South Croydon. © David Secombe 2010.
View from the saloon, south London, 2016. © David Secombe.
Recently overheard in a south London pub:
Have one, come on, have one. Look, I’m celebrating, I was acquitted. This afternoon, yeah. Before lunch I’d been in the witness box and they were jumping all over me, I didn’t land a blow. Felt like a right wanker. And I was looking at doing four years. I was up before this judge who was an MP – yeah, an MP, stuck up git, probably a nonce, he’ll be up in court himself next week. I tell you who he looked like, Pluto – Pluto the dog. Did you see my barrister? She was all right, nice looking she was. Put her hand on my arm she did. Yeah. Yeah. Anyway, after lunch the jury was ready to come in and everything and then the prosecution said the CCTV didn’t work. That’s their case dead in the water. So I was acquitted. [looks at racing on pub TV] My jockey’s an idiot – look at that div, looks like his bollocks haven’t dropped. Looks like a rent boy. Anyway, thrown out it was, it was thrown out, the fucking CCTV didn’t work. I’m thinking of compensation. Go after them I will, yeah. I’ve got letters about my loss of hearing. Here, I’m selling this phone. It’s fucking immaculate, no scratches on it or nothing, I mean I did manage to drop it in the slop bucket behind the bar, but you’d never tell. Where is this cunt anyway?
Boarded-up pub, Bermondsey, 2010. © David Secombe.
See also: A Fragment of Bar Life.
Christ Church Spitalfields from Brushfield St., 1990. (This and all photos on this page © David Secombe.)
Ever since they began to rise over London just over 300 years ago, the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1662–1736) have had an ambiguous – even paradoxical – relationship to the city that made them and which they have in turn remade. On the one hand, the churches of St Anne, Limehouse, Christ Church, Spitalfields and St George-in-the-East in the old parish of Stepney, St. Alfege in Greenwich, St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London and St George, Bloomsbury are inextricably bound up with the history of London. On the other, they stand apart, somehow belonging to a rather different time and place, almost as fragments of Ancient Rome transplanted into London.
St Alfege, Greenwich, 1988.
To understand Hawksmoor’s churches and their relationship to the city, one has to go back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. Even as the fire still smouldered, Hawksmoor’s later master, Christopher Wren, was working up a plan for London’s rebuilding that would replace its narrow and irregular medieval streets with grand boulevards. Most importantly, and taking direct inspiration from what he had learned in Paris the year before, Wren’s plan would have imposed a clear spatial order and control on the dangerous and unruly metropolis.
Hawksmoor’s approach to city planning was different. Hawksmoor never created a plan for London in the way his master had done, but he did produce (unbuilt) designs for re-planning Oxford and Cambridge, and parts of London around St Paul’s Cathedral, Greenwich, and Westminster. The easiest way to understand how these would have worked is to look to contemporary landscape gardens: manufactured landscapes littered with classically-inspired temples and follies, structures that dominate the vistas and embody the estate owner’s authority.
St George-in-the-East, Wapping, 2010.
Similarly, in Hawksmoor’s idea of the city, spatial order and control extended not from the street layout, but from monumental buildings that would physically dominate their surroundings. In all Hawksmoor city plans we see a recurring strategy of clearing the areas around important buildings – both old and new – so that they might express their spatial dominion over the surrounding cityscape. What happened in between was of far less importance. It’s hard to imagine the effect of these unbuilt plans when described in the abstract, but to see their principles in action we only need look as far as Hawksmoor’s churches.
St Luke’s Old St. (Hawksmoor & John James), photographed before its 21st century restoration, 1988.
Even now, the areas around Hawksmoor’s three churches in the old parish of Stepney still retain the ‘edge-lands’ feel they must have had when they first grew up in the decades following the Great Fire. Today that energy is manifested in the clash of different cultures and economies as the City of London encroaches on East End communities. In the early eighteenth century the energy arose through the rise of dissenting religious groups, outside the orbit of central Anglican control, with all the social and political ramifications that that held. As a result, Hawksmoor’s churches were conceived from the off as outlying beacons of the city’s spiritual and political centre – monuments of state and Church authority in areas that had none.
