Leave it to the same architecture firm that wants to replace one of the busiest London Underground lines with a moving walkway and erect shadow-reducing skyscrapers in the heart of the British capital city to come up with a new idea that’s smart, innovative and marvelously off-the-wall.

And while the latest conceptual offering from Seattle-headquartered NBBJ is exceedingly starry-eyed, it’s a festive and seasonally appropriate one that pays homage to a fascinating bit of real-life London history when times were simpler and the climes were, well, colder.

Called Frost Flowers, NBBJ’s (entirely speculative) concept envisions lily pad-esque floating ice rinks moored on a non-frozen River Thames that would "return the winter spirit to the capital."

Wait. Ice skating on the Thames?

NBBJ's Frost Flowers concept bring pop-up ice skating rinks to the normally not-frozen-over River Thames. (Rendering: NBBJ)

NBBJ describes how pop-up ice rinks on the tideway would quite literally pan on:

The scheme proposes retractable jetties that would unfurl into large circular discs. Submerged slightly below the water level, these pan-like objects would isolate a thin basin of water from the flow of the river and enable the water to naturally freeze.

Created from a simple foldaway structure, the project could be easily installed and adapted to multiple locations throughout London and potentially many other city rivers around the world.

And it’s worth noting that these metal structures with retractable jetties wouldn’t just host a public ice rink but a range of cold weather diversions including a winter market and art exhibitions.

Christian Coop, design director at NBBJ, goes on to explain: “In a dense, modern city such as London, the Thames provides a unique open vista where the history and origins of this great city can be viewed. New space is now desperately needed, and accordingly we looked to our heritage to find one possible solution.”

NBBJ's Frost Flowers concept bring pop-up ice skating rinks to the normally not-frozen-over River Thames. (Rendering: NBBJ)

Hedonism on ice

So when exactly in the city’s history did Londoner’s strap on skates and merrily glide to-and-fro across the Thames?

As it turns out, the Thames was converted into a glistening winter wonderland from the 17th century through the early 19th century when the bustling urban tideway played host to a not-to-regular series of so-called frost fairs.

Best described as rowdy, days-long wintertime hoedowns on ice, these frost fairs — the BBC calls the largely impromptu fetes a “cross between a Christmas market, circus and illegal rave” — directly inspired NBB's latest fanciful vision.

Centuries ago, in an era when northern Europe was gripped by an extended cold spell known as the Little Ice Age, the Thames flowed at a slower pace and winters were notably longer and more severe. During particularly brutal winters, sections of the Thames became so frozen over that Londoners clamored to the tideway to partake in a range of wintertime recreational activities … and to drink heavily.

The BBC notes that between the years 1309 and 1814, the Thames froze a total of 23 times. And during five of these particularly chilly winters (1683-1684, 1716, 1739-1740, 1789, 1814), the resulting ice was thick enough to host a frost fair.

During the frost fair of 1814, held between the London and Blackfriars Bridges, the ice was several feet thick, strong enough to hold an elephant. And indeed, a pachyderm (on loan from a zoo?) was reportedly paraded across the Thames.

A 1684 painting by Abraha Hondius depicting a frost fair held on the River ThamesA 1684 painting by Abraham Hondius depicts what's believed to be first of several frost fairs held on the River Thames. (Image: Public domain)

In addition to teetering elephants, ice-skating and an array of organized activities, food and drink was the main draw of 1814’s frost fair. Perhaps Londoners knew it would be the last time that the Thames would freeze over to such an extent and so they partied … and partied hard. Roast ox and mutton were consumed en masse and the booze, unlike the Thames, was free flowing.

Writes the BBC:

Tea, coffee and hot chocolate were on sale. But alcohol permeated the occasion. Ginger bread vendors sold cups of gin. A particularly strong gin was called Old Tom — records describe it as ‘incredibly ardent.’

There was Purl — a mix of gin and wormwood wine, similar to vermouth. It was drunk hot and ‘you'd get absolutely wrecked on it, [food historian Ivan] Day says. There was also a ‘very spiky’ beer called Mum infused with spices similar to a winter ale. The tents — made out of sails and propped up with oars — were called ‘fuddling tents’ for the ruinous effect of the strong liquor.

It all sounds like a sloppy mess although no deaths or large-scale incidents were reported by newspapers at the time. Previous frost fairs, however, were marred by tragedy, including tales of revelers falling through the ice.

"The Fair on the Thames" 1814 by Luke ClenellAs depicted in this painting by Luke Clenell, the frost fair of 1814 was filled with numerous games and activities. And a lot of heavy drinking. (Image: Public domain)

A changing riverscape ... and climate

Needless to say, the landscape surrounding the Thames along with the tideway itself have changed just a wee bit in the 200-odd years since since the final frost fair was held. Really changed — and it's still changing.

Works of infrastructure along including the Thames Embankment and a "new" London Bridge built in 1832 to replaced an old, medieval stone arch span dating back to the 12th century have altered the speed and movement of the tide as it flows through the city. Plus, the water itself is saltier than hundreds of years ago and, thus, has a lower freezing point. And as the planet continues to gradually warm, the chance for a frozen-over Thames seems incredibly nil from a meteorological standpoint.

"I'd be surprised if it froze again to the extent where we'd be able to allow large numbers of people on the Thames,” George Adamson, a historical climatologist at King’s College, explained to the BBC.

Also, people don't drink purl quite like they used to.

Described as “part of an ongoing exploration by NBBJ into city life and how it can be improved, adapted and potentially evolve,” NBBJ's Frost Flowers scheme is a far cry from the booze-fueled blowouts held once upon a time on the Thames.

Still, it’s a nifty bit of speculative design that, much like the Thames Bath Project that harkens back to the day when Londoners, gasp, swam in the tideway, imagines new possibilities not just along the banks of the iconic waterway but in it.

Via [Dezeen], [BBC]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.