Velonotte London

In late June, a swarm of cyclists set out to explore the narrow, dirty streets of the north-east part of the British capital, in a one-night event during the London Festival of Architecture.

It is night-time at the end of June in the East End of London. There is a flurry of light, incessant rain, and bolts of lightning strike the desolate covered market of Spitalfields. All of a sudden this spectral setting is filled with dozens of figures, pedalling across the asphalt to gather in a noisy, crowded group.

They are the participants in the recent Velonotte , a nocturnal tour by bicycle around some of the world's most captivating cities. This time, to coincide with the London Festival of Architecture (LFA), the cyclist-explorers have decided to cross the narrow, dirty streets of the north-east part of the British capital, following the tracks laid out by canals, skirting round the Olympic area and then south to the gates of the Thames.

Velonotte is the brainchild of Sergey Nikitin, a thirty-four year old professor of Architectural History in Moscow who was educated through a series of long study tours around Europe, including the Historical Archives, in Rome, where he lived during his doctorate. In 1997 he set up the Moskultprog association, also known as the "theatre of urban research", organising walks around the major Russian cities. "This became the basis for the Velonotte tours" recounts Nikitin. "together with some interested friends, we organised the first night tour by bike in Moscow in 2007. There were only a few of us but we grew quickly". Actually, Nikitin himself has made the project grow: he convinced first local sponsors, then international sponsors, and called on prominent architects and historians: Velonotte Moscow is now into its fifth edition and has been exported to St Petersburg, as well as Rome.
Scenes from <em>Velonotte</em> London, June 2012
Scenes from Velonotte London, June 2012
The London edition is based on a dialogue with various experts in the field of architectural history, each of whom recorded an audio contribution dedicated to a street, a monument, or a particular part of the city. The cyclists arrive equipped with portable radios. At the stroke of midnight Nikitin, who leads the expedition, announces in a loud voice: "everyone's here, we can begin the tale". And the swarm of cyclists tune it in unison to Resonance FM, where presenter Jack Thurston starts chatting with historian John Marriott about the complex relationship between the East End and the word "poverty", while architect Richard Rogers remembers the atmosphere of the 1950s, the numerous good and cheap Jewish restaurants, saying things like: "those days when the word spaghetti was unknown in Britain" and "before the 1990s London seemed like a city from the Soviet block".
At the stroke of midnight Nikitin, who leads the expedition, announces in a loud voice: "everyone's here, we can begin the tale"
At the stroke of midnight Nikitin, who leads the expedition, announces in a loud voice: "everyone's here, we can begin the tale"
We get to Curtain Road, learning about the remains of the theatre where Shakespeare made his debut, and just near Hoxton Square, a place of gentrification — or rather drinkification —, with historian Will Palin calling for greater protection of the area. It is here that Muscovite art critic Valentin Diakonov tells us about the concept that drives the White Cube Gallery , a key location in the world of contemporary art.

At the dead of night we cross Hackney Road and enter the small and pretty Temple Street, to encounter the modernist elegance of Keeling House by Denys Lasdun, restored not long ago and illuminated for the occasion with multicoloured LEDs by iGuzzini, one of the sponsors.

Not everything goes smoothly. Peter Murray, founder of the LFA tells us "the works around the Olympic site have made it very difficult to find a decent itinerary for crossing Stratford. Worse still, a couple of days before the trip we discovered that one of the cycle routes had been closed for 'security reasons'" Then there is the rain, that becomes almost unbearable: many at the back of the group give up and turn back. Others are simply lost track of.
The London edition is based on a dialogue with various experts in the field of architectural history, each of whom recorded an audio contribution dedicated to a street, a monument, or a particular part of the city
The swarm of cyclists tune it in unison to Resonance FM, where presenter Jack Thurston starts chatting with historian John Marriott about the complex relationship between the East End and the word "poverty"
The swarm of cyclists tune it in unison to Resonance FM, where presenter Jack Thurston starts chatting with historian John Marriott about the complex relationship between the East End and the word "poverty"
Four hours after the start, having taken in Bethnal Green and its tortuous history, the London of the Bolsheviks, Victoria Park, the Olympic site and Chrisp Street Market, and we arrive at the final destination: the towers of Canary Wharf. Luckily the picnic has been set up in the dry, beneath the fascinating glass structure of the East Wintergarden. Welcoming us is violinist Nic Pendlebury with the archi Trinity Laban orchestra. At four o'clock in the morning, the first light of dawn filters through the glass of the ceiling: the orchestra and audience look at one another, enchanted and exhausted.
Architect Richard Rogers remembers the atmosphere of the 1950s, the numerous good and cheap Jewish restaurants, saying things like: "those days when the word <em>spaghetti</em> was unknown in Britain" and "before the 1990s London seemed like a city from the Soviet block"
Architect Richard Rogers remembers the atmosphere of the 1950s, the numerous good and cheap Jewish restaurants, saying things like: "those days when the word spaghetti was unknown in Britain" and "before the 1990s London seemed like a city from the Soviet block"
The rain has nearly stopped and it is time to go home. Xenia Adjoubei, one of the architects who has taken part in the initiative comments: "Velonotte invites people to see the city they see everday in a different light, bringing out those stories and tales that you thought you knew but could never have remembered".

There are plans to publish a guide to the East End with contributions from various authors — including Peter Ackroyd, Ricky Burdett, Clive Dutton, Kathryn Firth, Linda Hirst, Tom Holbrook — in an extended and multi-lingual version. And that's not all. Velonotte New York is planned for 1 October, with Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Jean-Louis Cohen acting as guides to the architecture of Manhattan. Paolo Mossetti
Scenes from <em>Velonotte</em> London, June 2012
Scenes from Velonotte London, June 2012
Scenes from <em>Velonotte</em> London, June 2012
Scenes from Velonotte London, June 2012
Inside the towers of Canary Wharf, a picnic has been set up in the dry, beneath the fascinating glass structure of the East Wintergarden
Inside the towers of Canary Wharf, a picnic has been set up in the dry, beneath the fascinating glass structure of the East Wintergarden
Welcoming the cyclists is violinist Nic Pendlebury with the archi Trinity Laban orchestra
Welcoming the cyclists is violinist Nic Pendlebury with the archi Trinity Laban orchestra
<em>Velonotte</em> London organizer Sergey Nikitin, a thirty-four year old professor of Architectural History in Moscow
Velonotte London organizer Sergey Nikitin, a thirty-four year old professor of Architectural History in Moscow

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