Post-War and Post-Olympics: East London, Architecture and Regeneration, Across the Generations

This post was contributed by Dr Leslie Topp, Senior Lecturer in the History of Architecture in Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art and Screen Media.

What is regeneration? What builds community? And who defines and steers these processes? Architects, planners, politicians, the public? The cold post-Olympic winter, with the built and planned legacy of those games forming around us, seemed a good time to bring local people together to discuss these questions. The day workshop, which was held at the historic House Mill in Bromley-by-Bow on 23 February 2013, was a collaboration between Fundamental Architectural Inclusion, an architecture centre based in Newham, and Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art and Screen Media. Funding was generously provided by the Association of Art Historians Initiatives Fund.

The 10 participants were drawn from the first and second years of Birkbeck’s innovative Certificate in HE in Understanding Visual Arts, which is run out of the Rosetta Art Centre in Newham, and the group of young people which Fundamental works with in initiatives like the Architecture Crew and the Legacy Youth Panel, who are regularly consulted on regeneration plans around the Olympics and its legacy.  All local to East London (Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest), the workshop participants had experienced the current wave of regeneration first hand, and knew too the experience of living in the neighbourhoods and estates built in the post-war years.  They were also (the Birkbeck students) well versed in cultural history, and (the Fundamental participants) in architecture and planning, and the combination of life experience, knowledge and confidence in discussion made for a stimulating and compelling day.

We watched two films, both dealing with ambitious utopian plans for the rebuilding of large sections of Newham. One was made in 2008 by the Architecture Crew, a group of young people 13-19 years old, who Fundamental was working with. The other was made in 1948, by the then West Ham Borough’s Architecture and Planning Office, about the plans for rebuilding West Ham after the extensive destruction caused by the 1940-41 air raids.  One of the most striking differences between them, which emerged strongly through the subsequent discussions, was that while the first offered a ‘bottom up’ perspective, and was a critical enquiry by some of the people who’d be most strongly affected by the regeneration, the second was a piece of ‘top down’ propaganda, representing an ‘experts know best’ position. A lively debate broke out about the extent to which things had or had not changed in this respect since the post-war era. Some argued that while lip service is paid to community consultation, the ‘community’ has very little actual impact on the plans that are carried out. Nick Edwards, the director of Fundamental, and the young people who came along to the workshop, gave a nuanced sense of the particular ways in which people could have an impact on plans (though it was clear that to do this involved a considerable sustained effort over a long period of time.)

Another topic that kept cropping up was mobility. On the one hand, as one participant pointed out, East London has always been a place people move on from when they had the means to do so. Others wondered though whether that may now change – with the regeneration around the Olympics, East London had the potential now to be a place where people would want to stay, or come back to. But the new transport infrastructure, and the increased opportunities to move around, (including Birkbeck’s own courses, such as the Cert HE Understanding Visual Arts, that bring students out to East London and into Bloomsbury) mean that East London is now more connected than ever to the world beyond it. The parts of East London that had been very separate from each other, with some people never venturing much beyond their immediate neighbourhoods, had become more interconnected as well. The homogeneity and static, inward looking quality of the post-war estates (seen as the height of modernity in the 1948 film) were being directly challenged by the latest wave of regeneration.

An extra unexpected treat at lunchtime – enthusiastically taken up by all the workshop participants, despite the cold – was a tour around the Grade One listed 18th century House Mill. History in East London doesn’t begin with the Blitz!

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