Hackney residents are familiar with the council initiative to divert buses and pedestrianise Narrow Way, the aptly named stretch of road linking lower Clapton to the top of Mare Street in East London, earlier this year.
In a characteristically playful manner, local architecture practice Studio Weave designed a six-month intervention beginning in July 2013, to draw attention to the bus diversion and encourage pedestrians and cyclists alike to use the street more.
Working with a Sheffield based sustainable street advertiser, Green Street Media; temporary graphics now traverse the road and boldly tease shop fronts.
As fresh vegetables, bric-a-brac and shop wares spill out onto the street, emerald-coloured geometric shapes tease double yellow lines.
Geometric pastel pink and bold blue diamond patterns alter the visitor’s perspective and warmly invite local residents into shops. At the very least they persuade the user to linger a little bit longer whilst they browse at shop wares in the window.
Bike friendly, the design also integrates timber seating with planters, persuading pedestrians to stick around.
I, along with other intrepid design students, experienced the hands on task of painting the street over the course of two weeks overnight in the summer of 2013.
This involved getting to grips with the logistical challenges of the project, working with the architect’s drawings and in the process picking up many nuanced snippets of the local culture, through informal dialogue with the public.
Day I: Studio Weave Office
On a Monday afternoon, I was on my way to the architects’ Dalston office for an initial meeting about the project. We were introduced us to the plans by Eddie Blake of Studio Weave.
Five students were called in to help with the painting and for the most part, were made up of students of architecture or art, which included myself.
The drawings shown in plan were of a series of triangulations spanning the width and length of the street, some patterned and some solid. White dotted ellipses indicated where street furniture might go, suggesting that the plans, at least for the furniture, were open to change.
Though beautifully drawn, the plans seemed abstract. It was not until I got onto site, that I realised the full extent of the project at hand.
Night I: famous last words
Narrow Way is a curious stretch that meanders slowly uphill from the busy junction of Amhurst Road with Hackney Central Overground station but is an established and historical high street in its own right. With a strong local character, the site is a stone’s throw from the practice’s Hackney based studio.
I arrived at 9pm on Mare Street, anticipating a long night but ready to get stuck in. Some painting had already begun the previous evening by the street advertising company, but confined to the road.
Whilst waiting for the arrival of the paints, we realised the scale of the project’s ambitions and came to grips with the reality of the road conditions. The site is an important public route and extremely busy local thoroughfare. Not only were deliveries for businesses attempting to gain access to the (after 9pm) closed road, but a melange of speedy cyclists and pedestrians. As soon as we gathered, local residents candidly shared their views on the project to do with public spending, the best response we had was a referral to take their issues up with Hackney Council.
The painting team were made up of five students followed by three painters from Green Street Media, led by owner, Conrad Thornton, who introduced us to the strategy. Due to the residential nature of the project, he explained the preferred use of rollers instead of spray paint to reduce noise, inevitably making more work for us. At £20 a litre, the temporary acrylic based paints, came in five vibrant hues. The paints themselves were from the USA and Green Street Media are the only UK based company to supply and use them in their work. Designed to last for six months, the texture was thick and gritty.
There was no street art or graffiti thrills to be had. We were instructed to avoid certain aspects of the street furniture, stay 10cm away from road markings and not to paint public property.
The reality of the strategy was that we spent the initial night (and those following) cordoning off of certain areas and chalking patterns onto the street as guidelines. The solid block colours were the priority then we could move onto the patterns.
The first night was slow. We barely covered the north end of the street where solid colours made up a large area. Much of the painting here involved painting right up to within 10cm of residents’ front doors who, peering out of their windows, took photographs from their flats above. We were getting used to the paint as the street lamps turned off. Our inaugural night ended at 5am.
Night II: lack of sleep
We returned with fresh enthusiasm on the second evening, coupled however with a lack of sleep. Luckily, our chalking methods were faster and we started on patterning. The plans became crucial in the negotiation of the location of the chalked guidelines between the team. There were discrepancies caused by the natural road inclinations and the uneven road surfaces caused by traffic.
As we moved down toward the middle of the street, more people tended to stop, realising this was a continued strategic effort of painting instead of a sporadic one off. We took turns to answer the enquiries of the general public. Many cyclists dismounted and questioned our motives for painting the street. In our quasi official set up (students in high visibility jackets and awkwardly marked out red tape), there was a mix of reactions.
Night III: diamond pro
By Thursday, our third consecutive day of painting, we were working at the southern end of the street and beginning to receive a lot more attention from locals. I spent a good part of this evening diamond patterning outside of the old town hall, having tackled the pink diamonds at the north end of the road the previous evening.
By the third evening, we had split into dedicated teams and each of us were responsible for the negotiation of their area through chalking and painting. We had taken on more responsibility only for our efforts to be greeted with early morning showers.
Night IIII: mysterious footprints
To our dismay, it had started raining in the early hours of the morning. The showers resulted in curious green footprints appearing by shop fronts. By the fourth night, we realised we had to repaint a good few hours work.
Friday night saw the conversation from local residents reached an all time high, some drunkenly offered to paint. Running out of stamina, we battled in refusing the help. Nonetheless, we were on a mission to see our hard work completed.
By Friday two weeks later, planters had arrived on site and inevitable tweets start appearing online, commenting on the cheery new look of Narrow Way.
Even for such a simple urban design intervention such as this, hands on experience and a chance to translate the thoughts of the architects into a physical design experience was insightful.
The project had its own social and political impacts, reactions from the locals tended to relate to issues with the use of public money (why paint a dirty street?). Realistic public concerns included traffic congestion brought to Dalston Lane and Amhurst Road and longer bus journey times were unfavourable with commuters. At first, local businesses claimed there was fewer footfall now that buses do not pass along that stretch of road.
Since the design was completed, many a workshop, gathering and market have followed and been facilitated by the pedestrianisation and enhancement of Narrow Way.