Entrance to Bank tube station showing part of the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth, City of London, 1988.
All three of Hawksmoor’s Stepney churches are colossal structures, deliberately sited to be seen in the round, that dominate their environment by sheer scale. Not surprisingly, their overbearing size has played a part in their subsequent neglect. In a 1975 letter to The Times, the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddlestone, was at great pains ‘to make it clear that the state of disrepair of Christchurch, Spitalfields is in no sense due to the failure of the local Christian community, nor, in my opinion, to neglect by the authorities of the Church of England’. Such a building of ‘cathedral-like proportions’ was, he argued, an ‘appalling responsibility for the Church’.
In addition to their size, Hawksmoor was able to make his churches stand out by his choice of material: white Portland stone, as opposed to the red brick of the surrounding city. Hawksmoor’s churches appear as if fully formed from a single gigantic block of stone. There’s the sense that this is the form the stone wants to be – a testament to their design, the final and most enduring aspect of their differentiation from the surrounding city.
St Anne’s Limehouse, 2010.
Having risen up through Wren’s office in the 1680s and 90s, by the beginning of the eighteenth century Hawksmoor was arguably the best-trained architect Britain had ever seen. Classical architecture was his intellectual and aesthetic bedrock, but he was also fascinated by Gothic architecture and in particular its origins – as he saw them – in the churches of the early Christians of the near east. Hawksmoor’s genius was to bring all this learning to bear in creating a series of church designs rich in reference, resonance and allusion. The result was a series of buildings in which architecture was taken back to its very origins, with ideas and references built up in complex layers of masonry, imbuing these structures with the authority of the architectural past. This is architecture conceived through a sculptural sensibility to create buildings that speak to us but indirectly: through our senses and our emotions.
St George Bloomsbury, 2016.
There are few buildings in London that look back to the past while at the same time prefigure the future. While part of London’s history, Hawksmoor’s churches exist in the future too, yielding ever more secrets as the city changes around them.
… for The London Column. Owen Hopkins’s book From The Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor is published by Reaktion Books.
© Owen Hopkins. All photos © David Secombe.
Katy Evans Bush:
Hackney Wick – that seedy, industrial, inaccessible part of Hackney down by the river that languished forgotten for decades – is still holding onto its wasteland aesthetic. There are desolate streets, decrepit warehouses, and graffiti all over every available surface as far as they eye can see. But these days, this appearance is a choice – it’s an aesthetic – and Hackney Wick costs money. Forget what you’ve heard about Dalston, or Peckham – they’ve gone, tipped over the edge. The real hipster epicentre is Hackney Wick.
The warehouses now house bars, the vans sell veggieburgers and pastries, the air carries an aroma of artisan beer and the graffiti covering all those brick walls is just as likely to be ‘street’-style advertising as actual tagging. But it’s apparently not quite as simple as that: there’s a war being fought for the spirit of Hackney Wick, and the battleground is its brick walls. Two Sunday afternoon trips a couple of weeks apart revealed the speed with which one covers the other, and is covered again.
Even the graffiti brings with it the subtle but unmistakeable whiff of money. The burgers aren’t cheap. The warehouses house galleries. The labels on the single-hop beer look very similar to the pictures on the walls outside. Last weekend there was a Christmas tree seller in the middle of Queen’s Yard (apparently the epicentre of the epicentre), with trees selling for anywhere £35 to £75.
Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, alongside the intensely calm beardy cyclist fellows, the main demographic you see is the well-dressed bourgeoisie. Walking about. Being given the tour by their offspring. Eating artisanal food. Taking photographs. Like the tall, slim, puffa-clad French family we saw the other week, heading for their Range Rover, looking round and all exclaiming at once. Your correspondents felt a pang of kinship for one person: an older, scruffier man with a toddler on his shoulders, stopped between a narrow boat that is a prosecco bar and a warehouse pizza place that offers craft beers and walnut-&-stilton pizzas, conferring with his friend and looking slightly flummoxed.
