Wednesday, 12 December 2012

4th Destination Branding and Marketing Conference

Last Friday I came home from three very stimulating days at the fourth international Destination
Branding and Marketing Conference, held in Cardiff and organised by the indefatigable Nigel Morgan and Annette Pritchard from the Welsh Centre for Tourism Research at Cardiff Metropolitan University. A really great conference programme drew a global audience of more than one hundred practitioners and academic researchers. The presentations were organised under a number of specific themes - use of digital and social media, consumer relationships and experiences, city and regional brands, and storytelling narrative and places.

With seventy four presentations on the menu it was impossible to take in all of the rich variety and depth of thinking that was available. For me the highlights were:

  • Jose Fernandez-Cavia on how to analyse destination web sites and Ana Maria Munger on ways in which tourists can contribute to destination development through social media.
  • Tom Buncle from Yellow Railroad on the case for branding destinations in the digital era and how to effectively harness digital technologies.
  • Frederic Bouchon on the challenges of place and destination branding in Malaysia (which deservedly won the conference prize for Best Paper).
  • Mihalis Karavatis from the University of Leicester on the dynamics of destination branding, particularly the associations that condition identity.
  • Nils Frederick Lund on the power of storytelling, specifically using the Holywood scriptwriting formula, using a case study of Vilnius.
  • Jon Munro on his work on developing branded content for VisitWales.
  • Sofie Flensburg and Israel Ubeda on the work of Visit Sweden promoting the country in Spain and the success and consequences of an innovative Twitter campaign.
  • Jose Torres of Bloom Consulting on his work in Brazil developing a brand strategy for a new city devoted to the fashion sector.

The final session of the conference was an open forum chaired by Nigel on what should be the future focus and format of the conference. Among the ideas suggested were three which caught my imagination - case studies on failing places that were attempting to turn themselves around through place brand strategy, presentations by combinations of researchers and practitioners and challenged presentations where presenters would be challenged live by a questioner presenter.

Copies of the papers given at the conference will be available shortly at

And videos of the keynote speaker's presentations, including mine, can be found at

My own keynote paper on "Experience Masterplaning" for Destinations is available at

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

London's Skyeline - Iconicity or Prickly Hedgehog

Image by Nick Brown, courtesy of Observer/Guaradian Newspapers

Every now and again Rowan Moore, the London Observer newspaper's architecture critic, writes a stormer of an article.

Last Sunday his latest blast was on "Towering and Infernal: London's New Blight". This was not an anti-tower polemic; it was more of a concern for the way that  the skyline of the city is being ruined by the poor quality of the design of an increasing number of tall buildings that are being constructed in and around the city centre and their lack of relationship to their surroundings and their scant regard for placemaking, especially at and around their ground floors. 

Moore laments the rush for height of the current and previous mayors of London, respectively Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, and the scant regard the central London Borough's seem to be taking to their own planning policies and local masterplanning guidelines as criteria for the design and massing of new tower proposals.

Moore is right on the money when he indicates that the recent rash of poorly designed towers are certainly not creating an iconic city or "iconcity" as he terms it and for me its more likely that what we are going to see is something more resembling a prickly hedgehog but one that lacks the elegance of a natural one.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Mapping Places and their Cultures

I've always been interested in how we use maps to convey how places work or their offer of services and I am always on the lookout for new ways of doing so.
Today I read a great blog on the Atlantic Cities site by Eric Jaffee (address below). His post is on how classic maps, such as those for transportation systems, can be adapted to map other aspects of place and its components. The one that particularly resonated with me was a map created by designer David Honnorat on the "Best Movies of All Time", shown below. 
This map entwines 20 "lines" of classic cinema and features a line of "universally acclaimed cinema" at the heart of the map with " stops" at some great movies like The Godfather II, Star Wars, and Citizen Kane, which is connected to other lines that carry other genres ranging from from romance to gangster to animation.
This has got me thinking about the use of such graphic tools and how they might be adapted to map other kinds of offer or services of places. So watch this space for my future posts on place experience maps.
The Best Movies of All Time Map
Designed by David Honnorat.
Eric Jaffee's post can be found at:

Friday, 23 November 2012

Before You Die of Regeneration - Capturing People's dreams and Ambitions

Today I read a great post on the Sustainable Cities Collective about the "Greenbuild 2012" conference recently held in the US, specifically on the presentation by Candy Chang. Candy is an artist, designer, and urban planner, who explores making cities more comfortable and contemplative places. She is a TED Senior Fellow, an Urban Innovation Fellow, and was named a “Live Your Best Life” Local Hero by Oprah Magazine. 

