Covent Garden; walking the porosity

photographed by author

Covent Garden; walking the porosity  
Mahsa Alami

“We, the people of London, now propose to decide for ourselves what sort of city we want to live in”-Anthony Crosland.

Almost 50 years ago, in 1972, the abovementioned sentence became one of the reasons why Covent Garden remains a space belonged to people today. Thanks to the attempts of Anthony Crosland, MP for Grimsby and the shadow Environment minister, the power was taken from the post-war development proposals, in sixties and seventies, which was about demolishing the market and replacing it with the running wave of modern construction. Demolishing the fruit and vegetable market, which was the main character of the market since 1830s, was equivalent to destruction of the unique identity of the market; where traders, tourists, and citizens were mixing together in one place. Finally, the fruit and vegetable market was removed to set up at Nine Elms, Vauxhall in 1974, and the Fowlers Central Market Building was restored from 1975-80 to accommodate a pub, retail shops and restaurants (CGAT, 2004). Today, the preserved unique historical identity of the market can be an example of what Sennett (2007) refers to the porosity of the place where there is no boundary between the physical form and social function in a way that from of the built environment enhances the sociability of its space. This essay depicts the unique character of the Covent Garden as a porous space through walking as ‘the interactive exploration and observation of the place on foot’ (Pierce and Lawhon, 2015). This methodology helps to enhance the observer’s sensibility towards the spontaneous reaction of people’s behavioural activities in a porous space. The behavioural activities, such as how people walk, the pace of their walking, the way they sit, talk, look or eat, which all somehow depend on how much democratic or restricted a space is. This essay therefore, is to answer the question of how physical form and social interaction are related.

Covent Garden aerial view (Google Map, 2018)

The Figure-Ground Map of Covent Garden, produced by author

The Map of Acceptability, produced by author
The Map of Uses, produced by author
Mapping the Stories, produced by author

Covent Garden, 19th May 2018, 3:00pm

The sun caresses  the Sleeping Man’s eyes. His eyelid resisting to open. Nothing really happens out there; just a jumble theatre scene of strangers mingling, passing or bumping into each other; a theatrum mundi. Bodies that ‘follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write’; seems they are individuating the city which planners intended to order logically (Certeau, 1984. p. 93). Back to 1630s, the Sleeping Man could witness an even larger scene of this theatrum mundi since the piazza –– designed by the royal architect Inigo Jones for Francis Russell (the 4th Earl of Bedford), alongside St. Paul’s Church and the arcades of portico walk around (Sheppard, 1970) –– was an open square for people, sellers and buyers (see figure 1). Becoming the site of London’s first square (Christie, 1974) its official character, as a fruit and vegetable market, was acquired thirty years later in 1670s by Charles II to become an everyday running market except Sundays and Christmas day (Baker, 2014). Consequently, ‘the stalls of market traders hawking fruit and vegetables gradually became an established feature of the square’ (CGAT, 2004).

Figure 1, A map of the parish of St. Paul Covent Garden shewing the site of Bedford House & grounds (1686). British Library
Today, Covent Garden area occupies almost 100 acres of Central London bounded between Strand, Charing Cross Road, Kingsway, High Holborn and Shaftesbury Avenue (Christie, 1974). The Covent Garden market offering an urban space for diverse activities and its character is entwined with the engagement of different people with each other or with the space itself. The functionality of its spaces including market, museum, Opera House, Church, café, restaurant, pub, luxurious brand shops, cheap and informal stalls, and entertainment programs frames the experience of the walking body or users into a dialectic relation between the subject, society and space (Morris, 2004) (see pictures below, photographs by author). 

An open public space in a semi-open physical form
photographed by author

photographed by author

Formal shops and informal stalls under one roof
photographed by author

photographed by author

Eating casually
photographed by author

photographed by author

Sitting everywhere
photographed by author

photographed by author

Performance and entertainment
photographed by author

photographed by author

Neighbouring luxurious clothing brands (e.g. Dior) and informal stalls
photographed by author

photographed by author

Individuating the space
photographed by author

photographed by author

‘All the times that I cried,
keeping all the things I knew inside,
It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it…’ ––The singer sings in Little Piazza