The area is ringed – that is, more or less defined – by large ‘upmarket residential developments’, smooth-faced expanses mostly with big locked gates at the street entrance. Some have well-lit interiors, personal touches visible in their plate-glass windows, and balcony gardens; others are barren. Along the prime real estate River Lea they look across at the remnants of the Olympic Park, and down over a hotch-potch of narrow boats, whose riverine ‘broken-chairs-tarpaulins-&-cables’ aesthetic evocatively offsets the penthouses. In front of one block – its retail premises empty on the ground floor – is an old industrial chimney, standing all alone, with a plaque on it.
Near this, across from the entrance to Queen’s Yard, is a vacant lot where once stood the Lea Tavern, demolished in 2008 for reasons which are opaque; the site is overgrown with buddleia. Along the top of its hoarding (a battleground of the graffiti war) is an ambiguous and badly punctuated sign:
It is as well to remind oneself that the great thing about London – the truly great thing – used to be the way that people of all sorts shared a neighbourhood: council blocks jostled with mansions, terraces of 2-up-2-downs gave onto parks and mansion blocks onto motorways. The narrow boats have suffered over recent years with increasingly punitive rules about mooring, but they do even now offer – if you can stick the lifestyle – relatively cheap housing. And in this neighbourhood, even the tattiest canal boat has sculptures in front of it.
This is, in a way, still real life. Tags and posters, hipster street art and the retro, angry, non-ironic article, fight for space and fight each other (as per the re-written speech bubble emerging from the mouth of this dazed stereotype).
This wraith, not far from a set of ‘Sweet Toof‘s ubiquitous teeth, might be shaking his fist at a sign listing property prices.
The battle lines are clearly drawn.
Hackney Wick station looks a bit sinister by night, but it is probably getting more traffic than ever before. The studiedly ‘urban’ look of the area gives the lie to the sanitised gloss of the recent ‘Spirit of 2012′ (though it feels fair to suppose that this look owes as much to Jean-Michel Basquiat and the iconographised dirt of eighties New York than to anything more organic); but the biggest surprise in Hackney Wick is its proximity to Stratford Westfield Shopping Centre.
Stratford, of course, was the local station for the Games, and the town centre had a massive do-over for the tourists. Facing east, looking past the couples strolling along the waterside like animated architects’ mock-ups, past the Olympic park and Anish Kapoor’s Brobdingnagian toy town tower, the backdrop for all this is a familiar, and surprising, sight. The beacon of the middle class. An unflashy, but insistent, glowing sign: JOHN LEWIS.
Neighbourhoods are mortal. Change is constant. The really important thing to remember is that the really big developers are already moving in. The second Battle for Hackney Wick has probably already been lost; the artists, pizzateers and canal-dwellers will be shunted to the provinces, the cute little prosecco boat will give way to a big slick floating bar where you have to book, and we will rue the day when we thought these little concrete galleries with bike racks were the actual problem, not just the symptom. And the real old London will be that little bit more lost.
© Katy Evans Bush. All pictures © David Secombe.
Katy’s new collection of essays Forgive the Language is published by Penned in the Margins.
Balfron Tower. I love it. It anchors Poplar, it looms over the A12 just by the Blackwall Tunnel approach, and it seems to defend that whole end of Tower Hamlets. In the evenings, when the sun reaches a certain point, it glows golden. You couldn’t help but find it beautiful, its slightly Escher-esque planes and shapes and perspectives changing with the weather and the light, its strange humanity, its arrow-slit windows. Just as the now-demolished gasometers in Stepney did, it casts its grandeur over everything around.
