Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Erasing the past

I recently visited the Olympic Park at Stratford, London.

Our attempts to reach the Park via the canal towpath ended in barriers. Instead we had to negotiate the last few hundred yards on foot past Olympic investment opportunistic apartment buildings. The canal lock and neat cottage was the only certainly pre-2012 feature we saw.

Still used.

Our first definite sighting of the Park was this imposing structure from the distant road where we left the bus.

The ArcelorMittal Orbit by Sir Anish Kapoor

Apart from Kapoor's mangled tower – as if someone had tried to turn the Eiffel Tower into V. Tatlin's 'Monument to the 3rd International' ...

Vladimir Tatlin's Tower

... the rest of the vast space that lay in baking sunlight in front of us was pure corporate entertainment unscape; a scene devoid of history. All previous occupation of the site, whether it be distant Anglo Saxon's hunting the banks of the Lea, medieval eel fishers, Cockney kids out swimming, railway history, – any history at all – was no where to be seen. The site was as blank as a piece of A4 paper.

Zaha Hadid's fine London Aquatic Centre stood up to scrutiny; on an horizon dominated by the frankly mediocre 'cake tin' architecture of modern edge-of-town retail parks, it had a lovely sense of scale and grace; even slightly inscrutable.

The London Aquatic Centre by Zaha Hadid

I somehow doubt Hadid can be faulted for the coloured pencils along the canalised River; it helped that a Sedge Warbler was scratching out it's tuneless song from the emergent reeds in the foreground. The sound of something unplanned, adventitious and promising that in due time this otherwise soul less place might acquire a life.

Within three days we were mooching around an entirely different re-claimed site over looking the Tyne at Dunston. The contrast illustrated something important.

Obviously the organisers of the London Olympics had to deal with a range of problems and issues that far, far exceed those that Gateshead has in re-inventing the Dunston Staithes. No meaningful comparison is to be made I will grant. Yet, in their different ways these two examples express something about the way re-development could embrace history rather than banish it. In accepting the story of the past in what remains, the depth of our understanding of place is held in mind for the future.

Dunston Staithes

A housing development overlooking the river and the Staithes is a truly uplifting example of how old industrial land can be re-developed and enhanced by built history.

Dunston Staithes slideshow (off site link)

If you visit Dunston Staithes do try the Staithes Café. Recommended.

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