By combining street art with urban planning and social activism, she has been recognised as a leader in developing new strategies for the design of US cities. She spoke eloquently on inspiring change to our built environment through very small actions like small space improvements, community gardens and creating spaces for events. 

Candy also created a "Before I Die" wall outside the conference centre. This wall shows people in neighbourhoods how many of their neighbours dreams are actually alike and that they share common desires and ambitions. The concept of creating walls of this kind has been implemented in projects as diverse as South Africa, China and Brasil. its a great way to bring people together, to get them talking and to understand what they want of their lives and the places that they live in.

This seems like a great tool to use in my practice of place making and branding and i am looking forward to trying it out.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Old Oak Common - The New Heart of West London?

                                                        Old Oak Common Railway Sidings
                                                   The site for the new exchange station

Yesterday I spent the day at the Place West London Conference at Olympia in London. This is an annual bash of the movers and shakers of the area who come together to share ideas and information on whats being built and planned for the area.

For me the highlight of the day were the presentations by architect and masterplanner Sir Terry Farrell, Colin Wilson of the Greater London Authority and Nick Botterill, Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, on the development potential of Old Oak Common. This is not actually a common, as in a public park and open space. It is a former railway depot and sidings on the old Great Western Railway route out of Paddington to England's west country. It was originally developed by the pioneer railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the mid nineteenth century. Its strategic importance for west London , and indeed London and the south east region of the UK, lies in its location. It is a place where the main lines out of Euston to the north west and Scotland and the line from Paddington are very close together, a place where the new High Speed 2 route and Crossrail will pass through, and a place intersected by the new London Overground rail service. 

At the moment the rail planners of HS2 see it as just an exchange junction station connecting the line out of Paddington, Crossrail and HS2. A pretty limited vision in my opinion , a view shared by Sir Terry, Nick and Colin who have come together to explore how the linking of these intersecting railway lines might actually create more than just a station but a station that is a place and destination in its own right, a place where people could live, learn, work and socialise - a place that would put west London even more on the map than it currently is.

Watch this space and the press for news on the progress of this visionary idea.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Is the Future of the High Street Online?

                                              East Grinstead High Street West Sussex UK

Last Thursday evening I attended one of the Royal Institute of British Architect's Building Futures debates at the offices of BDP in London. The subject of the debate was a motion that this house believes the future of the high street is online.

Proposing the motion was Anne-Marie Laing of accountants Zolfo Cooper. Opposing the motion was Peter Drummond of BDP architects and masterplanners.

Key points in the case for the motion

·         People no longer want to go to the high street; the offer is poor and declining.
·         The quality of shops on the high street is poor and getting worse.
·         Innovative retailers are now working from home and delivering through on-line channels.
·         Online retail offers a far greater choice to the consumer.
·         Online retail growth will mean that the high street will no longer be viable for shopping but it may be viable for other activities such as health care, learning facilities, workshops and housing.

Key point in the case against the motion

·         Many high streets are still thriving – especially those which have nurtured independent businesses, not just national brand chain retailers.
·         Examples such as Willesden High Road in NW London show what can be done.
·         But the problems are more acute in places like Nottingham and Barnsley where national retail chains are abandoning traditional high streets in favour of out of town locations. But his can present an opportunity to accommodate independents if landlords will accept realistic rents.
·         In low income towns the high street is still the only shopping opportunity for people who cannot afford or who cannot access retail and entertainment on line.
·         In many places the high street remains the only place with facilities for congregation and we need to make it a much more pleasant experience to do so.
·         High streets and town centre remain a vital lifeline for the older people in our communities and for the less mobile.

