Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Dead Zone

I heard the siren and reached for my wallet. I was surprised they'd taken so long: I'd been walking along the pavement by the Athletes' Village construction site (above) with a camera round my neck for almost ten minutes. By the time the four police officers emerged from their vehicle I had a smile on my face and a press card in my hand. They were very polite, looked at the card, took my name, and drove off.

There are still four months to go before the Olympics come to town, but the area that stretches from the edges of newly fashionable Hackney Wick across to the rebranded Stratford City is already sterile.

It will be a long time before autonomous human activity is possible here. For now, the general public figure only as a security issue, or customers. It's rather like a giant airport, without the planes. Everywhere there are barriers, fences, and security guards in high-vis jackets. When the circus finally comes to town it will get worse. Drones, battleships and ground-to-air missiles have been promised.

From the Greenway, the well-used public footpath that runs along its southern edge, the out-of-bounds Olympic Park is underwhelming. Through wire mesh screens, even the supposedly iconic ArcelorMittal Orbit (below), by the usually wonderful Anish Kapoor, looks a mess, the sculpture's name itself a reminder of the dead hand of corporate capital that underpins the whole enterprise.

Sprawling around the north-east of the park the concrete towers of the 'Village', now jointly owned by the Qatari royal family and private UK investment company Delancey, are nearing completion. Overlooking the site from Stratford High Street is a 43 storey tower draped in huge banners advertising construction company Ardmore and Genesis Housing Association. And the self-styled 'Gateway to the Games' is Westfield Stratford City, the largest shopping centre in Europe.

If I were an athlete, focussed single-mindedly on the culmination of four years hard work, none of this would matter. But I'm not. I don't like starring on someone else's CCTV screen. I don't like being treated like a profit centre on legs. And I hate airports. There must be a better way to run a sports tournament.

More photos here

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Something is Happening Here

Anyone taking a stroll around the area to the east of London's Old Street roundabout for the first time might well start feeling like Bob Dylan's Mr Jones: you know that something is happening here, but you don't know what it is.

From high up on gable ends, right down to pavement level, sprayed onto walls, doors, shutters – flat surfaces of any kind – a painted army of the grotesque and the bizarre marches across the built environment. The buildings themselves are a contrasting mix of Victorian dereliction and the smartly modern. In between crumbling onetime industrial premises, recently converted factories and warehouses now host offices and apartments whose occupants are served by a growing number of minimalist galleries, fashionable bars, and Macbook-infested coffee shops.

The demographic is mostly young – twenty to thirtysomething – techy, tapered jeans and T shirts, some strange haircuts. The place is buzzing. Builders' cranes break up the skyline. The massive new concrete viaduct of the East London Line sweeps over road junctions and vacant lots. It doesn't feel like the recession has reached these parts, despite its proximity to Threadneedle Street.

But what's driving all this is not visible from the street. Hidden away in the new workspaces are between 300 and 600 tech 'start-ups' (estimates vary), some already pulling in big money, others hoping to justify the faith of their venture capital investors. People call this 'Silicon Roundabout'. The government prefers 'Tech City', but either way it's clearly thriving - the closest thing we've got to an economic success story.

Of course, economic crisis and government-induced austerity are not far away. Rough sleepers and rougher drinkers still hang out in the subways leading out of Old Street tube (it has free public toilets, an important facility for the homeless); at lunchtime, beggars sit on the ground by sandwich bars and cash machines. Not everyone is an IT entrepreneur: there are car washers and security guards, bar workers and shop assistants - and the occasional older resident or passer-by who may have lived there all their lives, but look about them as though they have strayed inadvertently onto another planet.

Why here? Immediately to the south, the steel and glass towers along Bishopsgate appear to be creeping relentlessly northwards; to the east, Stratford City is being sterilised in preparation for the Olympics. But for the moment rents are relatively cheap, and this, together with what Wired has described as 'a critical mass of available programming talent, and just enough outside investment', has combined to produce a place that actually makes stuff.

This is what unplanned regeneration looks like. It's not consumption-led, like Westfield's mega-mall in Stratford, or reliant on ever-inflating property prices, like the speculative scorched earth schemes favoured elsewhere in the capital (Hammersmith & Fulham's proposals for Earls Court, for instance). It's organic, a by-product of a new industrial revolution. There are still boarded-up buildings, makeshift conversions, and scrappy rubble-strewn corners, but it's a lot more interesting than the monolithic conceits of top-down re-development. And even if Mr Jones doesn't know exactly what it is, it's definitely not Desolation Row.

More photos here.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Consultation, Hammersmith & Fulham Style

Residents of West Kensington and Gibbs Green Estates were last night turned away from a consultation meeting called to discuss proposals to sell their estates to a private developer and demolish them. Hammersmith and Fulham council officers refused to address the residents as a group, insisting they queue outside a small side room to be seen individually.

The council wants to knock down 760 homes to make way for a grand Earls Court redevelopment scheme. The Residents' Associations are totally opposed, and plan to use forthcoming legislation to take over the estates and run them as a resident-controlled mutual.

The meeting – held at a local Holiday Inn - appeared to be an attempt at divide and rule tactics, but many more residents turned up than could be dealt with one at a time. A letter of objection was handed over, and most left without speaking to anyone other than their neighbours.

More information is available on Dave Hill's London Blog.