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LDA reshapes Strand/Aldwych into a people-centred space

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Words:
Pamela Buxton

Local users, visitors and public thoroughfares are boosted alongside heritage buildings in LDA’s reconfigured and pedestrianised Strand/Aldwych area of London

The sound of bells and birdsong – that was one of the more poetic aspirations of LDA Design’s ambitious recasting of the traffic-clogged Aldwych end of The Strand in London’s West End as a new public space for the capital.

Anyone familiar with the area before will appreciate the scale of the transformation, courtesy of a £22 million investment from Westminster City Council, that has re-routed traffic from that part of the Strand around the arc of Aldwych. The traffic jams of taxis and buses inching past Somerset House are long gone, and the ‘island church’ of St Mary le Strand is no longer marooned in a hostile sea of vehicles. Instead, it is the focal point for a new sequence of public spaces with seating galore. Meanwhile new crossings over Aldwych ease pedestrian flow to the surrounding area.

I’m not so sure about birdsong, but I can certainly hear the bells of nearby churches. LDA director Cannon Ivers points out that the Courtauld Gallery’s ventilation system, previously drowned out by traffic, is now also audible. But that’s a small price to pay for this bold intervention in the streetscape which, Ivers says, prioritises people over cars for the first time with the provision of 7000m² of new public space.

Aerial ‘before’ view of Aldwych, with unusually light traffic flowing past the church along the Strand.
Aerial ‘before’ view of Aldwych, with unusually light traffic flowing past the church along the Strand. Credit: LDA Design/ Westminster City Council

LDA won a competition in 2018 for the complex project, which covers the stretch of the Strand from just east of Waterloo Bridge to St Clement Danes just beyond Aldwych. By then, traffic studies had already produced the decision to make Aldwych two-way, which was key to the whole project. Tasked with designing a setting for a new cultural and education district, LDA sought to create a people-friendly space both for pedestrians  – including tourists – heading for nearby Covent Garden, and for users of a resident cluster of notable institutions such as universities LSE and King’s College; cultural spaces Somerset House, The Courtauld Institute and 180 Studios; the embassies of Australia and India; and the churches of St Mary le Strand and Wren’s St Clement Danes. As well as encouraging cross-pollination between all these, Ivers was keen to introduce green space and promote health and wellbeing in this previously heavily polluted area.

There were plenty of challenges. What kind of uses should the public space facilitate? How can it accommodate vehicular access when required while providing sufficient security protection? And how can the materiality and design do justice to the considerable surrounding architectural heritage?

Covid put a big spanner in the works, resulting in the implementation of a substantial part of the scheme with ‘meanwhile’ furniture and ground surfacing for 3-5 years as a fast track way of regenerating the area. The meanwhile version also, says Ivers, gives the opportunity to test out various ways of using the new public space. He hopes the subsequent final version will implement the natural stone landscaping used in the rest of the scheme.

  • Render of the garden room sculptural bench, due for installation at the western entrance later this year.
    Render of the garden room sculptural bench, due for installation at the western entrance later this year. Credit: LDA Design
  • A second bench is planned for the Activity Lawn behind St Mary le Grand.
    A second bench is planned for the Activity Lawn behind St Mary le Grand. Credit: LDA Design
  • Another bench will curve around the Spectator Edge.
    Another bench will curve around the Spectator Edge. Credit: LDA Design
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LDA’s overall design strategy holds true regardless of the finishes and furniture. The bulk of the scheme creates a HVM (Hostile Vehicle Mitigation) secure zone for pedestrians and cyclists from the western end of Aldwych to Melbourne Place just beyond St Mary le Strand, which has pride of place in this transformed space.

However, the new civic space is not entirely without cars – a shame but unavoidable given the need to provide occasional, controlled vehicular access for embassy, hotel and services through the secure perimeter. It was also necessary to ensure that this part of the Strand could still be used as part of the historic processional vehicle route from St Paul’s to Westminster Abbey if required. Nonetheless, the result is still a huge shift in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

Marking the western end, a 20m long shard of steel inset in the ground points into the new public space towards St Mary le Strand. Within this stretch, LDA has provided spaces for both relaxation and activity with different zones along the south-facing northern side.

Two yet-to-be-installed accoya benches have been designed by LDA to form a gateway feature of sculptural seating that wraps around a new garden room. Next is a flexible use space intended for public performances in the same way as the piazza is at Covent Garden in the summer. At the northern edge is the ‘social seat’ – a curving line of 57 multi-coloured seats which, says Ivers, has a playful and sculptural quality. He also envisages that spectators will be able to perch on ‘The Squiggle’, an undulating low rail that serves as a unifying element throughout the scheme. This feature also provides a border to planters and protects the basements of buildings from vehicles mounting and parking on the pavement.

LDA has introduced interest into what would otherwise have been a long expanse of floor surface with banding echoing the footprint of adjacent buildings and aligning with the arches of Somerset House. This is achieved in different shades of buff and dark grey surface-dressed tarmac that reference the Indian sandstone and Yorkstone visible at the western entrance and in the permanent parts of the scheme to the east.

