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.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Between the showers

I nipped out to post a letter – yes, crazy old man, I still write (or type, my handwriting is so bad) letters and use stamps.

It was a day of low grey to charcoal skies and sudden clear blue horizons and streaming window panes glinting with beads of rain.

Battlefield lay across the street. Suddenly it looks fantastic. It is as if the trees have suddenly broken free and stand taller than I have ever seen them.

After the rain.

I went for a stroll and took a few photographs. Beside the old paint factory site I heard warblers calling. Garden Warblers? I shall have to check. Very musical in a limited way. Then Chiff Chaffs, another woodland species. People came and went and only one cyclist tried to break the land speed record.

Footpath no more?

The old footpath down to Shieldfield Lane is still blocked. Will it be re-instated? It would serve students in the new halls of residences with a short cut to their nearest Post Office and off licence.

Wood or Garden Warblers?

I began this blog to try to place on record something of a counter weight to the storyline being pumped out by the Council and prospective privatisers of open space* that this was a 'threatening place' rather than a resource and green lung for a city, an important link in a chain of green spaces leading from the distant Green Belt through the city to the banks of the Tyne. Despite the threats, the reality is the ground beneath is infill and so cannot accept the kind of developments some hoped to put in place. The original threat was to build offices over the former paint factory site and use the green space as a car park for – wait for it – thirteen hundred cars. Tarmac to replace grass.

Though I deplored the tree felling that preceded it, the creation of the cycle way does I think remove many threats, though some remain. I felt the tree felling went too far and the subsequent re-planting too small in scope. Ten years seem to have been a long time in this transformation. I think it safe to say a new way of looking at the environment and the growth of green awareness have played a part. The 'big business is good' way of doing things has left people cold, thankfully.

The space is well used. It could be more so, particularly as a venue for large out door events in summer. Joggers and dog walkers (mostly very responsible), parents with small children and just strollers going to the shops, use the space well. A friend pointed out how some land could be used to create a green way down to the Lower Ouseburn behind the old paint factory, ducking beneath the bridges to Stepney Bank. Combined with another cycle route, this has much to offer. In the last decade much has happened in Lower Ouseburn and the creation of a 'student city' around Portland Road would seem to suggest a synergy might be easily made.

Meanwhile the trees thrive, the migrant birds are here for summer and the days are long.

Slideshow here. (Off site link)

* The space I call Battlefield is not official designated as 'Open Space'. It could, following recent legislation passed by the previous Coalition government, be sold off in whole or in part. It might be possible to build on parts of the site, though much was created by infilling part of the Lower Ouseburn dene by an equally short sighted Council in the 19th century.