Excerpt: 'A New Kind of Bleak: Journeys through Urban Britain' by Owen Heatherley


From Guernica:

I ought to be brief, or as brief as possible, on the subject of the Olympic Site. Being based south of the river I try to avoid the place, but architectural correspondents who live and work in East London, like Douglas Murphy, Kieran Long, or Oliver Wainwright, have all written superb and detailed indictments of the place, have buried it time and again, although admittedly without managing to shame the Olympic Delivery Authority into the hoped-for mass resignation. By the time you read the book this passage comes from, it may all be over, the fireworks, the pageants, the unmanned drones, the stationing on-site of U.S. missiles, the enormous police and army presence, the medals or not-medals, the terrorist attacks or not-terrorist attacks. That doesn’t matter. It’s all about the Legacy. Ken Livingstone admitted as much several times–the point was not to have a sports event in London, the point was to extort some funding for the redevelopment of a massive swathe of derelict London, a light-engineering swathe along the river Lea that had long since gone to seed, a typical stretch of Thames Gateway post-industry.

And why not? Many writers have mourned the demise of the Lea Valley, London’s last great wilderness. I remember it well, the paths along the outfall sewer, the random collections of industrial waste, the abundant and unusual bird and plant life; there are still a few similar spaces on the other side of the Thames, and practically dozens outside of London. Nonetheless, there was a uniqueness to the Lea Valley Zone, and the effacement of it by an enormous project of speculation and imposed redevelopment is hard to conceive as a victory for the people of London. Just imagine, though, if the Greater London Authority was the Greater London Council: a well-funded, powerful body able and willing to stand up to the City and the government, and they proposed to redevelop this area. Imagine that they too used an Olympics as a pretext, and connected the new suburb to the Docklands Light Railway, the Jubilee Line, Crossrail, and even the railway to the Continent. Imagine that the country’s most famous architects were hired, by subterfuge or otherwise, to design its public buildings, while an immense landscaping project provided a new public park. Imagine that a rigorously planned new housing development with a secondary school as part of it was an integral part of this new district. I can’t say I’d protest. More than that, I can say I’d be the first to hail the bloody place as everything London desperately needs, especially impoverished, overcrowded, overstretched East London. I’d be declaring Ken Livingstone the greatest living Englishman: the man who used running, swimming and shot-putting as the pretext to build a magnificent new city for the masses of London. It isn’t a particularly useful thought experiment, as this isn’t what is happening. All of the above features in Olympian Stratford in some manner, but all of it is coming into being as an act against London–the creation of yet another security-obsessed, enclosed, gated enclave set up to mock the idea that we could become more rather than less equal.

The new Stratford is really several different sites, all of them distinct, fitting into a larger plan. There is the redevelopment of Stratford High Street into a series of speculative high-rise towers; there is the ‘town centre,’ a huge enclosed Westfield shopping mall; there is the Olympic Village, a housing development to accommodate the athletes, their PAs and associated bureaucrats; and there is the Olympic Site itself, a flowing park dotted with sports facilities by various architects. They don’t fit together terribly well, but all of them are in their own way extremely ambitious. The biggest, although in design terms by far the worst part, is Stratford High Street. Under the laissez-faire jurisdiction of the London Borough of Newham, a half-dozen or more towers have sprouted atop an already congested and miserable thoroughfare.

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