Houzen / Assael Innovation Series

By Angelica Donati of Houzen


An “Innovation Series”, hosted by me, Angelica Donati, as co-founder of Houzen and architecture practice Assael, took place to discuss what the world would look like in 2035.
Stakeholders from across the industry, from designers to investors, worked in four groups to develop their vision for the future, using Marble Arch as a case study. So, what was the outcome and what does that mean for the industry?

First, some history. Marble Arch is a 19th-century white marble faced triumphal arch and London landmark. The structure was designed by John Nash in 1827 to be the state entrance to the cour d'honneur of Buckingham Palace. In 1851 it was relocated and following the widening of Park Lane in the early 1960s is now sited on a large traffic island at the junction of Oxford Street, Park Lane and Edgware Road.


This is what they came up with!


The teams were given inspiration in the form of concept art from the 1960s and challenged to consider how changes in transport, air quality, biodiversity and technology could change our perception, and usage, of the public space at Marble Arch.

The first team, led by Alex Notay (director of innovation at Places for People) started by fixing public transport to the area. Given the growing population in London, they want more Tube stations as well as improving the underpass. They will have a cyclical train to shuttle people around the central area, as well as making the central arch more accessible. They will transform part of that central island into prime residential space and, given the proximity of the retail at Oxford Street, they imagined delivery drones bringing people their shopping assisted by a digital concierge service in each building. They also planned an open theatre near the arch, as well as pop up retail space in the underpass area. They want to provide a technology focused visitor centre as well as a permanent fresh water swimming pool, which is something that had been widely requested in the King’s Cross regeneration plan. They will add roof gardens on all the buildings north of the arch and will convert the car park below Hyde Park (since car ownership will have significantly declined by 2035) into a biomass waste energy facility that will power the entire area, making it a net generator of energy.

Anna Rose, director at Space Syntax, presented the next vision. They imagined a much more intense use of the real estate at Marble Arch, with the continued growth of co-working spaces making offices more efficient. The area will become more vibrant and diverse, as well as more affordable for individual users. There will be more night-time activity, even in the retail space, with longer hours of operation. Traffic will be reduced due to the tech revolution in transport, with a focus on the ride sharing economy. A lot of the transport will move underground, increasing the pedestrian space above ground. The area will become a global destination, so it will develop its unique identity, as well as becoming a place for social interaction. The team wants to see the park extended, both by opening Buckingham Palace Gardens and by opening up the ground floors of the nearby commercial buildings in the manner of Somerset House or Rockefeller Centre, to use this space for events and initiatives across the seasons. They want to see increased use of the river, as well as turning Speakers Corner into a democratic centre for Marble Arch, with a museum on free speech.

The third team was led by Dr. Michael Wells, director of Biodiversity by Design. In 2035, people will be attracted by the overall experience more so than, for instance, the possibility of shopping on Oxford Street. Therefore, they focused on making the area so amazing that people, globally, will travel to London to experience it. As buildings become taller and denser, they proposed to blur the boundaries between the park and the residential area and bring nature to the buildings in the form of vertical gardens or farms. These will be provided as a service to residents, not as an architectural function. In a world where we can change the environment around us at the click of a button thanks to virtual reality, we need something more in the park. They discussed using biophilic design to make the park truly amazing, as well as using technology to optimise all this change, rather than letting it happen organically. The regeneration of urban space must be modelled so that all components and stakeholders can interact in optimal fashion, and technology must have a central role in this.

Finally Debra Yudolph, co-founder at Say Property, presented her team’s findings. They plan to turn Marble Arch into a “switch off zone”: phones will not work and people will be able to use the space to escape from the ever-encroaching presence of technology in their lives. Transport will be radically different, with the roads being moved underground, making the arch more accessible. Technology will replace buses with an intelligent car sharing economy, where people will be picked up and dropped off at specific stops and transport will be linked to demand, with minimal waste. The place of Marble Arch itself will have more greenery and more water, and there will be pop up events and a digitalised Speakers Corner so that people can attend whether they ae present or not. They want to celebrate the history of the area and of Tyburn’s tree by creating a virtual environment that celebrates that history, and this will be the only digital interaction that they would have in this place.

So what does this all mean? It is evident that there is room for significant improvement for Marble Arch and that technology will unquestionably play a pivotal role in shaping and changing this, and other, places. From the analysis of Marble Arch specifically, we can draw a series of conclusions that are applicable to urban realms generally. We want the future to be more inclusive and diverse. We want technology to act as a unifying rather than dividing force, one that brings efficiency and delight to our daily lives. We want to create a sustainable future, where technology ensures that everybody wins.