An overhead CGI rendering of Strand East situated in London. To the north is Olympic Park. All images courtesy LandProp.
IKEA's building a neighborhood. I recently read up on The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders's visit to the site, dubbed Strand East, which will be managed by the property development arm of Inter IKEA Group.
The designs, available in an interactive web site, will be implemented in a stretch of property in east London and span some 26 acres, with 1,200 homes and apartments for families and dwellers of different sizes and incomes, as well as office and commercial spaces and a school.
A view of Dane's Yard and the Northern Quarter, the planned creative zone.
Indeed, Strand East's recent press release [PDF] points to five types of quarters, from a creative one in the northeast to a commercial one in the north. At the south, "The Hub" will serve as the primary social space, with a public square, a community building and cafes and bars. The residential area will pay homage to London's urban character, with "mews" and back alleys for privacy, and townhouses for larger families. With an eye towards sustainability and community, some areas will be designated solely for walking, and clean energy strategies are promised.
Of course, privately-owned and -operated public spaces are not new. LA's Grove and Kansas City's Power and Light District have all the trappings of public space, albeit one that is highly branded and managed. A recent article in Design Observer looked at the Downtown Project, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's plan to revitalize Las Vegas and spur innovation.
But there's something different about IKEA's proposals that captures the imagination. Perhaps because we already have a schema of what life in an IKEA neighborhood would be like. Yes, we have a vague idea the creative energy and behind-the-scenes logistics of selling shoes online, or at least we think so.
But almost all of us have stepped inside an IKEA world, and we know what it's like to be lost in the seductive maze of tasteful, affordable design. And it's a distinct shopping experience, one captured and parodied so well in Fight Club. I remember my first shopping experience in the Beijing version. After a hectic few days navigating the streets and open air markets, I was stunned by the orderly precision of the experience. People even hang out there, using the cafeteria as a place to socialize and find dates. Remarkably, IKEA in bustling Beijing was almost the same experience as IKEA in suburban New Jersey (though the newness of the former meant patrons were taking pictures like tourists)—the design elicits a certain way of shopping and occupying the space.
I'm most drawn to how LandProp, the branch Inter IKEA managing the new neighborhood, is positioning their vision of the experience: "As the new kid in town, we want to fit in with the rest of London. But we're not just building another 'development'—this is about creating a neighbourhood. A place alive with the hustle and bustle of residents, retailers and local business people alike."
Here's some of what Doug Saunders said of his experience speaking with the organizers:
Ikea's builders say they're not interested in a Disney-style kind of an animatronic spectacle. Rather, they're seeding Strand East with evocations of spontaneous urban life in hopes that it will become spontaneous urban life; they say they'd be happy to see it shift and evolve to suit market conditions. It's not clear, though, how this desire will coexist with Ikea's desire to keep the place under its control.
Anyone with money can create roads and buildings, but IKEA's ambitions are clearly higher. It seems they want to create not just a neighborhood but a community where none existed before. Free and evolving but well-managed and orderly. That's a tall order but certainly worth watching.