Key points in the debate

·         The UK government needs to implement its own “Town Centres First” policy and stop ignoring it.
·         This would provide investors and retailers with confidence to develop in town centres.
·         The future of the high street is less about retail than it is about remaking it to be fit for purpose for a new set of needs and wants of local people – needs and wants related to what they want to congregate to do.
·         Online communications are important for the future health of the high street.
·         They will be important to carry “Summons to the Commons” for congregation”.
·         We need to understand what people want to congregate to do together and what role the high street and town centre will play in meeting those needs.
·         Many existing high streets are places of “shared victories” – war memorials and the like, that used to bring people together. What will be their 21st century equivalents?
·         A great example of a revived high street is Marylebone High Street which benefited from a single clear minded renewal strategy by one landlord.
·         A big problem for lots of high streets is the multiple ownership of landlords and their clinging to expectations of unrealistic rental levels and being happy to keep shops vacant while receiving rent from departed leaseholders.
·         We need “intelligent” landlords, people who are realistic about rental expectations.
·         And a major problem with the large gated shopping malls like Westfield is their lack of diversity and the lack of independent retailers.
·         But there is no standard “silver bullet” answer to reviving the high street – each one will need careful planning by a partnership of local interests.
·         Local authorities can lead this process but they must not dominate it.

The motion was substantially and conclusively defeated

City - A Guidebook for the Urban Age

I've been reading Peter D Smith's book "Cities - A Guide for the Urban Age" while on holiday. What a great book and the more so as Peter is neither a town planner or an architect. He brings a very refreshing insight to the development of cities over thousands of years and offers many sharp and relevant insights on the development of cities over many years that are stimulating for people like me who care about the quality of urban life and experience, with many lessons from past times that we should not forget. In many ways the reading of this book was like a tour d'horizon of my own reading over the last forty odd years since I started studying town planning at the Glasgow School of Art, bringing back memories of the insights of Kevin Lynch, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Munford, Grady Clay, John Stilgoe, Tony Hiss and Peter Hall. Reading this book has both re-affirmed and rekindled my desire to make a meaningful contribution to making urban places better for the people who live and work there. Buy this book and enjoy the author's erudition and insights and be entertained by his wit.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Vancouver - A Place That Is Clear on its Purpose

                                                  The Mayor of Vancouver - Gregor Robertson

Last night I attended a reception at Canada House in London's Trafalgar Square as a guest of Lee Malleau who works for Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancover to celebrate Canada's partcipation in the London Olympic Games and the achievements of her young athletes and to hear from him and the Canadian High Commissioner, Gordon Campbell, about the great work the city is doing to become a leading, if not, the leading green city in the world in terms of being truly sustainable.

During their remarks I was struck by a number of things they were saying that conveyed to me their clarity of understanding of the role of their city, not just locally in British Columbia but in the wider world - the role it plays as a gateway to the Pacific Rim for their own and European businesses who wish to access the markets of the Rim and, in the context of its green aspirations, the many ways in which their place, their city, is now hosting and nurturing green businesses - those making green technologies and those putting them to effective use in business and urban planning.

This is a city that is active in its manor and that manor is the wider world, or at least a number of carefully selected places where it can do business and be a major player.

Seen in this way their presence in London during the Games is a no brainer;  they are here to share their place, their ambitions and to welcome others to become citizens of their place even if its just through a trade connection, which, as a Canadian official responsible for trade and investment accurately commented, is now the premier and most effective way of places making beneficial and lasting connections with other parts of the world.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Mapping Film in Place

I saw a great post in today's Design Week newsletter by Angus Montgomery. Its about the creation of a "film map"  by design consultancy Dorothy. Following on from its Song Map project (recently featured on the cover of the new Saint Etienne album) Dorothy has created a map composed of places with over nine hundred classic film titles, with a look reminiscent of old maps of Los Angeles in the nineteen thirties.

