Free State of Soho
Bad Streets: The Soho Project
In 1854 a lethal outbreak of cholera took hold in the centre of London. At the time, Soho housed 432 people per acre - making it at least ten times denser than today – and it became a breeding ground for the deadly bacteria.
Going against the prevalent theory of an airborne “miasma”, the doctor John Snow evolved a radical etiology, or study of causation, which uncovered the source of the epidemic in a public water pump on Broad Street. This was detected by simultaneously overlaying maps of urban phenomena alongside ground level investigations, demographics with anecdotes, and firsthand insights with scientific overview. As a result of this dialectic methodology, Soho proved to be the site of a revolution in urban development. In revealing a hidden menace, an exponential expansion of cities was made possible on a global scale.
Today, Soho has a uniquely contradictory character. High-life and low-life are interwoven with a bohemian demi-monde and modern day dandyism, whilst the more conventional creative industries produce the computer games and television formats that are among Britain’s most successful exports. In line with one’s preconceptions there are alleys serving the sex trade yet this is juxtaposed with the covert phenomenon of privately owned shopping streets and a new evolving form of architecture that makes a parody of Soho’s qualities.
Big Block Parody
As a neighbourhood Soho is caught in the pincer-like grip of Big Block redevelopment on all fronts (from Regents Street to Tottenham Court Road) whereby smaller freeholds are absorbed into super-size plots that yield a necessary profitability. Conversely, whilst these larger projects dilute the intensity of the urban fabric and generate an unsettling architecture of retained facades and enormous floor plates, transport infrastructure disgorge greater and greater numbers of people onto the streets. Soho boasts a temporary urban occupation on an extraordinary scale, yet at the same time finding a home here is left to only a few residents at either end of the economic spectrum.
But this scale of disruption is not new. In 1825, Nash said of his Regents Street as it smashed through the West End, carving through the poverty of Soho “my purpose was that the new street should leave out to the east all the bad streets.”
We might ask what is a bad street, after all? Caught between the efficiency of the Big Block and the carnivalesque diversity of the Bad Street, between re-invention and preservation, Soho is a contemporary city centre worthy of detailed investigation. And perhaps Soho’s one constant has always been exchange, as a place for trade or shopping of one sort or another. Commerce finds itself at home here.
Our research will recall that of John Snow, involving both a social and physical mapping of Soho in parallel with ground-level observations and conversations, mediating between the street, pavement and urban block in exploring the nature of “personal landscape.”
Studio propositions will engage with the contemporary notion of Exchange within the scale of a city block, and students will be encouraged to develop designs down to the detail of the representational language of the façade, in relation to the public realm and the juxtaposition of new and old fabric, contemporary and traditional technologies
Using SoHo in Manhattan as a counterpoint, we will carry out a study trip to New York in November to investigate density, innovation and preservation, and the evolution of retail and public space. At the end of the year, the work of the unit will be presented in an installation as part of the 2011 Soho Festival.
If a city area has only new buildings, the enterprises that can exist there are automatically limited to those that can support the high costs of new construction.... Chain store, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do....hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction....Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.
Jane Jacobs Death and Life of Great American Cities