Culture Mile: A Nightmare On Beech Street

On 20 July the City of London council announced its plans to create a Culture Mile, using hype and PR to create a splash in local, specialist and national media:

The City of London Corporation, together with the Barbican, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London Symphony Orchestra and Museum of London, have announced plans for a major destination for culture and creativity in the Square Mile.

Unveiled today as ‘Culture Mile’, this ambitious and transformational initiative will create a vibrant cultural area in the north-west corner of the City over the next 10 to 15 years. Stretching just under a mile from Farringdon to Moorgate, Culture Mile will have creative exchange, cultural collaboration and learning at its core in an area where 2,000 years of history collide with the world’s best in culture.

There are three key parts of this plan: a new location for the Museum of London in Smithfield, a proposed Centre for Music to be fronted by the mannered twit ‘Sir’ Simon Rattle, and the ‘transformation’ of Beech Street. That said, if this collision of the ‘best’ of the old and new isn’t just hype, then why have the council given Taylor Wimpey permission to demolish a key piece of mid-century modernism within spitting distance of Beech Street in the form of Bernard Morgan House? This social housing block and heritage asset is set to be replaced with a massive and extraordinarily bland luxury apartment building that will steal sunlight from local homes, schools and Fortune Street Park.

Rather than pop up ‘gardens’ like the pathetic temporary pieces of green added to Moor Lane, most people would prefer it if public spaces such as Fortune Street Park were preserved as they are by planning permission being denied to over-scaled buildings that will kill off existing greenery by blocking light. If the City of London is serious about its Culture Mile development, it will reverse its Gerrymander Mansions planning decision, since the construction of ghost homes for investors will be a complete blight on the area. Allowing developers to demolish social housing and replace it with luxury apartments will not contribute to the creation of a cultural quarter. What will make the area vibrant is the council providing housing ordinary workers can afford to live in.


The City of London’s cultural zombies launch their plan for A Nightmare On Beech Street. Left to right: Catherine McGuinness (City Corporation policy chair), Nicholas Kenyon (Barbican MD), Lynne Williams (Guildhall School principal), Sharon Ament (Museum of London director), Kathryn McDowell (LSO MD).

The proposal to put retail units into Beech Street is a classic case of an utter lack of imagination. We don’t need more luxury shops in the City, there are already too many of them down the road at One New Change and elsewhere. Why not transform what is effectively a tunnel into an adventure playground for teens of all ages instead? Clearly a major architectural intervention should be avoided. The lid of the Beech Street tunnel is the base of the Barbican podium, and it must remain untouched to maintain the architectural integrity of the modernist complex of which it forms a part.

Elsewhere around the Barbican, the commissioning in Silk Street of utterly inane but fortunately only temporary neon ‘designs’ by Morag Myerscough indicate the local council wants to compromise the beautiful brutalism of this complex and is beginning to mimic the way Jude Kelly has wrecked the modernist utopia of the South Bank with the unwanted addition of brightly coloured and completely inappropriate decorative elements. Instead of Myerscough’s junk, we’d like the installation of accessible dimmer switches for streetlights in the area, so that passersby can adjust the illumination at night. We also want the council to reopen the public space at the top of Great Arthur House, preferably with the addition of a labyrinth at that site.


An example of Morag Myerscough’s inane ‘neon’ designs beneath Speed House in Silk Street, in this case doubled up through its reflection in glass.

Ella Braidwood’s article ‘City unveils Culture Mile as part of major plans to transform Barbican street’ in the Architects’ Journal culls quotes from a number of players in the project. Despite the current vagueness of their proposals, based on past performance it is safe to assume this self-interested gang know what they want but aren’t saying until they’ve gone through the charade of ‘consulting’ the public and then imposing an unwanted scheme on us:

Sharon Ament, director of the Museum of London, said the transformation of Beech Street would involve creating ‘active shop fronts, removing the air-pollution vehicles, better for pedestrians, better for cyclists, and connecting the cultural institutions’.

She added: ‘Through a process of planning and consultation, eventually a plan will emerge for Beech Street.’

A spokesperson for the City of London Corporation told the AJ it was currently in the ‘early stages’ of looking at the ‘total transformation’ of Beech Street.

They added that Hawkins\Brown has carried out a feasibility study on the street and that ‘over the next 12-18 months [we] expect to move forward with appointing a professional team, apply for planning consent and undertake public consultation’.

The spokesperson refused to confirm whether an architect would be sought as part of this professional team, but added that more details would emerge over the ‘coming year’.