Many of my favourites are featured - The Thirty Nine Steps, The Killing Fields, Chinatown, Reservoir Dogs, Alcatraz. Very clever.

               It even has its own parks and lakes, or should I say reservoirs for the dogs.

               The Film Map is available from, with prices starting at £25.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Wild Atlantic Way

For Colliers International in Ireland I am working with my young mate Roger Hobkinson on the development of a brand proposition for a driving route along Ireland's Atlantic coast, which has the working title of "The Wild Atlantic Way". We are doing this for Failte Ireland and on the team are designers Red&Grey and landscape architects Brady Shipman Martin. Last week Roger and I spent six days driving from Buncranna in the north west of the island down the coast to Cork in the south. We had a mixture of weather, mostly wet, but with a few prolonged bright patches, but even in the driving rain much of the coastline still looked and felt majestic and wild. Below are a selection of the photographs I took en route. Our task now is to develop a brand proposition for the route; quite a challenge!

                                                        Northern Donegal

                                                         Western Donegal 

                                          Western Donegal east of Rossan Point

                                                          Achill Point Mayo

                                         Me at the sands near Achill Point, Mayo
                                         The delightful town of Westport in Mayo

                                      Emlagh Point overlooking Clew bay in Mayo

                                             Dunlough Pass in Mayo

                                         The end of the "Sky Road" near Clifden
                                                                  in Galway

                                        The bog in Connemara near Ballynahinch

                                          Dick Mack's wonderful bar in Dingle which 
                                          had the best pint of Guinness en route

                                                       Emlagh Point in Mayo

                                               The Shannon Estuary at Tarbet

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Destination Branding for Small Cities

I've just finished reading the recently published second edition of Bill Baker's book "Destination Branding for Small Cities". I've known Bill a good few years and, although we have never actually met, through his writings (the first edition and his insightful blog) I feel like I've got to know him well. And the man I have come to know is one of the most eloquent and accomplished ambassadors for, and advocate of, sensible place branding. By that I mean practical, common sense ways of creating places that work, places with discernible distinctiveness, places that you can identify with. What Bill writes about and practices is not the "fluff" of marketers called in to decorate a city with a logo and a tag line. Rather, he describes the hard work, the challenges, the complexities and the benefits of place brand strategy. Through an extensive array of case study examples and interviews with other practitioners in the field he has assembled a practical "how-to" toolkit for any city governor, mayor, councilor or planner thinking of developing a brand strategy for their place. My recommendation is to buy a copy even if you think you are well grounded in the field. Bill always has something new to add to my understanding of it. And if you live in a place which is obsessed with its logo or the need for one, then buy and send a copy to its elected leader to get her or him on the right lines.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Place East London - Where is that?

So what sort of place is East London and what sort of place do we want it to become? And, where is East London anyway? And I don't just mean geographically, I also mean in terms of its development and the quality of life that it provides for its residents and businesses.

Yesterday afternoon the first Place East London conference attempted to address those and related questions. Under the inimitable chairing of Jackie Sadek, CE of UK Regeneration, the new kid on the "live in a great place" block, approximately 160 people gathered in the Old Town Hall in Stratford to hear a variety of presentations on what is happening in this sometimes difficult to define area, what is being planned for it and what people would like to see happening.

For me the stars of the show were Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham; Ian Lindsay of Crossrail; Emma Vandore, involved with the TechCity initiative, Liane Hartley of Mend, and Kelvin Campbell of Urban Initiatives, who were all, in their own ways, inspirational. And in contrast, my prize for ruining a very informative set of slides, that could not be read, through uninspiring delivery, goes to Edward Lister of the Greater London Assembly.

Robin is a great advert for Newham, and East London in general. He is so passionate about the place and you'd think he had been born there, but he is a "convert" Scot, like me. He engulfed me with a welter of statistics, stories and vignettes in a very engaging way but at a rate of knots that left me sometimes confused about just which initiative he was describing. Fast, furious and inspiring.

