Braving the inclement weather that beset East London on the Saturday afternoon, this (mostly open-air) tour provided an interesting insight into a part of London that Neil Smith might refer to as being on the Urban Frontier.
Our 15-strong group arrived at Hackney Wick Overground station to be met by our tour guides; Esther Everett and Ian Freshwater. Esther originally trained as an architect and now works for the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). Ian has been based at LB Hackney. Over the next 90 minutes, we were treated to a potted history of the area, a walking tour and successive ducking-ins to new buildings, ostensibly as part of the visit but also because it was extremely cold!
Hackney Wick and Fish Island together represent a distinctive corner of east London. The area has a long legacy of industry; enterprises considered to noxious to take place in London proper (such as gunpowder manufacturing) were historically located here, with the River Lea proving a reliable source of water. To the west is the bucolic expanse of Victoria Park, but this is comprehensively severed by the six lanes of the East Cross Route. To the east is the Olympic Park, forming, at present, an impenetrable barrier of fences, vehicle barriers and barbed wire. These will be removed in the near future, with the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
Hackney Wick has been a home to artists for many decades, drawn by the cheap rents, adaptable buildings (with large windows) and the presence of artists who are already established there. These exist alongside other industries, both established and incoming, as well as temporary uses, such as a skate park built on a vacant site. Murals can be seen almost everywhere. The nature of Hackney Wick is changing, owing to the presence of the Olympic Park to its east, the re-opening of connections through to Stratford and the area’s increasing profile as cool and creative. The role of the LLDC here is to ensure that the area is able to accommodate change, while not losing sight of what makes the area tick in the first place. Major public realm improvements are proposed, including the opening up of a new north-south route through route beneath Hackney Wick Station.
As well as scores of bicycles – cycling is very popular here – the area is characterised by its many canals. Ian and Esther led us along the towpath of the Hackney Cut, which forms part of the River Lee Navigation. We stopped off at The White Building, a former print warehouse that, after years of abandonment and dereliction, had been spruced up and a delightfully cavernous ground floor bar and restaurant created, with a series of art spaces rentable on the upper floors. The place had a warm bustle to it and, as beautiful arty-looking people came in and out of the distinctive front door, it was hard to imagine how the derelict shell must have felt beforehand. The White Building had only opened recently (spring 2012), yet seemed already to be firmly established as a stylish place to drop into for a beer.
We carried on, crossing the Hertford Union Canal on a distinctive cable stayed bridge, onto Fish Island, where all the street names are piscine. Continuing along Roach Road we ducked into another canal side cafe (it had started to rain again). This venue, the Counter Cafe, again has some gallery space and can be hired. This was located in a former metalworking shop, but had been recently refurbished into a two storey space, though the girder-mounted chain hoist remained in situ. Esther showed us a flow-diagram which demonstrated the aims of the LLDC, in terms of maintaining the area’s diverse economic and social base and, importantly, its sense of place. The aim is resolutely not to populate the area with national multiples – this would be tantamount to ejecting the baby with the bathwater.
With the rapid pace of change in the area, local landlords are enjoying something of a bonanza. As new, higher value uses come to Hackney Wick, the temptation to increase rents substantially is surely palpable. However, this can come at the expense of decimating the lower echelons of the local economy. Ian and Esther were clearly committed to guiding the development of Hackney Wick and Fish Island in such a way as generates long term success; as one of the area’s main landlords, the LLDC does have some leverage. However, the pace of change in the area is rapid, and the task of keeping abreast of developments is no easy one – the appointment of dedicated staff to this task is a very encouraging step.
It was hard to walk around Hackney Wick without thinking about Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The plethora of art, sculpture, performance art and fusion cuisine emerging from the area is testimony to the assertion that “New ideas need old buildings”. The existence of easily available, low-cost accommodation has allowed an exceptional richness to flourish in an environment reminiscent of the endless opportunity space characteristic of Berlin in the 1990s.
Architecturally, much of Fish Island is superb – finely detailed Victorian buildings lining a tight network of streets. It was pleasing to hear that it was a designated conservation area. The appreciation of good design was apparent in the cars parked in the streets – lots of people here drive a 1980s BMW 3 Series – itself an inexpensive design classic and a fitting vehicular allegory for the area.
It is interesting to reflect on the contrast between the incremental urban growth of Hackney Wick/Fish Island and, over to the east, the megalithic development of Stratford City. While the former has a built environment that has been shaped by the actions of thousands of individuals, the other is a manifestation of detailed, single-minded vision, backed by massive financial resources. Hackney Wick and Fish Island, while much lower profile, has already rooted itself with a strong sense of place, a diverse, resilient local economy, high degrees of heterogeneity and considerable inherent appeal. While many people in the area work in art and design, the multitude of underlying social and economic connections are far more elaborate than could be achieved by deliberate design alone – it is reminiscent of the ecosystem identified by Charles Darwin in the “tangled bank” and something of a microcosm of a successful city.
We are grateful to Esther and Ian for opening a window onto this most unique of areas.