From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

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The Legacy of William Morris (East London in Flux V)

This blog was contributed by Elisa Engel, Architect and Director of ehk! (engelhadleykirk limited). ehk! publishes a regular blog on its website. Click here to read.

William Morris Gallery. Credit: Nick Bishop, Overview

William Morris Gallery. Credit: Nick Bishop, Overview

East London in Flux, an event series organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, met at the William Morris Gallery on Wednesday 18 June, for the third event in the series. A fascinating guided tour of the collection was followed by tea, cake and debate in the museum’s café.

The William Morris Gallery, at Morris’s former home in Walthamstow, houses an exhibition on the designer, poet and socialist’s life and achievements, alongside changing exhibitions. The museum was remodelled in 2012, coinciding with the Olympics, and has since gone from strength to strength, winning the prestigious Museum of the Year award in 2013.

William Morris (1834-1896) is most famous for his involvement with the arts and crafts movement. By all accounts, throughout his life he battled with two sometimes conflicting ideals.

The Ideal Book room at the William Morris Gallery. © William Morris Gallery

The Ideal Book room at the William Morris Gallery. © William Morris Gallery

The first ideal, that of beauty, diverted him from the career in the clergy that he had been destined for. It led him to study art and develop an almost obsessive interest in the details of craft. William Morris was not content to design objects and work with craftsmen in delivering his vision. He insisted on becoming a master in every discipline he touched – to know all there was to know about dyeing fabrics and printing patterns, of weaving tapestries and printing books. It seems almost unimaginable how one person would fit his level of accomplishment, combined with his vast output in different disciplines, into one lifetime.

The second ideal, that of social justice, led him to stand at the street corners of London’s East End, overcoming his fear of public speaking, to rail against inequality and poor working conditions. In his workshops, he offered decent pay and development opportunities for his employees.

William Morris aimed to make his products available to the wider population – he famously said: ‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’

However, this is where his two ideals seemed to collide. Given the meticulous craft that went into producing his company’s artefacts, they would always remain out of the financial grasp of the “common person”. He tried to counteract this by offering a range of objects large and small, to ensure that the moderately wealthy would be in a position to afford at least more minor items that embodied his aesthetics. Commissions for his company, however, came largely from wealthy clients for their refined country homes.

Following the tour of the gallery, the group sat down to discuss how William Morris would have viewed today’s world, and more specifically the changes that East London is experiencing right now. Many of his concerns appear to be surprisingly contemporary – most notably, growing income inequality and the struggle to combine quality design with ethical considerations about methods of production at prices that make objects affordable to every sector of society. A question that sparked much debate was: what would William Morris have made of Ikea and its planned housing development in the Lea Valley?

Black Horse Workshop

© Black Horse Workshop

One development he would have surely approved of is the recent emergence of shared craft spaces in London. Black Horse Workshop in Walthamstow, an easy walk away from the William Morris Gallery, is one such workshop that offers open access to a fully equipped wood and metal workshop for people wanting to reconnect with the making of things.

One can also easily hazard a guess at what he would have made of the sales pitch that the company that still bears his name employs on its website: “The original William Morris and Co: The luxury of taste”…

The East London in Flux evening at the William Morris gallery very much chimed with another event, held at the London School of Economics and organised by the Royal College of Art, the following night. This was a panel discussion featuring Alex de Rijke (of dRMM architects),  Oliver Wainwright (architecture critic at the Guardian) and Katie Lloyd-Thomas of Newcastle University under the title Kapital Architecture: Commodity.  The panel discussed how the role of the designer has changed. Increasingly, architects specify proprietary systems, and merely design the interface between them. This is just one example of how architects are complicit in reducing and narrowing their role in the construction process (while simultaneously aiming to widen their role into other areas, such as social policy). In this way, they are moving further and further away from Morris’s ideal of someone who is intimately involved in the making of things. Not everyone is following this trend, but it is only logical that there is a certain economy to working with proprietary systems instead of bespoke solutions.

But maybe this is not as much of a contradiction as it may at first appear – proprietary systems are not a natural resource, they are designed just as much as a wallpaper by William Morris is. Maybe what needs to happen in order to reconcile William Morris’s two ideals is for those involved in the design of our homes and cities on a larger scale to work much more closely with those behind the designs of the components that make up their physical fabric – and in this way once again to create objects and buildings that are designed in a much more holistic way.

At this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition is looking at the evolution of building components from bespoke architectural solutions to manufactured components.  As its curator, Rem Koolhaas,  says: “There are whole sections of my buildings that I have no control over. I simply don’t know what goes into the soffits of my buildings!”

It appears that it is not just us here in East London that people are pondering these questions – East London in Flux is dealing with very topical issues that are being discussed at a global level, forming part of a much wider debate.

East London in Flux continues on 16 July.

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Guided tour of the William Morris Gallery and discussion with local east London arts organisations (East London in Flux IV)

Session 3. Wednesday 18 June, 6pm-9pm

This post was contributed by Nick Edwards, an Architectural Educator and Co-founder of Fundamental Architectural Inclusion

Morris_Strawberry_Thief_1883_detail

Strawberry Thief printed textile designed by William Morris. (Identification from Linda Parry, William Morris Textiles, New York, Viking Press, 1983, p155)

After an informative guided tour of the William Morris Gallery we retired to the tea room for refreshments and some great conversations around a very loose topic: “What would William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement – with their commitment to social change via art, have made of the rapidly changing East London and its current wave of arts-led regeneration projects?”.