Ian laid out the full scale of the development of the Cross Rail programme and the astonishing changes it will bring in accessibility to the west end of central London , if not the "west", for people in East London, but equally, the improved access to the East End from the rest of London, changing it from what some still regard as a backwater to a place to get things done. Great stuff!

Emma described the initiative that is being taken to grow tech businesses in the City of London and spread their establishment through East London and spoke with a mixture of passion and concern about the need to spread the net of digital entrepreneur-ism to the kids creatively programming in their bedrooms.

Then we had our brains fried by Liane Hartlety of Mend (London) who argued for an approach to the development of the area that she described as "social planning" and the embrace of "comfortable chaos". I summarise this as the need to recognise that human life is essentially social and that daily life is essentially chaotic. We should stop trying to simplify it, sort it out, regiment it, and corral it and learn to live with a degree of necessary discomfort. We had under five minutes of this thoughtful lady and Place East London should bring her back and give her another platform to explain her ideas in greater depth.

I was struck by a comment made by Ralph Ward, a grand man of much experience in planning for the East End, that in thirty years he had not seen a single business development strategy for East London and when I asked the panel why their answers suggested that there might be no need for such another document; we need to "get on with the getting on" was what I heard. Well yes, and no! We do need to let a thousand flowers bloom, and some will die, but surely we need to keep track of what works and try to spread it throughout the area in some form of planned way?

And then there was Kelvin. His subject matter concened the metrics we use to assess and plan town centres. As usual his remarks were thoughtful, provocative and occasionally humorously anarchic. He thinks that we are currently measuring the wrong things - like gross rents, levels of vacancy, all things property. Instead he proposed metrics of a more human form - the number of people actively involved in a place, volunteering, making it work better; the number of social enterprises actively working there; the numbers of people attending events and the type of events; the level of digital activity taking place in cafes and open spaces; the number of community support services open for business in town centres; the range and number of businesses located there. And, entertainingly and anarchically, the number of people getting laid there!

I came away at the end of the afternoon still wondering if there really is a definable place called East London and asking myself the question does anybody want it defined, described or even promoted as a recognizable place, as opposed to just getting on with the creation of a better place, in all its constituent parts for the people who live there, wherever that is?

We shall see as this gathering is to be reconvened in about five or six months time after all of the balyhoo of the Olympics has died down, or at least quietened a bit. Which reminds me to comment that I was impressed by the independence of mind of Daniel Moylan, the Chair of the London Legacy Development Corporation, the closing speaker, who read out the a few  points from the notes prepared for him by his new staff and then promptly raised insightful questions about them.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Scots Debate new Architecture and Placemaking Policy

Hillhead Primary School Glasgow by jmarchitects

Last week I participated in the Scottish Government's International Design Summit at the Lighthouse in Glasgow. Held to kick off consultation on a new policy for architecture and placemaking in the country and the opening of an exhibition on this initiative in the Lighthouse, it attracted an international roster of speakers whose presentations, including my own, can be found by clicking on the address below:

                                               A panel from the exhibition

My contribution highlighted the role that place and destination brand strategy can play in improving the design, environment and management of high streets and town centres.

Of particular interest to me were the presentations by Tina Saaby, the Chief Architect of the City of Copenhagen, Andrew Dixon, the CEO of Creative Scotland, Mike Galloway, the Chief Planner of the City of Dundee, and Cilly Jansen, the head of Architectuur Lokaal in The Netherlands.

Tina described with great passion how the city of Copenhagen is focused on making it one of the world's best places to live and work even as it continues to grow by focusing on a strategy to improve the quality of life at a human scale. She described how the City is taking action to get more people walking and cycling, creating places for people to linger and the creation of associated active frontages.

Andrew spoke eloquently about the importance of cultural initiatives in redefining place and provided a number of examples of how sculpture (such as the Angel of the North) and arts centres (such as the Baltic in Gateshead) had helped redefine the identity and reputation of places, helping to generate tourism and economic benefits.

Andrew sensed that Scotland had yet to celebrate its cultural strengths as a key element of placemaking in the country and I agree with him; there is much more that can be done to do exemplify the culture as an active part of place.

