Finally, and most dramatic, were the radical interventions envisaged by EPR Architects with Rick Wheal, Kate Malone and James Ulph. Under the theme ‘Culture, Craft & Commerce’, this team evoked a vision of a new immersive landscape, with Mayfair transformed at street and rooftop level by hot air balloons, a water gravity lift, rooftop bridges, big screens, sculptures, rooftop parks, swimming pools, a helta skelta, and a whole lot more. All this would be tied together with the now ubiquitous new unifying floorscape design and pedestrianized streets, replete with self-raising umbrellas that rise from the ground when wet. In sum, a new imaginary cultural landscape of fun.
The value of subversive strategies and crazy ideas
True to the spirit of the best ideas competitions the proposals were both bold and imaginative, even when faced with an area that, on the face of it, seems difficult to reimagine. So what did the schemes have in common?
Apart from the desire amongst all to rip up the timeless granite kerbs and simple concrete and stone paving slabs of Mayfair in favour of something altogether more funky (my own preference would be to keep those but replace the tarmac), it was the subversive elements in each scheme that I enjoyed most and that seemed to unite the four. Thus each featured strategies that subtly or less subtly attempted to disrupt the refined gentility of Mayfair and make us look once again at the potential of this part of London: new routes burying into and through the urban blocks and filling the streets with life; pop-up ephemeral pavilions and year long celebrations; interweaving culture into Mayfair’s commercial and public life in streets dappled with ever-changing colour; and transforming a fifth elevation – the roofs – into an other world of fun and relaxation. Each reveal the potential of unfettered imagination, and what might be possible if only we were able to think (and practice) differently.
For my part, at the start of each academic year I give my students (a mixture of prospective and actual planning, architectural, urban design and property professionals) two weeks and a free rein to create something imaginative and extraordinary, the last two years, coincidently, on nearby Park Lane (the second most expensive property on the Monopoly Board). This exercise has confirmed me in my belief that, when given the chance, everyone can reach into themselves and create something amazing, even a little crazy, as a kind of raw reaction to place. The battle for the rest of my course is then to prevent the students sinking back into a more conventional way of thinking.
This creative mind is vital amongst all built environment professionals, not just architects, and opportunities such as Reimagining Mayfair to remind us of this come around far too infrequently and rarely engage those outside of the architectural bubble. Instead, ideas competitions should be far more part of the norm, helping us to look beyond the everyday and the ordinary, and helping us to consider what might be possible if we think a little differently. Whilst what we come up with may be impractical or simply crazy, and therefore never likely to move beyond a dream, it is just possible that a little of that imagination may rub off on whatever comes next and help us to create better and more stimulating cities. It is my profound hope that a little of this magic dust rubs off on Mayfair which ultimately becomes a more open, fun, fair and beautiful place to be.
Matthew Carmona is Professor of Planning & Urban Design at the Bartlett School of Planning, UCL.