The Mayfair Mission
London is a so-called “World City.” The proximity of its diverse inhabitants makes for extraordinary exchange and meaningful interaction. Transactions of extreme wealth and influence differentiate London and link it with only a few other cities globally. In 2009, DSDHA's and the students of Unit 13 at London Metropolitan University asked, what does this physical closeness between people mean in relation to architecture as a constructed event?
If it is true that City States and multinational firms can now routinely exceed the power of nations, the unit examined the role of international diplomacy and the validity of a nation’s desire for either a physical representative or built representation. Conversely, we also looked at how these institutions impact or engage with their host site. In essence, what is a contemporary Embassy and how does it contribute to international peace and security, and to its physical context?
In the city, architecture is an act of communication where urban artefacts are informed by representational, organisational and parametric systems. The unit sought to answer what values form and shape the most intimate experiences of the city and underscore our urban constitutions? What are the conditions of transition between private, public and diplomatic territories?
As the American Embassy quits London’s diplomatic quarter to a high-security compound south of the Thames, the unit took Mayfair as the site to seek radical responses to the brief of the contemporary Embassy.
Mayfair, in the heart of Westminster, represents one of the most exclusive addresses in London, within which lie the ultra-private worlds of Embassies, Hedge Funds and Private Clubs. Railings surround Squares, security cordons demarcate and block access. Few people enter despite its central location.
Social evolution is challenging the financial and political structures that operate in the area. Democracy demands greater accessibility. History tells us that Mayfair has always had a fraught relationship with the “Mob”, so how can the most discrete part of London be re-introduced to a wider world? What conditions of transgression, or resistance is architecture asked to negotiate?
The unit sought to interpret Mayfair through its social territories and the personal landscapes of view and movement, as well as interrogating its physical fabric. Our research highlighted audiences, thresholds and tensions that were measured against the data of the city quarter. Delineations, boundaries and physical evidence, became the basis of future interventions to disrupt the Mayfair urban block and redefine the territory of the Embassy.
Supplementing our interrogation, were the empirical lessons that can be learnt from the most advanced diplomatic territories. We met with Ambassadors, visited Institutes of International Studies and questioned the brief, and created buildings that negotiated the competing demands of display, discretion and the benefit of the wider public, engaging with exclusion and interaction simultaneously.
In collaboration with the Masters programme at EPFL, the studio explored what might be learnt from Switzerland, where the business of Peace lies at the core of its international role and where architecture is considered an expression of national values and accorded a complimentary significance. The unit undertook a study trip in November, as well as shared student activities leading up to the London Festival of Architecture 2010.
“Cities just look with one eye. It is a radical mistake. They have got to develop the capacity to do network politics. That does not mean an UN of cities. It means more strategic collaborations. If a firm is located in twenty five cities, they can form a network. I think internationalism is very high on the agenda. And it does not mean going back to the past. It means making new instrumentalities.”Saskia Sassens, on The Politics of Immobility