A Day Out in London…

Last week three members of the Shipley Multi-Story Water team — Trevor Roberts, Lyze Dudley, and myself (Steve Bottoms) took a trip to London. Here’s the view from where we ended up having dinner that evening…

phone pics 462The Olympic Stadium has cranes up around it again as they’re still in the process of dismantling the top level of seating from events two years ago (in preparation for handing it over to West Ham F.C., who presumably won’t need so many seats…). Anyway, as this image suggests, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is surrounded by waterways – this bit being a navigable section of the River Lea…

phone pics 465The view above was taken from a floating restaurant platform that’s part of the Stour Space artists’ studios. Here’s some of the dinner party (left) including, in the foreground, Owain Jones – a geographer from Bath Spa University – who is the ‘principal investigator’ in the new 3-year, AHRC-funded project, “Towards Hydro-Citizenship”. We’re still not quite sure what hydro-citizenship is (or might be), but the point is that the MSW project in Shipley is now being continued as one of four UK-wide partner projects under the Hydro-Citizenship umbrella. In all four case study contexts, we’re exploring connections between communities, water, and the arts (and heritage), with a view to doing something useful…

phone pics 468The Lea Valley, which the Olympic Park lies towards the downstream end of (the Lea flows down from Hertfordshire and meets the Thames in east London) is one of the other case study areas… The other two are in Bristol and mid-Wales, so this blog might feature further ‘away day’ missives from time to time, when all the wider project’s team members collectively go to visit these other sites. But for now, what follows are a few personal reflections on the London site and how much it differs from Shipley. I was pleased to see, though, that some of the locals have a blunt line in graffiti wit that might go down well in Yorkshire. If you can make it out in the darkening image above, there’s the word “UGLY” painted on the waterside with a big arrow pointing at the Stadium…

phone pics 478This daytime shot shows a different but similar setting, with a restaurant on the right (west) bank looking towards the various stadia (the grey block to the left is the Copper Box Arena, which hosted such memorable events as handball, modern pentathlon and goalball during the 2012 games). What’s really striking is how the waterways function as borders for the whole site. So on one side of the water you have London’s east end, with lots of features you might expect to find in a post-industrial landscape (empty warehouses and factories, some now housing artists’ studios; run-down council housing, etc.), and on the other side of the water you have this spanking, shiny new artificial landscape of parkland and stadia. Here’s Trevor Roberts talking to Bristol-based arts consultant Iain Biggs, standing on the same bridge the shot above was taken from. Here we’re looking back at the Park…

phone pics 482This gives you an idea just how plastic-looking the new landscape is. One colleague described it as looking exactly like an architects’ computer plan for a green space, where they’ve just plonked identical avatars of bushes and trees onto a flat green background. And indeed that’s probably exactly what happened here: the park is a simulation of a computer model, rather than the other way around… It reminded me strongly of the cuddly astroturf home of the Teletubbies, only without the pleasingly rounded mound… (it’s flat flat flat, except where the ground slopes down to the waterways)

phone pics 476And perhaps the weirdest thing of all is how empty the whole place looks… I mean OK the shots above were taken early afternoon on a weekday, so lots of people were at work, but how often do you really see parks this empty? The place is like a kind of ghost town, a giant white elephant built at mind-bending expense to service a few weeks of sport two years ago, and now completely unsure of what its role is. Certainly there is little sense of it being embraced much by the communities lying just beyond its watery perimeters — in Tower Hamlets, Newham, Hackney… The whole place is like a giant corporate spaceship (complete with the inevitable mega-mall between Stratford tube station and the park itself), that has plonked itself down in the midst of some of London’s more deprived neighbourhoods. In fact Zaha Hadid’s swimming pool complex really does look like a spaceship (I kind of like the design of this one, actually!). Here are its insides, lit up at night like a forlorn ghost even as the Commonwealth Games were raging in Glasgow…

phone pics 473I really don’t envy the role of those people charged with making sense of the “legacy” of all this for east London. Nor do I particularly envy my colleagues working on the London case study for the Hydro-Citizenship project. How to engage local people with waterways that are mostly ill-maintained (full of duckweed that must be stifling whatever life there still is in the water), and that function as social barriers more than as community resources…? Admittedly, to some extent, that last comment is true of the waterways in Shipley too, but for all the sense of disconnectedness between different neighbourhoods in Shipley, the area as a whole at least makes a kind of sense. It’s a post-industrial landscape in which the local industrial heritage is genuinely valued (Saltaire being the most obvious evidence of this), and in which new developments have to respect that heritage and seek in some way to harmonise with it. And in which local people have persistently and famously fought against developments (such as new trunk roads) that were not in the town’s interests. Here in the east end of London, though, they’ve just razed whatever was there before and built this largely soulless mega-park, whether or not local people wanted it to begin with. How do you make sense of that? Maybe in time it will start to blend in with its surroundings a little more, but it looks like that might take a while…

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