Group discussions covered East London’s rapid regeneration and how the arts and artists seem to be – perhaps rather unwittingly – part of the process of change. We talked about all sorts of issues and ideas, including the sudden new wave of Open Workshops in East London and how these seem to be funded by through regeneration such as the Mayor of London’s Outer London Fund, London Legacy Development Corporation and sometimes even developers.

Black Horse Work Shop in Walthmanstow

Black Horse Work Shop in Walthmanstow

We also debated the long-term phenomenon of the gradual drift Eastwards of artists, often to run-down short-term studio spaces in ex-industrial areas and now out into much wider surrounding neighbourhoods. Grayson Perry rather succinctly captured this pioneering in his R4 Reith Lecture “If you think of artists, we’re like the shock troops of gentrification…“ going on to say that he thought developers should pay artists to do their work for them!

The participants, a broad range of local people and representatives from arts organisations and the Gallery, threw these issues around the houses and gallery so to speak, ending up with the scourge of house prices again which seems to be a recurring theme at our sessions! There was a bit of a sense that although regeneration and beautification of areas can be beneficial, it also pushes prices up and out of the reach of many people who live and work in East London and that this has a knock on effect on older children becoming independent and on the wider community as a whole. Some people also felt that some of the new creative spaces were far too expensive and not really aimed at local people.

Having drawn somewhat of a blank with these big issues and as to whether there is a present day William Morris we all tried hard to think of solutions and good examples of arts and regeneration projects that had somehow overcome these economic and top down sometimes prescriptive pressures. Were there any examples where the ideas had genuinely come from within the community?

A few of the participants, including Anna Mason and Ines Pina from the Gallery had been to the Mill and spoke very highly of its community-led ethos. Perhaps this type of model is the way forward? Unfortunately Mo Gallaccio from the Mill was unable to join us but we look forward to visiting and learning more about this model in the future. Another very effective grass-roots initiative is Up Your Street, which has the simple but ambitious goal of getting local people out to all the free events offered across the Olympic boroughs. We have Up Your Street to thank for steering many long-term East London residents to our East London in Flux events, where they have made invaluable contributions to our discussions and debates.

East London In Flux is a partnership between Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck.

Further events in the East London in Flux series will be taking place throughout the summer. Tickets are free but places are limited so if you are interested in attending please reserve you place here.

The following are links to some of the other projects we considered  during our discussion:

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Whose legacy is it, anyway? (East London in Flux III)

This post was contributed by Elisa Engel, Architect and Director at ehk! (engelhadleykirk)

In May, Birkbeck hosted ‘From the East End to the West End: Locals’ Perspectives on Changing Stratford and the 2012 Olympics’, an event that was part of the ‘East London in Flux’ event series, organised by Fundamental  Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck. The series sets out to investigate the changes that East London has been going through since the Olympic Games.

Dr Paul Watt – a Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck – presented research that he carried out in collaboration with Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Their study looks at how a group of young people living in temporary accommodation in Stratford perceive the Olympic Legacy. Dr Watt argued that rather than creating opportunities for vulnerable young people in East London, those who took part in the study felt excluded from the Olympic Games – they were unable to obtain tickets to any of the events and were targeted by profiling techniques used by the security agencies around the event, leading to an increasing sense of alienation. Similarly, those interviewed did not feel that the infrastructure improvements facilitated by the Olympic Games benefited them, as they had led to increasing house prices that will see them and many others in their community priced out of the area all together.

The presentation prompted discussions that dealt with a much wider range of issues around gentrification and vulnerable communities. The real strength of the evening lay in the diverse viewpoints of the participants – local residents, housing professionals, architects, etc.

It was felt on the whole that the experiences of those who took part in the study were by no means unique to Stratford or even to those of a similar age and income bracket.

London has always been a city in flux. Neighbourhoods’ fortunes rise and fall. Industries see their heyday followed by a sometimes sharp decline. New communities move in, displacing existing ones for a whole variety of reasons, often, as in East London, through sheer financial muscle. Despite efforts to decentralise, the capital remains the UK’s main economic driver, and as long as that is the case, people will want to move to London from all over the world. What was felt to be a relatively recent development was that with the London housing stock overall increasing far too slowly to accommodate the influx of people to the capital, the pressure on the housing market had reached unprecedented levels.  It is no longer just the young and the poor who cannot afford to rent or buy – the problem is increasingly affecting the middle-aged and the middle classes.

The improvements made in terms of transport links and public spaces that were carried out in the host boroughs as part of the Olympic Games have made these areas more accessible and more attractive. It naturally follows that more people will want to move to the area, and that some of them will have the financial means to outbid existing residents and cause them to be displaced. This is a fundamental conundrum facing those involved with improving neighbourhoods – improving the physical fabric will often destroy the communities the measure aims to assist.

I would love to be able to report that we participants found a quick and easy solution to the problem, but unfortunately this was not the case. What the event did provide was an unusually diverse, honest and lucid discussion about issues of inequality and possible measures, such as increased regulation of the private rental market and public investment and housing. And that is the kind of discussion we need to have as a matter of urgency.

Further events in the East London in Flux series will be taking place throughout the summer. Tickets are free.

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