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.

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