Grosvenor Group has launched an open international ideas contest to transform Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, central London (Deadline: 26 October)
The competition is open to architects, designers, horticulturalists, artists and creative thinkers, and seeks imaginative proposals to transform the historic but often unnoticed residential square into ‘one of the world’s leading public spaces’.
The initiative comes ahead of an anticipated boom in visitors to the area following the planned opening of the Elizabeth Line later this year. It also follows the US Embassy’s relocation from Eero Saarinen’s building on the square to Nine Elms earlier this year. The vacated building is due to be transformed into a hotel by David Chipperfield Architects.
The contest is part of a 20-year vision announced by the multibillion-pound estate – which is owned by the 27-year-old Duke of Westminster – to transform the elite neighbourhoods of Mayfair and Belgravia into places that ‘appeal to the many, not just to the few’.
Key ambitions within the programme – which will see £1 billion invested over the next 10 years –include upgrading green spaces, public realm and internet connections across the 120ha precinct, and delivering ‘new, adaptable buildings of world-class design’.
At its centre will be a revitalised Grosvenor Square, transformed into ‘a great garden square for Londoners’ fit for the 21st century. The Georgian square was one of the capital’s most fashionable residential addresses until the Second World War, when it became the headquarters of the US-led Allied invasion of German-occupied Western Europe.
Grosvenor Britain & Ireland chief executive Craig McWilliam said: ‘Grosvenor Square should be a defining public space for London. It is London’s oldest garden square and lies at the heart of the West End. However, from our research we know it has a low profile and that as a more welcoming and engaging space it would better reflect the capital’s character and appeal to a broader range of locals, visitors and Londoners.
‘As a business, we are opening ourselves up to public opinion. Our call for ideas is a challenge to urban visionaries of all kinds to help us reimagine the square to recapture its place in the minds of those who visit, live and work in London. Our independent panel of urban innovators and disruptors will review, filter and critique the very best ideas for us to take forward.’
The contest is chaired by Serpentine Galleries chief executive Yana Peel who was recently voted by Vogue as one of the UK’s most influential women.
Competition judges include DSDHA founding director Deborah Saunt; Kew Gardens’ head of landscape and horticulture Ed Ikin; London Design Festival director Ben Evans; Linda Hewson, creative director at Selfridges; and the designer Nicholas Kirkwood.
Peel said: ‘As a panel, we are seeking dreamers, innovators, doers and makers with the imagination and vision to create a truly meaningful and accessible legacy for London. This is a thrilling opportunity to make your mark in the heart of the city, open minds and help inspire a new generation.’
How to apply
The deadline for applications is 26 October.
Visit the competition website for more information
Q&A with Craig McWilliam
The chief executive of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland discusses his ambitions for the contest
Why are your holding an international competition to rethink the future of Grosvenor Square?
The return of management responsibilities for the square to Grosvenor and the departure of the US Embassy in 2018 present a remarkable opportunity to redefine the historic square’s civic, aesthetic and cultural contribution to Mayfair, the West End, London and the world. As a company, we want to open ourselves up more to public opinion and through a global call, we are presenting the square as a blank canvas for creative minds from a range of specialisms and global influences.
What is your vision for how Grosvenor Square could be transformed?
In 2017, we surveyed 1,000 Londoners and visitors to find out their views on how this 2.5ha great green public space could be used. The feedback was that awareness of the square was low and that it was seen as imposing and unwelcoming by those who knew it.
Almost 300 years after its completion, we want to reimagine the square for future generations to create a haven where locals and visitors can enjoy the best of the city, whilst making Mayfair more accessible. The results of the call will help create a legacy for the next 300 years and inform a specific brief for a design competition to be held in 2019.
What sort of architects, landscape architects and designers are you hoping will apply?
The call presents Grosvenor Square as an exciting space in which professional creatives from all backgrounds can imagine future uses and forms. As a landmark in the West End of London, it is an opportunity not only to redefine the capital’s map by bringing Mayfair into focus, but also address its cultural and civic offering. The expert panel will review the submissions, and selected entries will be publicised throughout the call and following the final review, with the best suggestions being taken forward to inform the 2019 design competition.
Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?
Grosvenor has been creating, managing and adapting successful neighbourhoods in London and other major cities for more than 300 years. Wherever we are, our goal remains the same: to make great places where people want to live, work and visit.
