Fewer than nine miles separate Exhibition Road from Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The Boris-bestowed Olympicolpolis and South Kensington’s Albertopolis illustrate the role that the capital’s cultural quarters can play both in shaping London at both a local and global level.
The aim of Exhibition Road is in its name. Completed in the 1860s, the quarter was funded by the proceeds of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and designed by Prince Albert to showcase the best that London had to offer in terms of scientific, technological and cultural endeavor. With institutions laid out along a half mile stretch of road, Albertopolis was as much gallery as it is cultural quarter, allowing a visitor to stroll at leisure through this collection of London’s most well-known cultural and education institutions.
This ordered and regimental style stands in direct contrast to London’s South Bank, a space that is much more free-flowing, and which defiantly ignores the concept of a street grid. While the modernist style of the South Bank could not be more different to the quiet order of Exhibition Road, the historic connection between the two quarters is clear. The construction of South Bank was central to the 1951 Festival of Britain, which commemorated the centenary of the Great Exhibition, attracting some 8m visitors over the course of just five months.
Of course, London’s cultural offer cannot be understood solely in reference to these quarters. London’s cultural scene has thrived on the periphery of these cultural quarters, and in many instances, beyond the confines of major cultural institutions.
This is particularly true in the instance of the creation of art. Artists studios have typically mushroomed in the cheapest areas of London, from the halycon days of 1990s Shoreditch, to the warehouses of Hackney Wick. (These areas, too, are now too expensive for most artists.) Just as London’s arts hubs have shifted, so too have the roles of its cultural institutions. This means keeping up with the trend towards temporary exhibitions in flexible spaces, and the profound impact of technology on the way the arts are both produced and consumed.
Earlier this week, the London Legacy Development Corporation released new images of Stratford Waterfront, part of the new cultural and education District situated in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The district will bring together major cultural institutions and provide space for organisations of all sizes to collaborate and innovate.
Exhibition Road was designed to showcase the best of London’s institutions; the South Bank to do the same for technology, science, and design in the post-war period. What role will the new cultural and education district in the east play in London’s urban form, and in its cultural collective memory?
Following the example set by Prince Albert, the site is home not only to cultural institutions, but some of outposts of educational institutions including Loughborough and UCL. It is hoped, however, that rather than simply locating next to one another, these institutions will communicate and collaborate.
Perhaps most excitingly, this collaboration is happening at a time of academic and economic convergence, where the distinctions between making and engineering are blurred, and creativity is associated as much with technology as it is the arts. At a time when many artists struggle to rent studios, and when local authorities have reduced funding for cultural spaces and activities, this new district could provide both the motivation and the space for collaboration.
This process of collaboration is not necessarily one that comes naturally to all institutions. Being part of a quarter, or network, means recognising that brands can be developed as much in partnership as through solo endeavor. The success of this new district will depend on not only collaboration between new institutions, but engagement between newcomers and the existing cultural and creative ecosystem. Whether in the provision of affordable workspace and artist’s studios, or through the programming of events and meet-ups, it is vital that the district complements rather than compromises the existing success of east London’s tech and creative sectors.
London’s art scene and heritage has a long history of enticing people to visit, work and live in the city. It is a crucial part of the city’s economy. That’s why these cultural districts – old and new – are essential to London’s success.
Kat Hanna is research manager at Centre for London. Four years on from London 2012, the think tank hosted a conference to discuss the “post-legacy” future of the Olympic Park. Catch up on the discussion here..
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