South London Ecstasy

TEXT + PHOTO Thomas-Bernard Kenniff

Near the south end of London Bridge, across from where the 310-metre-tall Shard designed by Renzo Piano is being erected, Borough Market, one of London’s most distinctive places, is undergoing yet another transformation. The wholesale and retail food market, which falls within a heritage conservation area, is now subject to a controversial project for a new rail viaduct running through its heart. The controversy raises the issue of whether such an entity should be exempt from the very alterations that have turned it over the years into one of the most inherently successful heterogeneous places in London.

Built over the last 250 years, the area of the market has become a hodgepodge of architectural elements and styles with a chaotic yet oddly coherent juxtaposition of contemporary architecture, Victorian brick buildings, skeletal wrought iron and glass canopies, and rail viaducts. From any point within the area, the eye follows multiple vanishing points between criss-crossing lines and openings amongst the structures that reveal yet further fleeting structures. Reminiscent of what Eisenstein identified as the ecstatic space of Piranesi’s carcere etchings, the space of Borough Market seems to reach beyond itself. This is a place that is neither subterranean nor overground, a place that can never be experienced as a whole from a distant vantage point. Borough Market is, simply put, one of the single most thrilling spatial experiences of London.

The most recent modifications occurred here between 1995 and 2005 with a widely acclaimed revitalization project by architects Greig & Stephenson. The gentle and clever architectural transformations, at once both contemporary and in keeping with the Victorian fabric, maintain and embrace the overall controlled disorder of the place that so perfectly defines its uniqueness in the city of London.

The train viaduct currently being constructed through the market is the result of growing pressure on the commuter train network at London Bridge. Since it was first evoked in the late 1980s, the project has met with persistent opposition from local residents and local authorities who have focused on the loss of character to the place, the planned demolition of about 20 heritage- listed buildings, and the potential threat to market activities themselves. The project, designed by architects Jestico + Whiles and scheduled to be completed in 2012, will see new glass-and-steel structures erected where buildings and canopies had to be demolished.

Even in the face of seemingly inevitable infrastructure, the demolition of heritage is a tragedy that deserves vehement opposition. Yet, one may wonder when–if at all–such evolved, heterogeneous places should be fixed. Borough Market is a strong reminder that these spaces are less the product of a single, homogeneous regeneration project than the result of a juxtaposition of distinctive elements over time. The success of individual projects depends, therefore, on the respect they owe to the orderly chaos that is in many ways the heritage of the site. CA

An architectural graduate of the University of Waterloo, Thomas-Bernard Kenniff is currently a PhD candidate at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London.