The uniquely international city stays fresh by continually reinventing itself.
BY SOPHY GRIMSHAW
April 15, 2016
[To view an interactive map version of the London guide click here.]
Unorthodox architecture continues to dramatically reshape London’s silhouette. Ask anyone to draw an iconic London skyline and, aside from Big Ben and St Paul’s, most of the buildings they’d choose weren’t here 15 years ago: Gherkin, Shard, Cheesegrater, Walkie-Talkie, and, coming soon, Can of Ham. (Together they’d make one hell of a picnic.) It’s hard to think of another old occidental metropolis of which the same could be said. But London has its own rhythms; time passes more quickly here.
Much of that has to do with how it fits into the global conversation. London is not just one of the most global cities, but one of the best integrated, and, on a good day, it feels as though the contents of this particular melting pot have long since melted.
The geography works both ways, of course. Like a lot of locals, I moved here upon graduating and planned to stay a year or two, but one of the things that has kept me here for more than a decade is, ironically, the fact that it’s so easy to leave. Londoners attend the art fairs, film festivals, and sporting events of cities around the world. We fall in love with their citizens; eat in their restaurants; sleep in their hotels then bring it all back home.
The food scene, once a punch line for snickering denizens of European culinary capitals, is now a vanguard of food trends. It’s also internationally tinged, whether Indian or Japanese, Ethiopian or Afghani. One of the most lauded new restaurants in Soho right now specializes in a particular type of Sri Lankan pancake, while Marylebone boasts a well-established Icelandic burger bar.
The world’s influence is being felt in other realms in Blighty as well. Artists and makers who left for the floor space of Berlin or Leipzig reliably return to exhibit and sell here throughout the year, and October’s Frieze remains one of the most influential fairs on the culture calendar. Ultimately, no subset is too niche to be sustained. The city’s Polish film festival is in its 14th year.
Yes, rising rents are pushing residents even further out on the city’s periphery; but the result is the emergence of new pockets of energy. In the East, Stoke Newington now has a shopping stretch for your organic hand soap and Fjallraven backpack needs. One of the best pop-up bars of the summer each year is above a multi-story car park in South London’s Peckham. We’re not always sure where that leaves us at any given moment, or what the skyline sketch will look like in 50 years. But you can’t shake the feeling that, whatever the future holds, it will happen here first.
London’s cultural ambition becomes more pronounced with every shock wave–inducing project that ripples through the art world. Debuting this summer, Herzog & de Meuron’s asymmetrical pyramid-like extension of Bankside’s Tate Modernsits atop The Tanks, the world’s only permanent space for performing arts within a public gallery. The new exhibition spaces will have a more international focus, including “Artist Rooms,” which kicks off with the dark genius—and oversize spiders—of Louise Bourgeois. This is the year that the Design Museum finally relocates to its glittering new home, the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park. Architect John Pawson retrofitted the 1960s building with a library and galleries for temporary and permanent installations over five soaring floors, while keeping the hyperbolic paraboloid roof. The original location inside a converted Shad Thames banana warehouse is putting on shows such as “Cycle Revolution,” a look at the future of bicycle design, until June 30. Other stalwarts are as big a draw as ever. Housed in a neoclassical building between The Shard and River Thames, Somerset House continues to put on lofty shows like “Utopia 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility,” a showcase for idealistic multi-media programming that runs through December. It’s no secret that the evening openings at Hauser & Wirth are magnets for famous faces. Now one has joined its ranks: Princess Eugenie recently left New York’s online auction house Paddle8 to become the new associate director. Meanwhile, some notable newcomers have elevated the gallery scene. Damien Hirst’s first artistic venue, Newport Street Gallery, features a shop that stocks housewares and jewelry from up-and-coming artists such as Rachel Howard. The fantastical pharmacy-inspired restaurant, helmed by celebrated chef Mark Hix, is done up in etched glass windows depicting DNA strands. For the city’s third satellite of Gagosian Gallery, this one in Mayfair, designer Caruso St. John fitted the airy rooms with custom lighting and European oak flooring. Well-regarded transplants are setting down roots, too: The first London outpost of the Florentine Tornabuoni Art, led by the founder’s daughter Ursula Casamonti, is an ode to 1950s and ’60s Italian masters.
