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Completing the Renaissance

In 1990, with the Sundial Pillar restored plus restoration work and new build completed on many of the area's buildings, we turned our attention to the issue of general improvements at Seven Dials.

Seven Dials was declared an Outstanding Conservation Area in 1974 (only 36 existed in the UK out of 7,000) but no formal enhancement scheme had been prepared. The Charity therefore decided to explore the possibility of a comprehensive mechanism to encourage all the property owners and authorities to co-operate in works which are historically appropriate and enhance the character of the area as a whole, dealing with many inter-related aspects such as: buildings, streets, street furnishings, lighting, planting, cleaning, rubbish and traffic management.

In 1990, as a first step in bringing this about in Seven Dials, the Charity commissioned an Environmental Study based on careful historical and architectural analysis of the area. We appointed a multi-disciplinary team including Peter Heath, an architect and town planner, and Dr. John Robinson, an architectural historian, with funding from the Kleinwort Benson Property Fund and the Foundation for Sports and the Arts.

The Charity's plan adopts the following principles:
  • To restore Thomas Neale's great architectural set piece at Seven Dials through the use of appropriate forms and materials for pavements, street surfaces and street furniture to give back a recognisable identity to the whole Seven Dials area;
  • Maintain the variety of mixed uses and in particular to reinforce the residential community;
  • Make efforts to reduce the dominance and impact of vehicle requirements and use in streets not designed for modern traffic levels.

The first version of the Study was published in 1992 and, to the Charity's surprise, was described as the first publication of its kind in the UK, which was followed by a short congratulatory debate in the House of Lords. The Environmental Study was re-written and re-published in 1998 via a three year grant from the Department of National Heritage/Department of Media Culture & Sport, as a national exemplar. It is in two volumes.

The results of this work are:
  • The Environmental Study Vol. 1 - How to Look After an Historic Area
  • The Environmental Study Vol. 2- History, Design Strategy, Pollution and Traffic Management
  • An Educational Slide Pack
  • A Scale Model of Seven Dials
  • A Major Exhibition - History, Architecture, Horology (36 display boards). Funded by English Heritage. The exhibition includes details on completing the Renaissance via the remaining street works.

 

The Environmental Study

The Environmental Study (in two volumes) for Seven Dials is a Conservation Area Enhancement Plan in a more comprehensive, detailed and user friendly form than has previously been attempted for an historic city centre area. These proposals were produced after a detailed investigation of the history and fabric of Seven Dials.

The Study was produced as a technical reference for local use and for all those interested in the conservation and enhancement of the built heritage, such as residents, local businesses, landowners, developers and their architects, surveyors and estate agents, local Planning Authorities and local community groups. The methodology can apply to any high density mixed use city centre area.

The Study details the major aspects that affect the physical appearance of buildings and streets and sets out how to relate improving the spaces between buildings to the built environment. The Study deals firstly with the specifics in relation to the locality, then sets out an analysis of each façade with improvement proposals, then sets out general principles for areas such as brickwork, signage, paint colours, planting, lighting etc, and then relates all this to a comprehensive set of proposals for street improvements. Thus it falls into 3 broad sections: general policy, an analysis of the façade of each building and improving the space between the buildings.

There is also a second Volume which includes detailed plans of the Charity's proposed traffic management scheme for the Seven Dials Area and with more details on history, design strategy, pollution, traffic management and more detailed matters than Vol. 1.

The Study Vol. 1 comprises 90 A4 size pages with 170 colour illustrations. Volume 2 comprises 60 A3 pages with monochrome photos.

 

The Seven Streets Radiating off the Dials

The Seven Dials Conservation Area is one of the most compact and distinctive pieces of townscape in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century patchwork that makes up the West End of London.

Most London estate developments in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century were planned around a square as their principal feature, for example Inigo Jones's famous Covent Garden Piazza.

Seven Dials is unique, however, in having a radiating pattern of seven streets and a central polygonal space. The streets are only forty feet wide and the Sundial Pillar is forty feet high. Neale's original plan, submitted to Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor General, shows six streets and a church, but Neale cheated by adding a street and failing to build the church, thus increasing his land value without providing the "social facilities"! The Sundial Pillar only has six faces - it's likely that the Dial itself is the seventh face, with the column casting its own shadow, and therefore acting as a gnomen. It is highly likely that the stonemason Pierce was a member of the Masons (whose first lodge was in Covent Garden) and the Sundial Pillar and the whole layout probably relate to the basic precepts of Masonry.

The seven streets radiating off the Dials are:
  • Monmouth Street North
  • Shorts Gardens
  • Earlham Street East
  • Monmouth Street South
  • Earlham Street West
  • Mercer Street NW
  • Mercer Street SE

 

The Street Improvements - The Story So Far

The objective in Completing the Renaissance is to see completed the overall restoration of the area by implementing the street improvements set out in the Study and by continuing to encourage the restoration of the many listed buildings. Earlham Street (East) and Shorts Gardens are the first examples of the street works (funded by the Kleinwort Benson Property Fund), and are regarded as exemplary. A substantial number of buildings have now been restored by Shaftesbury PLC using the Study recommendations. The Study has encouraged private investment of c.£2million towards the overall objective. Completion of the rest of the street improvements will cost c.£2.4million.

The pictures show some of the work undertaken to achieve the recommended street improvements in the Environmental Study.

 

Buildings

The Environmental Study provides a detailed and illustrated commentary on the characteristics of existing streets and buildings, in order to raise the standards of all new works in the area. The aim has been to analyse the historic fabric which survives and to give guidelines for the future treatment and restoration of those buildings. This is done via a building by building façade analysis.

