Old Street Roundabout has faced strong criticism over the years: It has been remembered more for traffic congestion rather than its rising fame as a technology hub. The roundabout has continued to be a prominent strategic site in London and yet the space offers very little to the public realm; the island site has largely remained inaccessible to the public and the entrance to the underground station causes daily confusion for commuters.
Over the years numerous architects have put forward proposals to transform the site – without avail. The recent competition held by Islington Council and TFL provides a very real opportunity for change.
The competition brief was challenging. The council identified the fixed elements on the site that could not be altered and set the budget. We had to ensure that we believed the proposals could be built within this framework and at the same time we could not compromise the quality of the design. The reconfiguration of the road system created a fantastic opportunity to create public space in Old Street.
The large arches and digital display that span the middle of the site have become iconic and easily recognisable to the public. When we began the design process the first question we raised was “What should we do with the arches?”. Retaining digital advertising on the site was a key part of the competition brief – although it allowed flexibility to what form this might take.
We initially appraised three very different proposals: retain, remove or replace the arches. The digital display in its existing form relates to the road users, in rethinking the roundabout and reclaiming the land for the pedestrians we felt the status quo was no longer relevant.
Our proposal therefore retained the display screens, but turned them on end to create a totem. Demarcating public space is quite common historically in cities and reinventing this idea was an exciting opportunity. This would mark the main space of the site and serve as a new icon as well as allow interaction between the totem and the users of the space. The opportunity to create a much-needed sheltered bike store inside the totem, like the robotic cycle storage units in japan, would be a great asset to the site. The totem was then positioned to capitalize on the key views towards the roundabout.
Once the key strategic moves had been agreed the next step was to agree the vision for the site. The idea of technology and public garden space coalescing gave rise to the “digital garden”. This would create a place unlike any other in London. Showcasing the latest innovations in technology and public installation art, we embarked upon designing the digital “plants” that would generate electricity during the day and emit light at night.
The final shortlist consists of bold visions of what the site could become: Iconic, pedestrian and cyclist friendly. We were thrilled to see our design shortlisted and believe it is the right solution for the site, meeting both the council’s aspirations and budget. Old street roundabout would be transformed into an iconic site that would be internationally recognisable as a technology hub well as offering much sought after recreation and amenity space.