Bankside Urban Forest: Walter Benjamin and City Making


  • Stephen Michael Witherford Witherford Watson Mann Architects Ltd



Walter Benjamin’s metaphor of his experiences of the city, specifically Paris, as a forest informs this review article in considering what conditions within the contemporary metropolis of London might reflect such an experience. Benjamin describes ‘losing oneself’ in the city as a skill that the wanderer can develop as opposed to simply getting lost. Through the direct experience of the studio, Witherford Watson Mann Architect’s proposals for the Bankside Urban Forest in south London is used as a means to explore the themes Benjamin opens up. Bankside’s ‘urban interior’ was a place we lost ourselves in the way Benjamin describes, becoming alert to a series of particular conditions that grow out of the area’s deep structure. By starting with what we encountered we developed a counter-intuitive framework for re-imagining the district’s public spaces and the life these could support. This raises the question of how we should intervene in city making within such districts. Benjamin’s metaphor challenges the conventional commercial models for developing our cities and suggests that other models need to be created.

Author Biography

Stephen Michael Witherford, Witherford Watson Mann Architects Ltd

Stephen Witherford is the founding director of Witherford Watson Mann Architects, with Christopher Watson and William Mann. The practice was established in 2001 and has focused on exploring the spatial and social relationships between public buildings, public spaces and public housing through a series of built designs, masterplans, urban frameworks, exhibitions and articles. The practice was awarded the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize for the construction of a contemporary house within the medieval ruins of Astley Castle. Stephen is a Trustee of Tate Gallery, a member of Tate Modern Council, the Mayor’s Design Advisory Group, and the British School at Rome Faculty of Fine Arts. He was a Visiting Fellow in Urban Design on the London School of Economics Cities Programme and continues to write and lecture on architecture and urbanism.


Louis Aragon. Paris Peasant (London: Pan Books, 1971).

Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, in One Way Street and Other Writings, (London: Verso, 1979).

Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Dalibor Vesely, ‘Between Architecture and the City’ in Phenomenologies of the City, ed. Henriette Steiner and Maximilian Sternberg (‎Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

Ken Worpole, ‘The Bankside Urban Forest’, Topos 61, Urban Space (2007).