Stratford today
On Architecture

Old and new

Regenerating existing neighbourhoods vs. attracting international attention: the two most prominent current approaches to urban planning

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One of the many virtues of John Grindrod’s excellent recent book, Iconicon: A Journey Around the Landmark Buildings, published in March, is that he helps to make sense of the sometimes random and apparently shambolic new developments in London and how they came about, initially through the active encouragement of Ken Livingstone, who regarded big, new, high-rise buildings as symbols of London’s prowess. The process continued exponentially through lackadaisical planning controls when Boris Johnson was mayor.

One part of this story I did not know about was the development of Olympic Park and the immediately adjacent former industrial neighbourhood of Hackney Wick. When it was announced that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games, I half knew that it was as much a project of urban regeneration in East London as it was a desire, at least on Ken Livingstone’s part, to watch people high jumping and hurdling.

What is clear from Grindrod’s book is that there were two different concepts of urban planning involved

I remember being asked in 2007 or 2008, not long after I had gone to the Royal Academy as its Secretary and Chief Executive, if there were any Academicians with a particular interest in issues of urban regeneration and that I had difficulty suggesting who would be most appropriate. In retrospect, I should have suggested Richard Rogers, who had been very actively involved in drawing up plans for the Blair government, including writing a book with Mark Fisher in 1992 called The New London.

What is clear from Grindrod’s book is that there were two different concepts of planning involved, one to create the Olympic Park and attract international attention and the other to encourage the regeneration of the existing neighbourhood of Hackney Wick on the other side of the River Lea. Since these are the two most prominent current approaches to urban planning, it is worth comparing the relative success of the two.

Zaha Hadid’s Olympic Aquatic Centre

Olympic Park was developed through what I think of as the “big blob” approach. This involved commissioning a small number of big-name architects – including Zaha Hadid, Michael Hopkins of Hopkins Architects and Ken Shuttleworth of Make – to design jumbo projects which would give the park a sense of architectural authority, following the model of the Guggenheim Bilbao, which has hypnotised city planners everywhere.

It wasn’t a bad idea. I still regard Hadid’s Aquatics Centre as one of her best buildings, beautifully and aggressively curvaceous, although one might regret that a building which was originally planned to cost £75 million ended up costing £269 million. The Hopkins’s Velodrome, now called the Lee Valley VeloPark, is more coolly elegant, a predominantly wooden cylinder, its detail designed by Mike Taylor, a Hopkins partner who is a keen cyclist.

I still regard Hadid’s Aquatics Centre as one of her best buildings: beautifully and aggressively curvaceous

The same approach was applied to Stratford, the neighbouring town, which at the time was pretty downtrodden with not much to recommend it, apart from a big indoor shopping centre much admired by Ian Nairn for its preservation of working-class culture.

Stratford suddenly grew a series of high-rise apartment blocks, designed by Stock Woolstencroft. They belong to a nondescript international style, which would be equally at home in Barcelona, which hosted the Olympics 30 years ago. Many of the people who bought these flats lived in China, which didn’t do much to help the housing crisis.

Pumping money into these essentially public projects helped to attract the Westfield Group — which had previously opened a huge shopping mall, Westfield, in west London — to open an equivalent in Stratford, now said to be one of the most profitable in Europe.

If one wants London to become a boomtown, then Stratford is a good model of how to do it

The development of Stratford must be regarded as a big success, if judged on its own terms. It has made Stratford into a much more glitzy area which is now home to a mass of high-rise buildings, an equivalent to other recently-developed satellites of London, including Battersea, Nine Elms and Croydon. The Olympic Village has been turned into boulevards of expensive housing. If one wants London to become a boomtown, then Stratford is a good model of how to do it.

But it is worth comparing its development to what has happened on the other side of the River Lea where there was an existing, semi-industrial neighbourhood, Hackney Wick, which had long been known for its collection of light industrial sheds where new forms of dyestuff and petrochemicals were developed in the late nineteenth century and, since the 1970s, which have housed artists’ studios.

River Lea

There was an existing infrastructure, which the planners chose to develop more organically, keeping some of the industrial buildings on the River Lea and turning them into bars and restaurants.

The new buildings have been compelled to follow the diktats of the London Design Guide which require a certain architectural discipline and uniformity, which may be regarded as a bit dull, but prohibits arbitrary ostentation. The result is that the area has been able to keep much of its previous character, while becoming more densely built, including big developments bought not so much by foreign investors, but office workers.

Many people will no doubt be critical of what has happened to Hackney Wick on the grounds that it is a classic example of gentrification. But I prefer an environment of old buildings intermixed with new, including small-scale, independent shops and cafés, than the wind-swept dehumanisation and megastructures, the empty consumer paradise, which is what has happened in Stratford and, indeed, in so much of the rest of London.

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