Mike talked about the process of development, over the last fifteen to twenty years, that has resulted in a very successful new place and destination being created on the waterfront at Dundee. Here design is being used as a purposeful tool to change the image and perception of the old city on the waterfront, to grow the economy and create jobs. Through a linked framework of design briefs he has steered development of a number of major and game changing new buildings and attractions, chief of which is the development of the new Victoria and Albert Museum in Scotland. He stressed the importance of consistent civic leadership over time to ensure a project of this scale and importance is realised and the need for politicians and developers to take a long view.

Cilly described how her organisation, Architectur Locaal, had pioneered design education for local councillors in the Netherlands in order to improve its quality and the quality of their decision making, and how architecture was now seen as a key and principal element in her country's creative sector.

I also enjoyed the break-out session given by Amanda Reynolds of ar-Urbanism where she highlighted some of the many ways in which good design of facilities in public places can increase their attractiveness and their sense of place and arrival.

By far the most enjoyable and the most interactive session for me was the workshop on "Other Ways of Doing Architecture" run by Pidgin Perfect (Dele Adeyemo, Marc Cairns and Becca Thomas) who asked us to imagine a future different to today and to think about how architecture might be taught at that time, which produced a range of scenarios from the dystopian to the intriguing.

I also enjoyed meeting and carousing with Kevin Murray and liked his closing summing up of the key messages coming out of the summit, which can be summarised as:

  • There is a need to embed the design of the built environment in the wider policy agendas of government and to ensure public and private sector buy-in.
  • Architectural policy is not exclusively for nor primarily about architects. It is addressed at a broad church of interests and professions, all of whom have a role to play in making places better; with architects leaving behind their "Guild" model of education and organisation to become players in collaborative teams.
  • The policy has to address place liveability, place sustainability, place value and competition between places.
  • We need to simultaneously invest in long-term place infrastructure and short term animation of place and the experiences to be had there.
Kevin summed up the debate neatly when he said that "Quality of place is hard to achieve but worth it".

The draft Scottish Policy on Architecture and Placemaking can be found at

Friday, 25 May 2012

The Bauhaus Place Brand

I spent a very enjoyable afternoon this week immersing myself in the Bauhaus exhibition at the Barbican art gallery in the City of London. When I studied architecture and planning at the Glasgow School of Art this was one of the schools of design that most interested me, especially so as my one of my lecturers at the time, Eric Meuller Ashmann, had an intimate knowledge of its activities and had spent time at its final location in Berlin. 

Over the years I have slowly come to realise just how strong this school of design was, surviving  both the harsh economic climate of the Weimar years and the rise of the Nazis until, in the early thirties, it had to close as a result of pressure exerted by them. 

And, after I had feasted on the exhibits and the accompanying commentary, I was again left wondering why we currently do not have a movement or institution like this in modern Britain, a place to explore the art of place, inside and outside of buildings. If place truly matters we would benefit from such an initiative. I know that I bang on about this (witness my recent blog on the current design exhibition at the V and A which is also worth going to) but its a question we do need to address.

The exhibition is a feast for the eye and the brain containing examples of the work of the school's founders, lecturers and students over a thirteen year period (1919-1932), covering the fields of ceramics, glass, furniture, printing, graphics and, of course, architecture. It's difficult in a blog to do the contents justice but for me the highlights were the textile designs of Gunta Stozl, the silversmithing of Thomas Bogler, the typography and posters of the rightly celebrated Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the work of graphic designer Herbert Bayer who designed the one million mark banknote for the Bank of Thuringia (worthless by the time it was in circulation), the sculptures of Johannes Iten, the photography of Lucia Moholy (who captured engaging images of student's life in the school - and it was a way of life to be there), the architecture of Walter Gropius and Joseph Albers, especially the design of the school's buildings at the campus at Dessau, built between 1926 and 1928, and the 1932 designs by Hans Wittwer and Hannes Meyer for the headquarters of the German Trade Union Federation at Bernau, another institution that the Nazis would not tolerate for very long.

