Highlights of 2016 London Design Festival

Urban life requires a little creative navigation. We benefit from the vibrancy of the city, and experience its diverse communities. Yet city living is noisy – physically, emotionally, mentally it can be a chaotic cocktail at times. Added to this, with many of us working away from the office desk, our work/life patterns have evolved to be so much less linear than they used to be. Then there is the high price of housing in cities like London which inevitably means shared living for so many, especially the young. A quite spot is thus essential – a space that allows us to gather our thoughts, one that encourages us to connect and helps us to create.

Forests offers exactly this. Asif Khan has envisaged a trio of ‘spaces within spaces’, according to the British architect – pop-up sanctuaries dotted around dense urban settings. They include an interactive workspace to promote creativity, an elevated hideaway to switch off and meditate, and a space designed to meet, make friends, share food. The project for the London Design Festival (17 to 25 September) forms part two of MINI Living, an initiative by the car marque to explore the future of urban life, which began at the Milan design fair earlier this year.

Whereas the Milan installation was a physical example of an innovative shared living concept, in London Khan is exploring the relationship between public and private space through the use of plants, in this case a gorgeously exotic selection by London horticulturist Jin Ahn for mini green jungles in this urban jungle. Khan explains, ‘There is a Japanese phrase shinrin yoku, which literally means forest bathing. It means every sense switches to absorb the forest atmosphere, what you hear, what you smell, even the feeling underfoot.’

Popped up amongst the housing estates and crowded office blocks of Shoreditch, east London, they are a welcome sanctuary, especially on the day of my visit as my guide greets me with news that her mobile phone was snatched en route. It certainly highlights the less tasteful sides of urban life. Yet as we climb into the meditative sanctuary ‘relax’ surrounded by exotic plants and the sound of silence, all our worries seem to wash away. MINI Living will continue is exploration later this year with A/D/O in Brooklyn – a long-term initiative to introduce a diverse programme of resources for creative professionals, including a prototyping studio, in-house accelerator and open workspace.

Elsewhere at LDF one of the main visual highlights is The Smile, a 3.5m high, 4.5m wide and 34m curved tubular structure, its two ends raised high in the sky, outside Chelsea College of Art. Here architect Alison Brooks has worked with engineering firm Arup using hardwood CLT – the engineered timber used by architects as an interesting replacement for steel – to push the limits of timber and explores an alternative material for construction. The installation is on until the 12 October and really worth seeing for the sheer scale and engineering craft.

Every pocket of the city seems to have come alive with LDF. A visit to Clerkenwell London and we were excited to see this innovative concept store champion creativity with a host of pop-up exhibitions, talks and workshops throughout the week. We particularly enjoyed graphic artist Camille Walala’s colourful takeover of the vinyl lounge, a space where incidentally I’ll be participating in a talk on our latest book The Life Negroni next month.

Over at the LDF hub at the V&A there are a number of exciting site-specific projects too. Foil is an immersive installation by British designer Benjamin Hubert of Layer in the Tapestry galleries – a room that seems to respond so well to contemporary conceptual design projects. Created for the German electronics brand Braun, and as a nod its famous shavers, Foil is made of 50,000 hand made metallic panels that dance slowly creating a sort of wave motion whilst LEDs splash small blades onto the rooms walls and corners for an incredibly hypnotic effect.

Other highlights include Elytra, a growing shelter in the V&A courtyard by the University of Stuttgart as part of the museum’s engineering season. Inspired by beetles, the robot housed inside this intriguing structure creates new components as it responds to our presence thus exploring possible futures for architecture. Whilst Beloved, by Istanbul-based architect Tabanlioglu, is a seductive introduction to Madonna in a Fur Coat. Here on the bridge of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries we peak through tiny cracks in the 13-meter long mirrored black box to glimpse and hear teasing moments from the classic 1943 novel by Sabahattin Ali.

I always enjoy the V&A exhibits for they represent how contemporary creative work can interact with the treasures in this amazing space. The building holds a very special place for me too for it has been my urban sanctuary since childhood when I first stepped inside and was seduced by the incredible collection, seeing the power of art, of craft, of design, of creativity to help shape the world.

Nargess Banks


Read our previous reviews of London Design Festival here.

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Book review: Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions

Robin Hood Gardens – a housing estate on the fringes of Poplar in East London – is an example of mid twentieth-century architecture on the brink of extinction.

Much love has been shown to the Alison + Peter Smithson-designed project over the last few years, spurred on by a campaign for listing spearheaded by UK magazine Building Design which collected over 1,000 signatures from across the world.

Architects including Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers tell of the influence the building and the prolific couple have over them, while one of the most compelling arguments on why the estate should be kept comes from Dickon Robinson’s evidence compiled on behalf of the The Twentieth Century Society‘s submission for a review of the listing decision.

Completed in 1972, Robin Hood Gardens is a design very much of the era – incorporating the then much lauded ‘streets in the sky’ concept, with wide landings where people living on higher floors could socialise as if on their doorsteps on the ground.

There are two main blocks, both with a long, linear shape, built from pre-cast concrete and home to 213 flats. The lower block is seven storeys high, the taller ten. Between the two buildings is a landscaped grassy area, designed as a recreation and rest area for residents, built using the rubble of the houses demolished for the project.

Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions collates a series of photographs, essays and a conversation between the Smithsons detailing the full history of the estate.

The original sketch drawings and plans, complete with hand-drawn sun compasses, show their skills as designers to the full, and deserve their place at the start of the book.

The old, colour photographs show a housing estate that was clearly a place enjoyed by its first inhabitants and one gets the distinct impression that it was the council’s neglect of the buildings that have led to the current situation.

Finally, a collection of Ioana Marinescu’s more recent photographs – previously the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects – look very nice indeed, but display a faux-nostalgia for buildings that deserve to be photographed in a contemporary way.

The book has been published on the eve of local London council Tower Hamlet’s decision of which developer will get the privilege of razing the estate, which received its death knell from the previous Labour government when it granted it immunity from listing for five years from 2009.

It is a worthy totem of appreciation to a visionary housing project admired by thousands in its lifetime.

Robin Hood Gardens Re-Visions is edited by Alan Powers with contributions from Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, and Dan Cruikshank. Photographs by Sandra Lousada and Ioana Marinescu. Published by The Twentieth Century Society.

Guest blogger Andrea Klettner
Follow her blog Love London Council Housing.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©