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Sure, chintzy décor touches, antique furniture, and white-glove service still attract visitors looking for classic British eccentricity. (The best in category is Rosewood London, designer Tony Chi’s masterful interpretation of Edwardian luxury.) But the energy these days emanates from the new arrivals pushing a modern design ideology and redrawing the travel map to uncharted enclaves. On the Thames’ South Bank, designer Tom Dixon’s Design Research Studio is behind the 315-room Mondrian London at Sea Containers, formerly a shipping company headquarters. The lobby’s curved copper wall resembles the hull of a ship, while chef Seamus Mullen and barman Ryan Chetiyawardana’s concepts are a throwback to midcentury cruise liners with moody lighting and Art Deco-inspired banquettes. Further east, another Dixon project, Shoreditch House, kicked off a wave of development in the now-booming neighborhood when it opened in 2007. (The 26 rooms, situated in a refurbished pub, were added in 2010). It’s since been joined by the Ace Hotel Shoreditch where the 258 cork-ceilinged abodes by Universal Design Studio come outfitted with magnetic shelving by T Nevill & Co., Martin guitars, and daybeds sleeved in reverse-denim upholstery. Comprising a row of stucco Victorian townhouses in West London, The Laslett Notting Hill tapped architect Tom Bartlett of Waldo Works to refresh the interiors while maintaining a residential feel. The 51 rooms are appointed with shop-able artwork and furniture from leading British-made brands like Pinch. But Ian Schrager’s London Edition, in Fitzrovia, is still the gold standard of hotel style. Yabu Pushelberg preserved landmark stained-glass windows and put Salvador Dalí-inspired lamps in the lobby, which leads to the fumed-oak Punch Room in the back.
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East London has arguably stolen Soho’s crown as London’s premiere nightlife neighborhood. Try the appointment-only Lounge Bohemia, a well-hidden basement bar with midcentury Czech furniture and a “no ties” dress code to scare off the bankers. Bartender Tony Conigliaro’s avant-garde cocktails—which he invents in a private lab upstairs—can be found on menus at restaurants like Grain Store, but for the unadulterated experience head to his 69 Colebrooke Row in Islington; the 1950s film noir vibe conceived by Allies Design is punctuated with an onsite pianist. Giles Reid Architects’ simple izakaya-style interior—candy-pastel ceramics, sycamore wood, stools by Norwegian designer Hallgeir Homstvedt—lets chef Brett Redman’s yakitori dishes shine at Dalston’s just opened Jidori. While the East End has more activity, Central still brings out the star power. At German Gymnasium, a restored 19th century gym and European-style café in Kings Cross, interior design firm Conran + Partners interwove original touches such as climbing hooks and cast steel columns with contemporary elements like orb-shaped lighting fixtures and muted-pink Daphne Lounge Chairs. If there’s a grand master of local hospitality design right now, it’s Martin Brudnizki, who’s behind two of the hottest tables currently: The Ivy Kensington Brasserie, whose swarming pewter-top bar calls to mind the 1990s heyday of its sister restaurant that was often called Kate Moss’s second living room; and the unabashedly high-octane Japanese spot Sexy Fish, where the décor is as outlandish as the name, from Frank Gehry’s glossy 13-foot crocodile and Fish Lamps to the rarefied art collection, including a ceiling mural by Michael Roberts.
Concept has superseded location as the prime ingredient for a crop of new boutique openings. In Mayfair’s emerging arts district, the first stand-alone venture from experimental fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, who famously encased Lady Gaga in an egg-like pod for the Grammys in 2011, is the work of ZCD Architects. The minimalist aesthetic is disrupted with a rowboat-shaped display counter and a lacquered cashier’s desk emblazoned with a running digital timer. Nearby, Montrealborn fashion designer Erdem Moralioglu’s brick-and-mortar debut has the feel of sophisticated flat thanks to architect Philip Joseph. Harlequin-patterned marble floors line a multi-level shop that’s ornamented with exotic plants and Jean Cocteau drawings from Moralioglu’s personal collection, with plenty of living space for his signature floral print dresses to breathe. The biggest news on the luxury fashion front is the relocation of Japanese brand Comme des Garçons’ Dover Street Marketfrom Mayfair to central London’s Haymarket. The 35,000-squarefoot building, built in 1911 by the architect Walter Cave, has an impressive roster of tenants including the French cosmetic brand Buly. There may not be another design store in town that can touch the creative quarter’s new Clerkenwell London. Creative director Gayle Noonan and curator Tatjana von Stein’s hand-picked furniture pieces are sourced from British makers like Found Objects; there’s also an onsite perfumery, wine library, and retro vinyl lounge. In Dalston, the multifaceted LN-CC recently received a facelift from designer Gary Card. Expect a futuristic monochrome layout with the ambient glow of LED lights—a primer for the attached club that’s equipped with a high-tech Koda sound system.