Beirut, LB


A message for London in China's big fashion project

By adibdada
Nov 24, '11 11:38 AM EST
N+ masterplan
N+ masterplan

At the Mansion House on Tuesday, architect Lee Polisano asked an audience of 150 - who were there to learn how the City might look in 25 years - if they had heard of the Chinese city of Ningbo. One hand hesitantly rose.
Hands up anyone who has heard of this seaport metropolis of 7.6 million souls, which sits south across the bay from Shanghai? Anyone outside the fashion industry that is: for Ningbo is the epicentre of the gigantic Chinese rag trade. The purpose behind the question from the American-born architect - who designed the Heron Tower in Bishopsgate for Gerald Ronson - was that his London practice, PLP Architecture, is designing a fashion centre of staggering size in Ningbo. A scheme worth examining, if only to contrast with the Corporation's crimped vision.
"I see the present cluster of towers being completed," said City planning chief Peter Rees, who chaired the evening event. "That'll do for a while. Refurbishment is the challenge."
PLP's challenge is to define and design a global fashion hub for Ningbo which is half the size of Canary Wharf and a fifth the size of the Square Mile. N+ is the brand name of the seven million-square-foot quarter, due to rocket up over three years.
The 14-acre site will hold three million square feet of high-rise offices for fashion manufacturers. A 1000-metre long suspended "catwalk" will encircle three million feet of low-rise buildings and one million feet of education and cultural space.
At the heart of N+ will be Polisano's latest fashion concept - the "brand embassy". The world's most familiar brands are even now being courted to set up in own-design embassies, housing idea-hatching incubators, showrooms and offices.
"This is a project of unprecedented scale and ambition and answers the challenge of designing something that is relatively permanent, for fashion, which is quintessentially ephemeral," says Polisano.
Wow! Now, back to boring old London. The morning after Polisano spoke, I got to chair a similar future-gazing event for the City Property Association, also at the Mansion House.
This time a more exciting but contentious vision emerged.
The higher residential prices soar in the West End, the higher the pressure on the Square Mile to embrace the conversion of offices to flats. The City Corporation hates the idea, fearing incoming residents will object to fresh office development.
The debate has rumbled along for years, with developers afraid to criticise the policy openly in front of those who influence planning decisions. On Wednesday, one finally spoke out in front of aghast Corporation officials.
"The City is missing out on the global private wealth pouring into the West End," said Mike Hussey of Almacantar, which is looking to turn Centre Point into flats. "Why can't the City encourage mixed use development?"
"The Far East is a direct competitor," warned Hussey, who was head of development at both Land Securities and - before that - Canary Wharf. "We cannot sit around and watch the City decline. The policy must change."
Don't hold your breath.