The singer, photographed by author

The Sleeping Man hears this song from a man playing guitar and singing in ‘Little Piazza’ (at the south east side of the market) while people showing their enjoyment by throwing a coin in the bag in front of him. The Sleeping Man opens his eyes but too sleepy of the 23 degree sun rays. Decided to close them again. On his right side, people going in and out of the continuous arcades of Bedford Chamber of the portico houses that bounded the piazza on its north and east sides and creating a passageway on ground level for walkers and users (CGAT, 2004). A baby popped a balloon near the Sleeping Man. He wakes up, looking around to find where he is exactly; a potpourri of colour, sound, smell, moving bodies, laid or seated, dancing or standing, men and women, kids and youth, dressed up or casual, drunk or sober, all in one glimpse appeared in front of his very eyes. The baby starts crying, the Sleeping Man looks at his screaming face as if he was the only reason he was awake now. It could not be the same story back to 1860s; his snoring would have been interrupted by boys who, as Charles Dickens wrote, “dart at any object they think they can lay their thieving hands on” (Jackson, 2014). Looking around to the buildings, he finds himself leaning on the painted decorative screen elements with rich dark green, of a ‘Victorian classical building of red brick with stone dressings’; the London Transport Museum (CGAT, 2004). Almost 150 years ago, in early 1870s, this Victorian classical building was added to the Fowler Market (the main market today) to house the flower traders who were operating in Fowler’s Market. Basket-women and the bouquet-girls could catch anyone’s attention on those days specially ‘loiterers who were their best customers’ (Thomson and Smith, 1877). Their job was inherited from previous generations of flower-women who were ‘beating’ in front of St Paul’s Church, on the West side of the piazza, even before the fire destroying the church in 1975 (Thomson and Smith, 1877) (Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Basket-women and the bouquet-girls in 1877 (from book: Street Life in London)
However back to eighteenth century, it was Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies which was the interest of late Georgian Londoners. ‘Names disguised by splashes of asterisks’ alongside the addresses, the prices they charged, and any special services they offered (Kennedy, 2015) were another reasons why Covent Garden was the target of many men who were looking for a joyful time. Faded in history, it is not the ‘Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies’ that attract people to this place today but the market’s identity as a particular space to experience the city. In this corner of the market, Little Piazza, the singer finishes his turn, swapping his place to the next one (Figure 3). ‘We all are registered in the Westminster Council first to be able to perform here, but after that there is no other regulation or queuing on who performs first, it depends on who arrive here first’, the singer said. Meanwhile, a French couple buys a CD of his songs and assuring him to come to Covent Garden only to see him on their next trip.

Figure 3.   Singers swapping their place, photographed by author 
The jumble scene of the theatre encourages the Sleeping Man’s eyes to drop off to sleep again, unaware of a four-year-old Painting Girl, Poppy, sitting on the grey granite kerbs of the pavements of the South Range, drawing some lines as ‘people’ on pieces of paper. He, the Sleeping Man could be also one of her targets (Figure 4, 5). Accompanied with her daddy, the Painting Girl skipped the sun under the shadow of the southern facade of the 1830 Charles Fowlers neoclassical structure; a building which was stunningly roofed in 1872 by 9th Duke of Bedford to ‘make it look like a busy Victorian railway station’ and to widen the space for traders (Hels, 2014). Like any other corners of the market, the architecture of the south and north facades of the Fowler Market also was shaped in a way to keep the ‘consistency of details and form’ (CGAT, 2004). A long colonnade of baseless Doric columns becomes a suitable passage either for passing through or sitting there. Coming from South London for her mom’s photography exhibition in India Club (in nearby Strand)’, the Painting Girl looks at the crowed to hunt a good scene of the day. The bodies are passing in front of her eyes; a man buying an ice-cream from the stall next to Jubilee Market –– seems he could not make his mind to walk or stay, finally he sits on the granite kerb in front of her and enjoying the comfort the ground offering him –– next to the singer a drunk man dancing hand in hand with his lady, a group of walkers covered their bodies with their favourite football team’s flags while singing their club song loudly. They came to the piazza from the narrow street called ‘Tavistock Court’, they could come from either Tavistock, or other thoroughfares: Exeter, Burleigh or Strand Street. They stayed for a moment, finished their song and continued walking. They walk on the pavement as if they are walking on the clouds; light and comfortable but unplanned; ‘the enunciative nature of walking as a practice with an unexpected and curious change of tack’ (Morris, 2004). The Painting Girl offers them a smile while turning her head towards the Tuttons Brasserie restaurant where two women and a man holding a sign of ‘FREE HUG’ in their hands, stimulating the empathy of the walkers by offering their arms to strangers (Figure 6).

Figure 4, photographed by author

Figure 5.   The Painting Girl, photographed by author

It seems their act intends to emerge the understanding of the challenges of contemporary city environment full of ‘others’. Many turns their way to engage, stop to take their photos or start chatting with them. Right next to them, the customers of the Tuttons Brasserie enjoying the shades of the restaurant blind and happy to not being disturbed by the taxis commuting into the Russel Street. Thanks to the ‘R1-Policy’ of the ‘Environmental Study’ of the Covent Garden Area Trust (CGAT), published in 1995, the access of vehicle to the market area was restricted in order to increase the pedestrian priority (CGAT, 2004). Since car could ride through the streets of the market area, reducing the traffic congestion became one of the reasons to transferring Covent Garden’s vegetable and fruit market to Battersea’s Nine Elms in 1960s. This act left the market with a strange emptiness after centuries of being the ‘singular, vibrant character of the area’ and prepared the circumstances for the Comprehensive Development Area plan of 1968 (Bransford, 2012). The scheme, which was prepared in two stages as: The Draft Plan: Covent Garden’s Moving (1968) and Covent Garden: The Next Step (1971), was to redevelop the area through a new road system (Bransford, 2012). It intended to ‘artificially divide Covent Garden into commercial strips’ (Bransford, 2012) through a tidy redevelopment plan. However the close-kint community of working class residents of the area and even non-residents formed the Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA), in 1971, in order to stop the destructive GLC Plan. The plan stopped through the non-stopping protests, leaflets and public representations, and the main historical character of the Covent Garden was preserved; the complexity of its space. The Painting Girl seems to be enjoying this complexity, drawing snakes instead of people (Figure 5). It seems her eyes sees the complexity of this space through the movements of bodies. 

