As London struggles to build affordable new housing for a quickly growing population, one designer has a suggestion: New communities could sprout up on rooftops and in place of old parking garages, with architecture inspired by centuries-old local design.
“The project began out of a frustration with housing design in the U.K. at the moment,” says designer James Christian, whose concept is on display now at London’s Design Museum. “A lot of new housing in London doesn’t really have character, and the sort of rigid formality of urban design jarred with my interest in community and shared space.”
The designs take inspiration from two unique communities from London’s past: the old London Bridge, which was filled with housing and shops until the 18th century, and slums called rookeries. Though both were overcrowded, dirty, and dangerous, they also created a sense of community by forcing people together.
“People were living together out of necessity, out of the fact that they had no other real option, but the courts and the houses that surrounded them had these interesting self-organized social structures,” Christian says. “I was interested in trying to capture some of this closeness.”
In one of his designs, five or six houses would be built around a courtyard in place of an old parking garage. Neighbors would work together, as a co-op, to plan out the shared space.
“It’s a way to intensify some public space,” says Christian. “Right now, you have a lot of sort of bleak landscape areas with no real function. By making smaller, more intimate spaces, these places might be somewhere people actually want to be.”
In another design, rooftops on mid-rise apartment buildings would be topped with small communities that offer housing and shared workspaces that could also be used by neighbors in the apartment building below. “There’s a real reason for sharing, and and I hope that’s a way of adding community to existing urban areas,” Christian explains.
He hopes to see similar designs eventually built to help tackle London’s housing crisis. “It’s conceptual, but the ideas embodied in the project are very real, and should be at least experimented with,” he says. “It’s a way of adding a lot of dense housing to existing areas while not only trying to minimize disruption, but improving the quality of the environment and the sociability of those areas at the same time.”