white setts. (When the project’s panoramic renders first appeared it looked as though the scale of the pattern was perhaps too big, a Google Earth-inspired hatch. But it’s not. You sense the rhythm at ground level. In fact, you can see the pattern stretch out before you, too.)
Broadly speaking it is divided in two by a parade of lighting poles, marching northwards towards Hyde Park – one half for walking, the other for driving. These poles meet the ground on circular granite plinths, the only level change across the full width of the street.
Cast iron drainage channels and corrugated flagstones mark out the pedestrian-only corridor on the roadside and run down the centre of the pedestrian-only strip. Metal disks highlight parking bays, which take up some of the width on the pedestrian side. There are a few maximum speed signs but that is it so far as adornment and guidance go, apart from a few benches here and there.
As much as it was designed by Dixon Jones, this project is Daniel Moylan’s, councillor for Queen’s Gate in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and now deputy chairman of Transport for London, and it builds on smaller-scale projects he conceived for Kensington High Street and Sloane Square. Those have met with mixed public reactions. That is likely to be the case for Exhibition Road, too.
In theory, the half used for driving – in both directions – is a shared space, but already the street has divided and cars are exceeding the 20mph limit. This is all part of the compromises Dixon Jones has had to make since winning the competition in 2003 (the circular plinths feel like another). Purists won’t like it, but this is the British way. The bolder Ashford Ring Road scheme is marred by the placement of a lone traffic light, which encourages drivers to speed up to beat the red. And researchers at the University of West England found that locals avoided the centre of Elwick Square – a shared space roundabout – keeping to the edges, rather than trying to cross the road.
A serious accident on Exhibition Road days after its opening will hardly help the cause and we may yet see signs and railings reinstated. That would be a shame – for UK urban design culture and the 11 million visitors who use the road annually.