At the end of last month, three soon-to-be verdant installations arrived on Exhibition Road – the result of a collaboration between Discover South Kensington (DSK), the V&A, and London Festival of Architecture (LFA). It was hard to believe that we had gone from a windy washout of an initial site visit in May to completed projects basking in the July heatwave, but the Festivals team are used to being nimble!
It all began in March, when we were approached by our colleague Emily Candler from the Exhibition Road Cultural Group (publicly known as DSK). The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) had asked Emily to investigate the possibility of a summer installation for Exhibition Road that would tempt visitors back to the area after a tough few months due to COVID-19. Instantly, we thought back to our hoped-for project for the Great Exhibition Road Festival 2020, planned to be in July of that year but like many such things had been postponed and then cancelled. Our idea had been for a community planting project, where we could take over parts of the road with large collaborative planters, inviting local schools to participate in bringing the living display to fruition. The question now was how to do this in such a short amount of time, and under tight COVID restrictions?
Every June, London’s architectural scene comes alive during LFA, through installations and events. We have a long and successful relationship with the team there, and asked them to come onboard and collaborate with us on this summer project for Exhibition Road. Very quickly we realised that the best way forward would be to run an open call, asking emerging designers to submit their ideas for installations that would fit our brief of biodiversity, ecology, planting for pollinators, regenerative design, and showcasing the role that design must play in the multifaceted challenge of climate change. We decided to commission three projects, each with a budget of £20k: one led by ourselves, to be sited outside the Natural History Museum; one led by the Science Museum, for outside their main entrance; and one led by the Goethe-Institut, placed by Imperial College.
Launched in April, the open call was a huge success with 90 teams applying. The difficult task of narrowing down to just three teams (Mizzi Studios, Urban Radicals with Adam Harris, and Seyi Adelekun with Wayward) fell to an expert team comprising representatives from our neighbouring institutions, local residents associations, RBKC and Westminster councils, and the Architects Climate Action Network. We hit the ground running with a site visit in May where, together with the successful design teams and our colleagues at the Science Museum and the Goethe-Institut, we scoped out our locations on the Road and met with council colleagues who advised us on planning permission, environmental considerations, and maintenance. We followed this up with consultations with local residents, planning submissions, and highways permissions, thankfully all successful (although the final planning permission came through just three days before we started our install!).
We struck lucky with the weather when install began on 19 July, with a mini-heatwave hitting London that week. Everyone also had their fingers crossed that we wouldn’t fall prey to the hot topic of the ‘pingdemic’ from the track and trace app, but fortunately with regular testing and being extra cautious around safety measures, all the team were able to attend site (including Harry, Tom from Wayward’s dog!). There was a great atmosphere on site, with everyone enthusiastic about being able to participate in live projects again. The pavilion itself was a community build project, with a local carpenter, volunteers from Black Females in Architecture network, and gave opportunities to London-based students during COVID. In fact, the whole team was 95%+ queer, black, and female.
The finished pavilion is a wildflower vertical meadow which connects the architecture of Exhibition Road to the depths of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park through a hydroponic algae canopy. Planters made from composite recycled plastic sheets house pollinator-friendly turf, and reused plastic bottles are home to budding hemp and strawberry plants. These planters are fed by algae and cyanobacteria as a nutrient-dense biofertilizer, housed in the woven arches at the top of the structure (whose tubes are reused from a previous Wayward project). The algae was sourced from the Serpentine Lake, and grown in collaboration with scientists from Imperial College and UCL, who also advised on the use of algae as a timber stain (which will respond to the sun and change colour over the summer). The timber elements were locally sourced – indeed everything in the pavilion was from the UK apart from a plumbing fitting and a few screws! We are delighted with our final pavilion, and with the first bees spotted the day after completion, we believe our insect friends are too.
Exhibition Road will see the pavilions and their pollinators take centre stage during Discover South Kensington’s free Bee Inspired Activity Day on 20 August. There will be lots of exciting things for families and community groups to do, including hands-on activities with artists and nature experts. You can register for tickets here.
Part of the South Ken Green trail, Algae Meadow, Home Away from Hive, and Windflower will be on Exhibition Road until 15 October 2021. Algae Meadow was supported by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, RBKC and the Exhibition Road Cultural Group.