Poor Balfron suffers the slings and arrows of public disgust towards its whole genre. People think ‘the New Brutalism’ is called that just because it’s brutal, but in fact, it’s a play on the French term ‘béton brut’, for raw concrete. It’s easy to forget now that when this architecture went up, it was intended to make life better for people. Goldfinger referred to its corridors as ‘streets in the sky’, and the plan included incredibly optimistic landscaping: Balfron has private yards for the bottom flats, mature trees and shrubberies shielding it from the A12, and light coming at it from all directions. Its flats meander up and down levels, and have balconies and stupendous views.
A website by a Trellick Tower resident, Chris Paulsen, gives the flavour of its aspirations towards good living:
The flats themselves are large by tower-block standards, & packed with space-saving devices. … Doors of wood & glass slide rather than open out, & can be used to partition certain parts of each flat. Glass is plentiful in order to let in as much natural light as possible… Adjoining the main tower is a service tower. This incorporates lifts, stairs, & refuse chutes, as well as a boiler house. The lifts stop at every third floor, meaning that in some flats the bedrooms are above, & in some below, the entrance level. The flats have large balconies which, if you are high enough up, offer views across the North Downs.
My own personal knowledge of Balfron Tower reached its zenith in 2001, when, as a publicity officer for Tower Hamlets’ housing department, I toured the place with a deputation from Trellick Tower, and a member of its resident management committee. The reason they were visiting was very simple: Trellick was in trouble and needed a major overhaul. (The figure given at the time was £9m to get it up to its original standard.) Balfron and Trellick are ‘sister buildings’; Goldfinger learned some lessons from Balfron, but by 2001 they were like twins raised separately.
Trellick had, being in (even if only north) Kensington, been gentrified while the East End was still thought of as a wild space. Its tenants were that bit more prosperous, and more able to get mortgages, and had bought their flats under Right to Buy. However, many new owners didn’t have the money to maintain the flats – or else they did have the money, and took out original features. Kensington’s reputation for affluence got in the way of attempts to secure funding. They had a vandalism problem, and some of the original features – such as the marble that had been in the entry area – had been stolen. The building had been designed to have a concierge but for many years it never had one. No one was – literally – keeping an eye on things. It was in a bad spot.
Balfron, by contrast, had had a boring life, with tenants instead of leaseholders, and with several rounds of major works on it – new windows, for example, and new asphalt in the external linking walkways. It also had more of its original features, like the quarry tiles lining the corridors – different colours on different floors – and its flats had more of their original fittings – for example their bakelite light switches instead of Thatcherite gold-look ones. And Balfron had had one asset money can’t buy: it had had one very hands-on, community-spirited caretaker for almost twenty years.
I interviewed Irvine Gallagher, otherwise known as Jock, for the council’s newspaper, East End Life, around the time of this tour of the block. (I knew him a bit to have a drink with; when I rang him to suggest the interview, there was a long silence, and then he growled: ‘IN THE PUB.’) He told me, ‘When we took over this estate from the good old GLC it was a disaster area. Burnt-out cars, black soot stains, bin rooms full of old rubbish’.
‘No one knows as much as me about Balfron Tower’, he said. ‘I know how the whole building works, where everything is. I’ve had calls from housing management, architects, heating engineers. They wanted to put in new central heating but it’s listed, they couldn’t run the gas pipes up the outside – I identified where the cupboards were, and internal routes where they could run their pipes. I know how the flats fit together, this one on one level, this one on two – I always know where the water’s coming from’.
Jock was a people person, though, as well as being able to do 3D mental mapping. ‘I know everything that happens here’, he said. ‘Everybody knows me and I know everybody . I know all the kids, who their mums and dads are. I’ll knock on someone’s door if I’ve seen them doing something. Nine times out of ten people are grateful and say they didn’t know their kid was doing whatever.
‘But there isn’t much vandalism. We’ve got CCTV, and if a kid is doing something we can see them. We call out the window, “Smile for the camera!” You should see them run!’