Along with the school's founder, Walter Gropius, many of the school's lecturers and students fled Germany with the rise of the Nazi's and one of the principal beneficiaries of this forced migration of design talent was the USA, the city of Chicago in particular, where the school's architectural tradition and approach heavily influenced the development of the city centre and its buildings, an ex-Germania testament and monument to the vision of its founders.

Go see this exhibition while its still on, wonder and marvel at the concentration of talent, the flowering of genius and the product of creativity and ask yourself where all this might have gone without prejudice and intolerance. And do consider what we have to do to create a modern British equivalent.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

British Design 1948-2012

My daughter Lotte, who works at the V&A in London, took me to the great new exhibition there today - British Design from 1948, etc. I loved it for a number of reasons. First, it covers my lifetime, give or take a year or two and it reminded me of many of the design trends, movements, products, fashion, art and music that have been the context for my lifelong interest in place and how it works or does not as the case may be. Second, it reminded me just how talented Brits were at design and how we seem to have lost a little bit of the design style and verve that we used to have in spades, save a few exceptions such as Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop, and the ever prolific Jonathon Ive. 

My first gasp was reserved for the curator's take on the 1951 Festival of Britain, which I had faint memories of as a child watching a very grainy early BBC transmission.

Amazing to be reminded that some in the Establishment thought that we Brits were not ready for or interested in these new forms of architecture and that it was not a proper use for the South Bank. I've always thought that it was a crime that the Conservative government of the Fifties deliberately demolished a lot of the exhibition spaces and pavilions but thank goodness that some sense prevailed and some elements were left as a faint reminder of the departed glory.

I was also struck by the examples of great design that emanated from government stimuli and intervention, for example the creation of design courses in Art Schools in the late 1960's and the new cultural and health buildings that flowed from increased investment in city regeneration in the late 1990's and the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A wealth of fifties  and sixties designs for wallpaper, ceramics and furniture reminded me of the places I used to goggle at as a child - duplex flats fitted out with strange wallpaper, like the "Calyx" wallpaper of Lucienne Day, shown below, that I remember thinking looked like cocktail glasses (unusual for a Glaswegian, I know), and the "Homemaker" tableware of Enid Sweeney whose designs featured images of in vogue chairs, tables and lamps.

I've only skimmed the surface of the many delights of this exhibition in this blog and I will be going back. I do recommend you to see it if you have an interest in the design of things and the environment in which they are used. Its Fab! to use an expression of my youth.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Toronto City Centre - A place full of interesting places

I'm just back from a short trip to Toronto to see family and friends and while there was struck by a number of developments that help to define the city centre as a place of many places, very different kinds of places, which, taken together provide its overall character. In a hectic week the highlights were the Distillery District, the Bloor/Yorkville shopping area, the Kensington Market area, and the nearby Art Gallery of Ontario and its surrounding area.

                                        The square in the Distillery District

I'd been told that the Distillery District ( was one of the "gems" of the city as it's a great example of industrial preservation with a new purpose - as a retail, arts and eating place, and it does not disappoint. I had great coffee at Balzac's and great food - pulled pork - at the Pure Spirits Oyster House. And I met up after a too long break with my friends Jeannette and Peter at Trajectory brand consulting ( who have supported the area by moving in to one of the old buildings now converted in to offices. Its not a large area but it is a destination worth a visit as its got a range of shops and galleries that you will not find in any of the modern retail centres in the city and is a great antidote to their bland international brands.

The Kensington Market Area

Bland the Kensington Market a'int. Located just west of the city's China Town this is an area of quirky and characterful clothes, food and art shops and restaurants that was nearly redeveloped some years ago but saved by the kind of determined environmentally aware activism that Toronto is known for. It's also very different to the feel of the Distillery District which is much more ordered. Here you get a sense of regular replacement and adaptation of the retail and food offer, with lots of new businesses trying out their offers; its got a more earthy and authentic feel. And it feels like a real meeting place; for locals and for diverse social groups from across the city.