Many of the houses occupy the original 1690s building plots and retain at least some late seventeenth or early eighteenth century structure, despite later refacing, remodelling and repairs. A worrying development, however, is the amount of original fabric which has been lost in the last 20 years.

 

Buildings: Façades

Brickwork on Buildings - there are many fine brick frontages in the Seven Dials Conservation Area and it is important that they should be properly maintained and where possible enhanced. There are two predominant forms of brickwork in the area: late Georgian stock brickwork, much of it dating from the re-facing of the original houses in the 1790's, and late Victorian or Edwardian red brickwork, associated with the development of Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1890's. Guidance is given on page 28 as to cleaning and pointing of these brickworks.

Shopfronts - the Seven Dials Conservation Area contains an interesting an extensive series of painted timber shop fronts dating from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Well maintained traditional shopfronts, or imaginatively designed new ones, are important, not just for the preservation of the character of the buildings, but for the overall appearance of the shopping streets and their commercial success.

Shop signs - a well designed or imaginative fascia sign can give a shop individuality and character without being at odds with its surroundings. In the nineteenth century, shop signs were a minor art form and Victorian Seven Dials contained several sign-painters among its resident craftsmen. Painted lettering is always appropriate, though a range of gilded, enamel or other applied lettering can also be effective. Traditional hanging signs, constructed via an iron bracket, can enhance the quality of a shop front and vitality to a street. Seven Dials already has many good hanging signs of different dates, such as Comyn Ching's carefully preserved Victorian ironwork sign.

There are 40 pages in the Environmental Study showing detailed proposals for the treatment and improvement of each group of buildings in the Seven Dials Conservation Area, based on a careful analysis of the historic fabric and evolution of the area. It is intended to give guidance to freeholders and occupants on ways of improving their buildings so as to enhance their historic character and that of the Conservation Area as a whole for the benefit of the community.

 

Street Furniture

Lamps/lighting

In streets with narrow footways, a good general principle for lighting is to remove the need for columns wherever possible. This can be achieved by using building-fixed lamp fittings, demonstrated by the approach used in Neal Street. All building-mounted fittings should be in black casings, either in small modern designs or traditional decorated lantern form.

Bollards

Their use in the Seven Dials and Covent Garden area dates back to its layout in the seventeenth century. Stone bollards are shown on Edward Pierce's original design drawing protecting the Sundial Pillar and around the Covent Garden Piazza. However, we adopted the St Giles bollard from the only remaining original example.

Surfaces

The question of street and pavement surfaces, and whether to adopt shared surfaces was the subject of some debate. Our proposals retain the architectural integrity of the raised pavement as the pediment to the buildings and we adopted york stone pavements and setts for the streets. We took into account the dis-benefits of turning both into shared surfaces for pedestrians only. Contrary to the current fashion for pedestrianisation we felt that this option would lead to uncontrollable street activity which would prejudice the residential community, especially since we tested it during our Housing Action Area period and found that the dis-benefits greatly outweighed the benefits. This argument informs the whole thrust of the Study in relation to traffic management as opposed to traffic exclusion.

 

Traffic Management in Seven Dials & the West End Villages

The streets in Seven Dials were not built to accommodate today's uses, but are an essential component of the historic character of the area.

A major objective of the Environmental Study is to implement traffic management measures to prevent the area's continued use for "rat-running" traffic. The principle problem in the Seven Dials Conservation Area is through vehicle traffic along Monmouth Street southbound.

The plan illustrated on page 13 of the Environmental Study is a relatively low cost and practical interim solution, that would bring significant benefits to the area by small changes in vehicle routes. The main advantage of the plan is that it does not require radical pedestrianisation to achieve improved conditions. Vehicle access to a mixed use area is important for the viability and vitality of the local residential and business communities.

Experience in the West End demonstrates that pedestrianisation leads to the use of the streets for activities which cannot be managed by either the Local Authority or the Police. Our proposals draw on this experience and propose the removal of through traffic only.

Volume 2 of the Study details the Charity's proposed traffic management scheme for the Seven Dials Area.

 

Greening the Area

A commentator in 1842 described Monmouth Street as 'the Hanging Gardens of Babylon'. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the streets of Seven Dials were enlivened with many plant pots and boxes along the top of the shop fronts and hanging on the fronts of the buildings.

The advantage in having plant boxes on the ledges along the top of the shop fascias and on the window sills is that they introduce colour and greenery to the streets without cluttering up the narrow pavements with obstructive planters, or losing light from trees in very narrow streets.

With this in mind, the Seven Dials Monument Charity has been given financial support via the Green Values Scheme towards re-creating the nineteenth century hanging gardens at Seven Dials and to encourage local business and residents in the Seven Dials area to set-up, plant and maintain window-boxes. Shaftesbury PLC have generously matched the local authority's grant. The scheme will be carried out between March and June 2000 with the active involvement of children from both local primary schools and in conjunction with the annual Covent Garden Flower Festival.

The Thomas Neal Shopping Centre walls in Shorts Gardens are a good example of well-planted boxes, organised by the landlord Shaftesbury PLC, who have used our Environmental Study as a guide in restoring and maintaining the façades of their buildings in the area.

 

Environmental Design Award

On 26th March 1999, the Seven Dials Renaissance Project was awarded an Environmental Design Award by the London Borough of Camden at its first year of awards. The assessors described the Project and Environmental Study was "An extraordinary piece of work which continues to set high standards for street improvements".

The Environmental Design Awards scheme credits projects which positively contribute to the local built environment through imaginative design.

The Renaissance Project was among 52 entries considered by an independent panel with different expertise, knowledge and experience. Assessment was undertaken through presentations, discussions and site visits. Seven projects received awards.

 


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