Talking about the Culture Mile, Catherine McGuinness, policy chair at the City of London Corporation, said the body wanted to transform the Square Mile so that it was ‘admired as much for being a world-class cultural destination as for its position as a leading global financial centre’.

If the City of London wishes to become a ‘world-class’ cultural destination then clearly it needs to dump its current arts policies that relentlessly pursue the middle-brow, apparently with the aim of facilitating corporate junkets. More of a gritty urban vibe is required, alongside cultural institutions that actively do away with the Puritanism that has characterised the City establishment for hundreds of years. The last thing needed is a privately educated knob like “Sir’ Simon Rattle promoting light orchestral garbage in a specially built and extortionately expensive ‘Centre for Music’ AKA a concert hall. The best way to vibe up the neighbourhood is the provision of a great deal more social housing, so that there is an even bigger working class population. Not that it isn’t substantial already on both the Golden Lane Estate within the City of London, and in the extensive Peabody Trust social housing that lies just over the borough boundary with Islington.

Since the Culture Mile will be outside the original city wall, it should reflect the carnivalesque street life that has thrived around here since time immemorial. Milton Street – which runs off Silk Street – is now all that remains of Grub Street, for hundreds of years a haunt of impoverished writers and well past their prime sex workers; some say it was originally called Grope Cunt Street. Likewise, the area to the north of Beech Street was in Elizabethan and Jacobean times the original Pickt-Hatch, named after the type of doors associated with its bawdy houses. Over time Pickt-Hatch became a term associated with any area known for prostitutes and brothels. So let’s make the Culture Mile a Love Quarter that resonates with this history, a place where the ambiance facilitates romance in part by doing away with commerce and finance.

We are utterly opposed to the Museum of London’s current home becoming the site for new a concert hall for Simon Rattle and the other toffs at the London Symphony Orchestra, and this is the City’s preferred choice of location. The LSO has all the facilities it requires at its current base a short walk away at St. Lukes, just over the border into Islington. We clearly don’t need further junket opportunities at which corporate suits get to ‘groove’ to middle-brow rubbish such as Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. What we’d propose for the vacated space is that it should house two adult only and clothes optional museums; one dedicated to nudism and the other to witchcraft.

Installing two low-brow cultural institutions should still leave enough space in the building for a decently sized local authority gym for City of London residents. The current facility on the Golden Lane Estate is too small, leading to it being both overcrowded and ill equipped. We would also advise the City of London to ditch the dreadful Fusion Lifestyle who’ve been running their gym for several years. Our proposed repurposing of the current Museum of London site would avoid any need for architectural remodelling; something that we trust would be problematic given that the building forms a part of the listed Barbican complex – although we are very aware the City of London has scant regard for the modernist heritage within its boundaries.

Another aspect of the Culture Mile’s heritage that seems to have been overlooked in current plans is the infamous eighteenth-century Cripplegate Farting Club. Its regular revival in a local pub – or perhaps even the Beech Street tunnel – might do much to generate world-wide interest in the Culture Mile. As was the case with the Georgian version, members could compete with each other to produce the longest, loudest and smelliest farts – with stewards present to judge the winner. Likewise, boiled cabbage, pea-porridge and special liquors, could be sold at club nights to assist in the generation of wind.

Current professional flatulists such as Mr Methane don’t seem to produce performances of the same calibre as the renowned nineteenth-century exponent of this art Le Pétomane. The latter at the conclusion of his act allegedly shoved a rubber tube into his backside, inserted an ocarina into the opposite end of the hose, and played popular tunes as the audience sang along. Those attending a revived Cripplegate Farting Club might attempt similar flatulist turns. If the City of London wants its Culture Mile to be anything other than a world-class failure, then it needs to pull its finger out, sack the likes of Barbican Centre MD Nicholas Kenyon, and listen to the wishes of ordinary people. Museums of Nudism and Witchcraft, alongside a revived Farting Club and lots more social housing, will do far more for the hood than endless heaps of the same old same old light orchestral garbage.

And let us beware because the proposed Culture Mile might prove to be an attack on the brutalist integrity of the Barbican complex. While banning motor vehicles from Beech Street is to be welcomed, we don’t want any substantial architectural changes to that tunnel or the current Museum of London site. That said, the re-routing of Beech Street traffic needs to be carefully thought through, since it could easily cause problems elsewhere if isn’t carefully planned.



Pippa Henslowe.

NOTES: ‘City unveils Culture Mile as part of major plans to transform Barbican street’:

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