In London alone, we have an ambitious 20-year vision to make our estate more open and accessible but also to support the West End as it adapts to the pressures that growth places on infrastructure, amenity and quality of life. We have recently announced a £1billion investment strategy which will see us deliver new and improved office and retail space across our estate backed by significant enhancements in the street level environment, bringing with it better green spaces, cultural events and visitor experiences.
Are there any other historical square regeneration projects you have been impressed by?
While there are many examples of rejuvenated historic public spaces and hard-paved squares, when it comes to landscaped squares of this type, there are very few comparable to Grosvenor Square in terms of context, history and character, which makes the need for a fresh approach all the more pressing.
The terms of this call are therefore intentionally broad to capture as wide a range of ideas as possible. For me personally, I am looking forward to seeing how nature can flourish within the dense city centre, bringing with it not only a sense of wellbeing but also sustainable solutions that address critical issues related to, for example, climate change. Likewise, how the space adapts over the seasons or even the course of a day is something we look forward to reflecting upon now that people are typically being outside for longer periods and throughout the year.
Leicester Square: Q&A with Marie Burns
The director of Burns + Nice discusses lessons learned upgrading nearby Leicester Square in London
How did your project transform Leicester Square for contemporary audiences?
The scheme’s design focused on capturing the historic qualities of this London square, providing an improved setting for the many film premiers and to create a public space that is attractive to all, particularly families.
The element that changed the image of Leicester Square was the introduction of a white granite ribbon that was designed as an informal seating opportunity. We wanted to create a truly public space that was relaxed, attractive and welcoming, that was available for use at all times. The ribbon diffuses the edge of the gardens by its sinuous form, material and is complemented by the mirrored railings, so creating an integrated experience without apparent barriers.
The paths radiating from the Shakespeare Fountain form generous entrances that give invitation; a sense of freedom to move from the terraces into the gardens. A series of interactive water jets around the Fountain have created a new and popular focus to the gardens.
The lighting design was integral to the design process in that the scheme needed to create a comfortable and inviting place during the evenings. A variety of lighting forms and lighting levels were introduced to encourage people to use the gardens and the ribbon, to give the space vibrancy and an urban buzz, associated with European piazzas. Lighting beneath the ribbon creates a floating quality that attracts usage.
Leicester Square by Burns + Nice
The scheme has been integrated with its surrounding streets through the creation of a city block, which reflects Leicester Square’s wider historic footprint creating a sense of place within its London context and improved links with Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, Chinatown and Trafalgar Square. These improved connections have encouraged more pedestrian use of the Square.
The new design has created a place with an appeal to a diverse contemporary audience that enjoys being in Leicester Square, who record their visits on social media and market its new image. The success of the design approach for Leicester Square has been reflected in a reduction in reported crimes and the introduction of more alfresco areas.
What was the inspiration for the scheme?
The main inspiration was the celebration of Leicester Square as a historic London square and the Shakespeare statue and fountain. The design geometries and material take reference from the Shakespeare fountain. The black granite carpet defines the gardens from the terraces so strengthening the presence of the gardens as a place within the square. The central area of the gardens is defined by a circular timber and bronze bench that provides views to the Shakespeare fountain. Segments with no backrests allow the space to flow freely between the central circle and paths.
The constraint to the design was the 1931 London Squares Preservation Act. This was created to protect London Squares from development, including their physical enclosure by railings, but gave the opportunity to explore how a reinterpretation of ‘enclosure’ could be achieved to enable the gardens, terraces and adjoining streets to be appreciated as one place with a variety of spatial experiences.
Leicester Square by Burns + Nice
The blurring of being inside and out of the gardens was achieved by use of mirrored stainless-steel railings and gates that provide memorable reflective qualities and a dynamic and contemporary character to the scheme. The textured green planting extends the feel of the gardens on to the terraces while the 200m-long White Ribbon provides an interactive interface for informal seating.
The redesign of Leicester Square offered the opportunity to consider the gardens, square and connector streets as one entity and in so doing create a coherent public realm that captures and strengthens the identity of this part of the West End.
What advice would you have to contest participants on rethinking Grosvenor Square in central London?
The understanding of the square’s history and its context will underpin the design thinking. How do you respect and enhance the unique, intrinsic qualities of this magnificent London square yet create a place that captures the vision for change?
I think the key to a successful design is simplicity of approach to create one space. That’s not to say that there is not complexity within the definition of spatial hierarchy but the design should be restrained reflecting Grosvenor Square’s character and its hinterland. People and events are the colour and vibrancy of a space. Good design provides the opportunities and the settings for this dynamic and varied interplay.
Leicester Square by Burns + Nice