Happy days. Also around the time of this interview, Jock had to apply for his job, as the council was bringing in ‘super-caretakers’ – a sort of Blairite caretaker-manager position. I spoke to him right after his interview and he said it had gone really badly. It lasted five minutes.
Five minutes! What went wrong?? ‘Well what was I supposed to do’, he growled down the phone. ‘Spend an hour talking about fucking BLEACH.’
So the job went to someone else, and Jock became an under-caretaker, and I heard last year that he had recently passed on.
My other personal connection with Balfron Tower is that when I was working in that job, my marriage had broken up and my children and I were living in adorable but extreme overcrowding in a wisteria-garlanded one-bedroom flat in Hackney. Things were difficult, and at just this juncture a flat came on the market in Balfron Tower for something like £37,900. But Balfron was in Poplar, and my kid were in school in Stoke Newington, and you couldn’t raise a mortgage in Poplar (or a tower block) to save your life, and I had no savings at all… In one corner of my brain I have always lived there.
I left that job few months after the Balfron tour and the interview with Jock, and have no idea how Balfron Tower fell into the situation it’s in today. It’s about to have the makeover of a lifetime, which will also catapult it into a new social class. Indeed, as life imitates art, the millennial city imitates the famous ‘I Love My Life as a Dickhead’ video, wherein the hipsters have taken over Trellick Tower. For with the ensuing works, and the the huge project of decanting all of Balfron’s tenants underway, Balfron’s flats have been let all year at cheap rents to artists, to keep the place full – and, presumably, soften up a tiny little social transformation.
Balfron went to sleep as a brave and plucky social housing experiment; is currently dreaming a strange technicolor dream; and will wake up, what only feels like a lifetime later, a princess.
And it’s some slight consolation to know that, if I had bought that flat all those years ago, I’d have a big headache just about now.
The photos are from the exhibition Balfron Tower An Unrealised Future, featuring work by photographers Michael Mulcahy, Mike Seaborne, Peter Luck and James Wakefield. This runs until this Sunday (21st September), 12 – 6 pm at Flat 89, Balfron Tower, Poplar, E14 0QT (2 min. walk from All Saints DLR). Buzz flat 89 for entry.
See also: Edward Heath’s Feet
From Open Dalston, 20 December & 11 February 2014:
From Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire* by Iain Sinclair:
Once a street is noticed it’s doomed. Endgame squatters, slogans. DALSTON! WHO ASKED U? PROTECTED BY OCCUPATION. Torched terraces. Overlapping, many-coloured tags. Aerosol signatures on silver roll-down shutters. Scrofulous rubble held up by flyers for weekend noise events. THIS WORLD IS RULED BY THOSE WHO LIE. They said, the ones who make it their business to investigate such things, that there was a direct relationship between properties that applied for conservation status and arson attacks, petrol bombs. Unexplained fires. Moscow methods arrived in town with the first sniff of post-Soviet money. Russian clubs were opening in the unlikeliest places. We no longer had much to offer in the way of oil and utilities, energy resources, but we had heritage to asset-strip: Georgian wrecks proud of their status.
* Hamish Hamilton, 2009.
D.S.: The shameful saga of Dalston Lane is a microcosm of the fate of the East End as a whole: a sorry mash-up of corporate and council greed flying under the discredited banner of ‘regeneration’. The cynical, Blairite language of contemporary urban development expressed by developers and local authorities deserves a study in itself: ‘affordable housing’ (i.e. ‘unaffordable affordable housing’); councils ‘competing’ with other boroughs for resources (food? water? air?); ‘conservation-led schemes’ (wherein conservation is a synonym for demolition – along the lines of, ‘We had to demolish the terrace in order to conserve it.’). It is language that might have been invented by Orwell. The fact that a Labour council is responsible for such wanton cynicism towards its own residents is deeply depressing and makes one despair for the fate of the city. The death of Dalston Lane is the death of London.
For further reading on this long-festering matter, see Bill Parry-Davies’ site Open Dalston.