Yorkville Retail Area

By comparison the Bloor/Yorkville area, much touted as the retail revival area of the city centre, is given over to a mix of up market independent, national and international fashion brands. It is more ordered and more focussed on higher end spenders and fashionistas. It is marketed as Toronto's neighbourhood of style and has a well developed persona ( Founded in 1850 by entrepreneur Joseph Bloor it is a former village that got incorporated in to the city as it expanded and you get a sense of its traditional low density scale and character in the streets behind Bloor street with its high rise and dominant buildings. The "back-streets" accommodate independent retailers and restaurants and provide (expensive looking) homes for city workers. The backstreets offer is also a complement to the expensive international brand stores on Bloor. Much is made on the area's web site of the new landscaping that has been created on Bloor but for me the most imaginative landscaped spaces were in the backstreets like the mini field shown above. And the most imaginative store, in terms of product, display and assistants attitude was Anthropologie.

Frank Ghery's blue facade for the Art Gallery of Ontario 
overlooking Grange Park

The empty space at the Art Galley of Ontario

Completely different in character is the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on Dundas street and the area which surrounds it which includes the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). The Museum was given a major make-over a few years ago by Frank Ghery, who remodelled its two main exteriors and its central atrium, to create a place with a very different feel to a traditional gallery. The front elevation on Dundas Street resembles an upturned canoe made out of Douglas Fir and when inside the new internal "corridor" that overlooks the street at first floor level you feel like you are inside the structure of a giant canoe or Viking longboat, one with glass panels to view the active streetscape. This corridor space is sadly wasted with next to no art on display; it would make a great place for light sculptures to be seen from the street. One of the interior highlights for me was the magnificent collection of Canadian art, in particular the work of the Group of Seven and Tom Thompson and many of their contemporaries.

The Sharp Centre for Design at OCAD

Close by on McCaul Street and beside Grange Park (behind the ROM) is the is Sharp Centre for Design building of OCAD. Designed by Will Alsop Associates this building presents a complementary counterpoint to Frank Ghery's ROM extensions and is a great environment for fulfilling OCAD's stated purpose of  education of the imagination, describing itself as a place where great minds meet. The presence of this college feeds the surrounding area with demand for food and beverage, music venues, clothes shops and other goods that contribute to the rich urban experience that this part of central Toronto offers its workers and residents.

The power of retail to change the nature of place

                                         Photograph by George P. Landow from The Victorian Web

I often wander around the West End of central London to keep abreast of the changes in its retail offer, in large part because I used to work as a consultant for the New West End Company and we tracked changes in the retailers and attractions of the area, rents, consumer spend and visitor numbers.

Just recently I became aware that a new record had been set for rental levels in the area, already one of the world's most expensive retail locations. Reports in the UK property press indicate that Italian luxury goods company Salvatore Ferragamo intends to extend its lease in Old Bond Street at a rent the equivalent of £1,000 per square foot, which may well make it the most expensive shop in the UK. Until this development the most expensive rent had been paid by Piaget, the Jewellers, at £965 psqft.

So whats driving this? In effect its a desire by more so called luxury brands to obtain or expand a presence in what must already be one of the world's most concentrated collection of luxury brands. There is a real desire to get a slice of the spend of the super rich. Through their increasing presence and concentration these brands are creating a place and destination characterised by expensive prices, exclusivity, rarity, and aspiration.

As there are very strict planning controls on development in Mayfair which limit new development this incoming wave of luxury brands is gradually extending the offer of the core shopping streets, particularly north along New Bond Street in the direction of Oxford Street where Belstaff will soon be joining the likes of Fendi, Missoni, Coach and Hubot.

And its not without some regrettable consequences related to the traditional character and offer of the area as these new kids on the block buy up or encourage the older established brands of the area to sell out and move on, for example Mallet antiques who sold to Fendi. And I suspect that the remaining galleries and antique dealers are going to be tempted to depart by the minted international retailers who are prospecting in the area.

To me this is another example of the power of retail brands, both singly and in numbers, to alter the offer and experience of streets and areas, to focus their offer on specific markets and price points and to extend their customer base in ways that no amount of detailed retail planning by local authorities or people like me might ever achieve.