Twenty-three years after moving to the city from her native France, Camille Walala is a Londoner through and through. But recently, as her career has seen her spending more time abroad (she’s unveiled architecture and public art projects in her Memphis-inspired style everywhere from America to Tanzania), she says the borders of her home have contracted significantly.
“For the last few years, I haven’t really enjoyed London that much. It’s been a lot of working [in my Hackney studio] and then travelling abroad for work. When I do come back to London, a friend asks me to go to dinner and I’m like ‘Oh, I don’t want to go further than Hackney. I can’t be bothered’,” she explains, fittingly, from her studio in Hackney.
But when the UK went into lockdown in March and borders closed around the world, she says her view of the city began to expand. With international projects and travel all but off the table, she found herself spending the sunny days cycling the empty streets of central London with her partner. “I wanted to see how the city looks when there are actually no shops open and no consumerism, and to just appreciate the architecture. I had so much time to see and to appreciate the details of the city… It was like revisiting London as a tourist,” she says.
She remembers the day she spent following the brick-red road that connects Admiralty Arch to Buckingham Palace and picnicking in St. James Park. But what she marvelled at most was the eerie emptiness of nearby Oxford Circus, devoid of shoppers and traffic. “You could hear the birds in the park, and you could just zig-zag in the street with your bike, which was pretty amazing. It was really nice to see the potential of the place if it were to be less car- and consumerism-driven.”
The experience inspired her most recent project: a speculative proposal for a pedestrianised Oxford Circus, where oversized fountains, flower-covered benches and planted pots – all in her signature colourful, geometric style – replacing traffic in the city’s busiest high street. “What if there were spaces and structures that people could interact with however they liked?” she asked in a letter accompanying the renderings. “What if Oxford Street made you happy?”
In a particularly pandemic-friendly move, Walala and her collaborators at the digital product visualisation studio Omni Visual have made the images available through an augmented reality app, allowing viewers to project the fantasy Oxford Circus into their own living space.
The series is just the latest in what has been one of her most London-centric years to date. Since the start of lockdown, she’s repainted a stretch of eight buildings on Leyton High Street, in East London; unveiled a new mural at the Rich Mix cultural centre in Shoreditch; transformed Canary Wharf’s Adams Plaza Bridge, and created seven murals and a particularly dazzling zebra crossing in West London.
Looking toward 2021, Walala says she’s keen to increase the size of her London footprint but would like to shift her focus from corporate commissions to more community-driven initiatives.
“I’ve done quite a bit of charity work during lockdown, and realised a lot of people – kids especially where I am – don’t really have any access to art, so I think I want to find ways that I can give back to communities,” she says. “I think it’s been really nice to have a successful career, but now I think it’s time to use that for a good cause.”