Bikes, Builders, and Royal Academy Bugbears
Regeneration is seeing reinvigoration and evolution in our columnist’s part of Mayfair with the Royal Academy works now complete and open. And as a recent triathlon convert he views his local roads – and drivers – through different eyes
Column by Trevor Pickett
Since we moved to the Burlington Gardens store we have be thwarted by our neighbours’ (the Royal Academy of Arts) building works, despite the fact that we celebrate it as an asset and improvement to the area, and we’re now highly excited that it’s open and even more beautiful than we could ever imagine. It’s been a long wait! Our first Christmas here was an impasse when, the week before Christmas, the shop was cordoned off. So, essentially, we were closed! With my militant hat on, a few road signs were held hostage, and the works were halted as – apparently – my actions caused a health and safety infringement (by law, works signage must be evident). The issue was resolved, but not before a stand-off. The angry baying of what looked like a rugby team of navvies became perplexed when the burly works manager threw his arms around me, consoled me, and then chastised me for not getting him in the first place to sort the problem.
So, my patron saint of building sites was here to protect my business – and after that I got respect and had good conversation with the navvies, who decided I was a “good egg” and in my terms of endearment they were ‘nice blokes’ (both words I hate, however together they are a high accolade!). In fact, there was a smoking ban within a wide radius of the RA site, but certain members of the works team were in the Pickett VIP area (the front of the store is private property, so I hosted exclusive smoking parties even after I stopped 18 months ago). In fact, it was an interesting eye-opener: our neighbouring builders brought a new dynamic and introduced a new community to the gardens. They have flown the nest now, and it feels the area has lost an interesting diversity.
But this month, the Royal Academy opened the walk through from Burlington Gardens to Piccadilly. What a beautiful space and thoroughfare designed by David Chipperfield Architects – Royal Academy of Arts masterplan – it’s well worth having a retrospective and look… This gives an insight to the working of the RA. One does wonder what the effect will be to the surrounding parallel thoroughfares: Old Bond Street, once rarely walked down, though since its retail offering became more eclectic and more cosmopolitan, it has divided the traffic coming south of Oxford Street to Piccadilly so has Burlington Arcade suffered. In 1980, I was told, the golden mile guest turned left from Claridge’s, down Bond Street passing Sotheby’s, crossed Burlington Gardens, down Burlington Arcade, glided diagonally to Duke Street, arriving at Christie’s on King Street. It was the rich stretch for arts, antiques and fine fancy goods.
That was in the days that shops opened at 10am instead of 9am and closed at 1pm on a Saturday rather than 5pm as in the week. Parking meters – after their introduction almost exactly 60 years ago to the day – cost sixpence an hour (that’s 57p in today’s money) and were did not operate after 1.30pm on Saturdays.
For those old enough to remember the Museum of Mankind (part of the British Museum), it housed the ethnography collection. There was chagrin, a level of disapproval and disappointment, at its closure, but the British Museum has moved on with its new building and maintains its authority of its sphere of artefacts. At least the new incumbent of the 1870’s building remains of a cultural nature, so the May 15th unveiling of the new spaces was part celebrating 250 years of the Royal Academy and part a new beginning. Regeneration is always exciting: London is investing so much in its infrastructure, so we see a new migration of visitor to our corner of Mayfair. It’s evolution, not revolution, in our corner of W1.
Savile Row and the surrounding area is now a junior version of Exhibition Road, which I think was acknowledged as a success. Lord Rogers said (edited paraphrased) “It lifts the spirit. It is the first time I have seen such high quality in England, its example of traffic and pedestrian in an urban environment, its zig-zag of walkways on Exhibition Road, with more than one million bricks made of Chinese granite (who counted those bricks?!).
For pedestrians we are seeing new pavement schemes and contemporary streetscape popping up everywhere. The first experiment came from Holland to Kensington High Street and has received widespread recognition as an exemplary project, regularly visited by designers seeking inspiration. It’s not only getting the credit for the road furniture, at the west end of Kensington High Street the new Design Museum that is housed in what those of us of a certain age would remember as the Commonwealth Institute. The transformation by John Pawson; it is amazing and adds another museum to the cultural London “mis en scene” with a newly opened an exhibition of Azzedine Alaïa (just spectacular). Few designers are more architectural: the feeling that you are not visiting a dress shop – or men might think of as a frock shop. Recent exhibitions of fashion have been amazing – the curation and just from that and the music alone (as with the knock-out McQueen at the V&A), a visit worth making.
The Design Museum earlier this year had an amazing Ferrari exhibition that set a standard in my head, and the Alaïa does not disappoint. Nor does that of Martin Margiela, another structural, deconstruction designer show that opens at the Gallerie Museum in Paris. One also has to mention Dior last year at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, as impressive as Dries van Noten in 2014 in carrying on the theme of architect in fashion. Interestingly, Russell, my builder told me that only dress makers measure in centimetres, as Chanel used to state about one of her competitors Elsa Schiaparelli. With this trend of architectural fashion, I am now awaiting a homage to Hussein Chalayan, but hope he will be alive to see it.
Honesty time about favourite bugbears. My drive to my place in Suffolk 25 years ago was two hours but now is more like two and a half to three. I guess a life saver is hands free, so I store up all my calls and fill the journey with gassy chat. I have revised my opinion of the empty-at-8pm cycle lanes, “the ghrr… why were these lanes created?” in a decade’s years’ time they will come into their own, I am now sure. Like Denmark, we will become a nation of cyclists, not just shop-keepers.
Those in the know will understand my vigour for a Boris bike: my participation in the Bloodwise Triathlon at Blenheim Palace earlier in the month, supporting London and fighting leukaemia (please feel free to donate retrospectively!). My prior negativity to cycling in London was driven by pot holes and gutters in need of attention – I am of course a careful, considerate driver, though riders can be unwittingly dangerous too. With my new positive attitude to cycling on Boris’s bikes I do have reservation of their design though: the handlebar and front wheel basket is far too self-operating, the knack of being in first gear and quickly hitting third as you move off (move straight, don’t wiggle!). I do have a 1950s Holdsworth – a real racing cycle of my dad’s – but I’m concerned it’s not right for London’s roads and, whilst it has a paltry value, it has a collector’s value – or would have if stolen by an unwitting thief.
My feeling about the ongoing battle between pedestrian and driver has been revised in some circumstances. The short stretch of road in Burlington gardens – or on New Bond Street between Asprey and Tiffany’s – is not the M4; with the new road pavement surface the driver/pedestrian dynamic I hope has changed for the better. Perhaps it will no longer be driven like the start of a Grand Prix by the 4×4 Chelsea Tractor or the Masserati / Ferrari types who of course treat their vehicles like bloody p*nis extensions.
Reflecting after Blenheim, I realise that I enjoy my 40-mile cycle ride from home to Shepperton open water with a 1,000m swim; it is a good start to the day, I now feel the need to commit a visit at least once a week. As a now-confirmed triathlete, cycling pot-holed roads and running over wonky pavements take on a whole new meaning. And challenge.