London Twenty-Twelve

PART 1: Accelerated Change

There’s quare things happenin’ in London. Such is the ferocity of city development; nostalgia needs no longer be some learned rite of passage. Sentimentality is not uncommon for places lived or loved, short years previous.

So as the Shard peaks and the harlot heart of King’s Cross is buried, out east, there’s an altogether more formidable construction force at work.

Stratford sees its cranes and scaffolds high. They rise more from marsh and brownfield than from any old, established community. The Olympic stadia and Anish Kapoor’s tangled “Orbit Tower” accessorise the landscape.

A bloated, new Westfield shopping hub has opened. Adjacent, Stratford Tower sky scrapes while lesser offices and apartments glimmer – all in hopeful occupation. Ready-cities from nothing are the Sino-IKEA future.

“If you build it, they will come.” No urban evolution necessary. The cumulative effect in Stratford is faux-Emirate. Annexation by fake-Sheiks and SUVs seems a possibility.

It takes 15 minutes traffic to drive from Stratford’s Olympian excavations to low-lying Greenwich by virtue of the sub-river Blackwall tunnel. Disappearing beneath Canary Wharf’s imposing symmetry, the tunnel emerges Greenwich side of the Thames and southerly.

It’s 6 miles of listed smoke-stacks; listless shopping centres; baby-bricked, industrial wrecks; monoxide-faded hoardings and random scrub clusters. Various arterial roads peel off to horizon-less destinations.

It’s a Ballardian bleakness, policed by an Orwellian array of signage and speed cameras. Cautions go unheeded at the commuter’s peril. Crashes and breakdowns are daily, inevitable. Road closures often hours at a time.

http://suckleyokes.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/stratford-greater-london-uk-to-kidbrooke-greater-london-uk-google-maps.jpg?w=231&h=243This collective and inharmonious north-south stretch forms the rough length of an area codified as the Thames Gateway (which, when moving out east along the Thames Estuary, covers roughly 40 miles).

The buzzword of this, the UK’s largest economic development programme, is regeneration (see the Ferrier Estate, Part 2). The manifesto says it’s about “driving economic growth and helping local leaders to strengthen their communities and support people back into work”.

The east has been here before. Canary Wharf, its last major-scale endeavour, rose ambitiously from its own declining docklands in the 1980s to its current financial eminence.

Indigenous business, unemployed dockworkers, and local residents (very often all one and the same) claim they benefited least from its boorish arrival. While the central political/developer argument is that a decayed cityscape was rejuvenated.

Financially, there’s little doubt it paid off. The complexities and true costs are still debated however, and the argument remains largely subjective – how to weigh the influx of 100,000 jobs vs. the socio-cultural impact at local level?

The jobs created were distinctly not those that would be filled by the area’s working-class and/or laid-off dockers.

Regardless of opinion (and despite improved relations over the years), Canary Wharf’s current architectural Bricolage evidences the disparity in wealth between the old community and its new inhabitants.

The skyline tells its own story too. One Canada Square and her sister skyscrapers easily boss the nearby Balfron Tower and its 27-storeys of Brutalist 1960s housing. Even by London’s standards of haphazard building, it makes for striking aerial incongruity.

And now, with the £9.3bn Olympics as a catalyst, London councils seem intent on giving the east another great leap forward. All’s proceeding with a seemingly quiet precision and a nod to perceived rash decisions past.

However, there’s still been plenty questioning, which is not surprising given the scale and sums of money involved.

Issues with corporate involvement and the amateur sanctity of the games have been raised in light of plans for the largest McDonald’s in the world within the Olympic Park.

As well as this, good copy’s not been made by the Spurs/West Ham stadium shenanigans, nor, indeed, by the recent “social cleansing” debacle in Newham.

For twenty-twelve and its spawn of eastern development, a legacy awaits. History argues it’ll be anything but clear cut.

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