Figure 6.  FREE HUG, photographed by author 
In fact the whole physicality of the market is about experiencing the complexity of its space ‘since the crossing, drifting away, or improvisation of walking privilege, transform or abandon spatial elements’ (Certeau, 1984. P, 98). What Morris (2004) believes is that the practice of place and space by passers-by and users transforms the place into space through their ‘turns’ and ‘detours’.

Under the roof of North Hall (built in 1872) of the restored Fowlers Central Market Building (1980) the alteration of spaces –– restaurant, shops, café, stalls of ‘Apple Market’ performance area, alongside the alteration of the physical form of the market itself provides a space for ‘other forms of walking’ (Morris, 2004). Fluctuating on the unicycle by the performer, the crowds that surrounding him, stand or seated, people who buy goods from the inside of expensive shops or from the stalls of Apple Market, or people standing in the queue, waiting for their food to be ready, taking the food and moving towards the restaurant central space in the middle of the North Range; all could refer to ‘other forms of walking’. In the performance area the Unicycle Man looks at the crowd from above, telling jokes or throw a funny word to entertain the audiences (Figure, 7). In a very small area the considerable number of strangers from around the world try to take a glimpse of the colourful ambiance of Covent Garden. From its earliest time of existence, the Fowler fruit and vegetable market (1830s) was ‘a colourful and vibrant public space where toffs from the West End rubbed shoulders with the costermongers and flower-girls’ (Ayto et al., 2005). Leaning on the grey pillar of the quadruple colonnade, where its flat roof offering an upper terrace, the Unicycle Man asks audiences to engage with him by throwing bowling pins from the ground. Laughing at his jokes or filming his moves, audiences get more excited every time he loses his balance intentionally, waiting to see what would be his next move. What becomes unique about the attribute of performance here is that it leads the transformation of the walking body’s singular relationship to the subjectivity of the space, into a dialectical relationship between the body and society (Morris, 2004). The crowd who surrounding the Unicycle Man, the walkers who join the crowd from every corner plus the audiences who enjoys their meal while watching the scene from within the central area’s restaurant, all are transforming the physical place to a dialectical social space. On the South Hall, again the scene has been repeated with a differentiation in the architecture of the building in a way that the restaurants and performing area are designed to be held at the basement level and audiences can be scattered either on the steps or terraces above. This design alongside its vibrant functionality, since cafés, restaurants, shops and performance area are located on basement, transforms the place into a particular space for sociability. A group of three musicians playing their instruments in front of the orderly and visually attractive scene of tables and chairs of the restaurants in basement, trying to attract more attention by dancing during their performance as well. The fourth person from this performer’s group, start walking with a hat in his hand from basement to terrace above, engaging with people and asking for any kind of generosity. The Opera Girl raises her voice to the end like she sings with her soprano voice; the audience gets excited, some shows their interests by filling the hat with a coin or a note, some applauding her cheerfully. The walkers who are still in the central, north and south ranges, and even those who are in the plaza, are tempted to come to the scene when they hear the crowd cheering loudly. This particular space of ‘the presence and movement of bodies’ (Crouch, 1998), of self and of others who participate and share the reason of their presence, dissolve into an identity which overwhelms any other image the Market may hold. Morris (2004) believes that the walking body becomes ‘a key barometer for assessing the multidimensionality and differentiation of events, their intensity, and uncertainty’. A walkable urban space emphasises on the actions, choices and ‘turns’ of the embodied walker who seems to act (for the most part) on a quite static urban territory (Morris, 2004; Certeau, 1984).
Through the technique of walking, or dispositioning the body, the formations of subjectivity within a particular urban context are articulated (Morris, 2004). This relation between body and subjectivity of the space make the legible order of planned city ambiguous (Certeau, 1984). A walkable urban space , like Covent Garden, makes the possibility of practising/experiencing the city for walkers.

Figure 7, the Unicycle Man, photographed by author
1. Fowler Market is a nineteenth century (1828-1830) building which was built in response to the rapid growth of commercial demand by the Sixth Duke of Bedford who obtained a private Act of Parliament for the reconstruction of the flower market (CGAT, 2004).  

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