Tag Archives: architecture

East London In Flux II

This post was originally published on the blog Up Your Street.

The thing with most community engagement activities is that the people who put on the show couldn’t care less if you’re there or not. Sometimes the engagement exercises target seniors: When they don’t then the senior wannabee participant is more than invisible. This I have known for ages and corporate engagers be wise that many oldies are on your case.

East London in Flux presented by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion d.o.b. 2003 and Birkbeck, University of London is different to all of the above and valuable to the ethos of community engagement. It’s a programme delivered with passion. Its participants are encouraged to join in and given the confidence to do so. And the sandwiches are nutritious, full, tasty and textured.

Today the room in Birkbeck, University of London in the new Stratford E15  (aka USS hosted by community outreach officer Patrice Buddington) was bursting and a-buzzin’. We came from Stratford, Hackney, Forest Gate, Leyton, Romford, Mauritius and other places north of Watford. Imagine!

As for architecure, I can’t get over the fact that the Uni building is built on one of the meanest pot-holed car-parks of back in the day. Those days when the stealthiest of creeping car-park attendants would sneak out of the shadows: Those times when the parking machine swallowed pound coins then failed to deliver the ticket. Those were the days when you left the theatre production or pre Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012 pop-up workshops early so as not to fork out another load of coins.

The main attraction of this the first in a series of presentations and day-long workshops was the architect-guided walk around the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Laid on were electric scooters, wheelchairs and taxis for the less mobile. The sun shone too. The morning session was all about how architects used any available terrain to construct the Olympic cities. Hitler’s Games came out top in the we- did- it poll not only because the construction/ideological team used media to the hilt when the concept of media as a corporate entity was not invented yet. Even the athletes’ village was great….bungalows. Ooh! give me one.

The heart-warming bit is how junior school kiddies are involved through Architectural in learning through model-making and discussion their role in the Legacy of the London 2012 Games.

Twas brillig.


If it looks like a dome, and you think it’s a dome, then it probably is a dome!

This post was contributed by Ruth Harriss, a student on Birkbeck’s MA History of Art.

“When it comes to domes, don’t define too carefully!” advised Professor Peter Draper, whose paper opened up the symposium Domes:  Past, Present and Future.  This proved to be excellent advice as what followed was a far-reaching, stimulating and wonderfully bizarre tour of the dome from its beginnings as a practical temporary shelter and grave marker, to its identification with futuristic engineering and the utopian metropolis. 

The topic inspired a diverse response and during the course of the afternoon the four speakers addressed the audience on aspects of religion, cosmology, urban renaissance, fictional structures, Victorian soap bubbles, biospheres, the V2 rocket, inflatable planetariums, a Neolithic camera obscura and dome sickness amongst many others!

My own studies and interest in architecture so far hasn’t led me to encounter the dome in all its complexities therefore Peter Draper’s introductory paper was, for me, a perfect start.  By charting the initial development of the dome in the West, Draper brought to the fore complex questions of typology and symbolism, pertinent to the practice of dome building throughout all periods and cultures.  Caspar Pearson continued with a critique of the dome as a potent cultural symbol of the Renaissance.  Epitomized by Fillipo Brunelleschi’s dome for of Santa Maria de Fiore (1461), the dome can be understood as a statement of progress and faith in human ability to remake and rebuild the world.  This powerful rhetoric is still used today and is manifest in the fictional architectural schemes impregnated in vivid ink on the Euro bank notes.  Yet Pearson questioned the possibility for architecture to embody cultural historical ideals in light of a new knowledge economy and suggested the collapse of the progress myth is evident in the catastrophic failure of the Millennium dome. 

Moving forward a few centuries we picked up again with the Cold War and the dome in the context of global war.  Primitive self-sufficiency and cutting edge science and technology converged in Barry Curtis’ unique exploration of the dome that had been inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his ‘Spaceship Earth’.  In what seemed to be one breath, Curtis raced from the turn of the century and the interfacial science of the humble soap bubble to the visionary design of the geodesic dome, and from the novels of Thomas Pynchon to the first glimpse of the earth seen as a dome-like body from outer space.  Curtis highlighted how utopian domes not only offered physical protection from a hostile future world but also a psychological escapism: the possibility to immerse one’s self in an artificial environment.  It was the latter that formed the basis of the final paper, delivered by Nick Lambert, who considered the dome and the development of fully interactive 3D environments.  In particular how early planetariums and the desire to experience virtual objects moving around us, has more recently resulted in the ‘full dome’ experience being considered an artistic medium in its own right.

My only thought for improvement upon the afternoon would have been an extended time for discussion at the end on the symposium as even in the brief time there were many interesting questions raised by the attendees. 

Needless to say I will look forward to the next event from the Architecture, Space and Society Network!


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!