  • Redesigned garden in front of St Clement Danes, with new benches in Whitbed Portland stone made by Furnitubes.
    Redesigned garden in front of St Clement Danes, with new benches in Whitbed Portland stone made by Furnitubes. Credit: Furnitubes/John Miller photography
  • The multicoloured social seat is positioned in front of a flexible events space.
    The multicoloured social seat is positioned in front of a flexible events space. Credit: Mickey LF Lee for Northbank Bid
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All this leads to the focal point – the grade I* listed St Mary le Strand. Once derided as St Mary’s-in-the-way by taxi drivers, this is now surrounded by a new outer sanctuary garden that serves as a green embrace. In front of the church to the west, temporary furniture by Vestre includes tables for eating and working. To the east are further gardens and a ‘social lawn’. This will be bordered by another of the bespoke sculptural benches to mark the eastern end of the secure zone. The bench will also disguise some of the security furniture for the sliding bollards. These, and the accompanying steel-clad concrete blocks, are painted reddish-brown to give the required degree of contrast with the paving.

Beyond the security zone, the final stretch of Strand – which is still accessible by vehicles – incorporates ‘rain gardens’ for sustainable drainage and seating to the north. To the south, a new row of Liquidambar trees outside 180 Studios provides further greenery.

In this area, LDA’s material intent for the whole scheme is clear. A combination of Yorkstone planks and Indian sandstone – including setts – creates a more pedestrian-friendly junction with Aldwych with a level change-free edge.  While Yorkstone is often used in the vicinity, the sandstone is a new addition to the Westminster palette and was chosen as a ‘dense, hardwearing stone with a nice warm tone,’ says Ivers. This is used outside 180 Studios where LDA has relocated street furniture to create a new linear plaza, including a 30m-long ‘People’s Catwalk’ in Laurel Bank and Thornlake sandstone.

Outside St Clement Danes church, LDA’s redesigned public space has Yorkstone interspersed with small black squares of Vega granite inspired by plaques inside the church, and rows of sandstone setts. New permanent seating gives people somewhere to linger. LDA took inspiration from the pocked, bomb-damaged walls of the church when choosing the fossil-heavy Whitbed Portland stone as the base for two curves of new bench seating made by Furnitubes, one addressing the church, the other the nearby monument to Victorian prime minister William Gladstone. The new seating has details in the form of inset metal crosses to protect the stone from skateboarders ‘grinding’ along the edges of the bench. The same Portland stone is used for chunky bollards that double as seating.

  • New public space to the rear of St Mary Le Grand at the eastern end of the HVM secure zone.
    New public space to the rear of St Mary Le Grand at the eastern end of the HVM secure zone. Credit: Mickey LF Lee for Northbank Bid
  • Markings in the surface of the new public space relate to the footprints of adjacent buildings.
    Markings in the surface of the new public space relate to the footprints of adjacent buildings. Credit: Cannon Ivers
  • Render showing view through the garden room towards St Mary le Grand, with the planned sculptural bench to the right.
    Render showing view through the garden room towards St Mary le Grand, with the planned sculptural bench to the right. Credit: LDA Design
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Although the omens are good, it’s a little early to judge the success of this promising new public realm. Visiting on a wet and chilly day in early March, it is still fairly well populated with streams of pedestrians crossing through – but this is surely nothing compared to how it will be used in better weather, when it should really come into its own as a social space.

It’s great to see so much public seating, and the scheme will also benefit from the addition of the distinctive gateway benches later in the year. It will be interesting to see in a few years’ time how the meanwhile elements are incorporated into a more permanent arrangement of furniture and surfacing. The hoped-for installation of natural stone throughout would certainly boost the overall cohesion, consistency and material quality, especially given the inclusion of so many different zones. To do otherwise would surely be a missed opportunity after the big move of redirecting the traffic.

Whether LDA’s vision of birdsong materialises remains to be seen. But it’s certainly already a much more convivial habitat for humans, who are no longer pushed to the pavement margins of The Strand but are instead encouraged to linger, socialise and relax.

‘The reality is it’s still an urban space. But now it’s totally about people,’ says Ivers.

LDA Design created a sequence of different zones throughout the new public space.
LDA Design created a sequence of different zones throughout the new public space. Credit: LDA Design

Credits

Client Westminster City Council
Landscape architect and design lead LDA Design
Engineer and project manager WSP
Traffic engineer NRP
Lighting designer Michael Grubb Studio

Suppliers

BBS Jordans Whitbed Portland stone
Furnitubes Furniture and metalwork including The Squiggle
Kinley Steel edging to planting around St Mary Le Strand
Marshalls Laurel Bank and Thornlake Indian Sandstone; Scoutmoor Yorkstone; Vega granite
Millimetre Bespoke accoya timber sculptural seats designed by LDA Design
Vestre Meanwhile furniture

 

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