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.
A London street artist writes:
I remember living in Hackney Wick around six years ago, just as it was being transformed from a barren industrial area into a ‘funky’ neighbourhood full of vegan coffee shops and ‘warehouse raves’ that had guest lists and cocktails, interspersed with re-purposed plant hire buildings that had been turned into artists’ studio spaces.
I had been a graffiti writer for about four or five years before moving there, and at that point in time I was spending a lot of time utilising the easy access to train tracks from Hackney Wick station to go painting at night. The thing was, Hackney Wick was full of ‘street artists’, yet I never saw any of them on my nightly overground rail missions. The reason for this was that they were mostly drinking chai tea in their studios, plastering canvases with stencilled pop-culture icons or images connoting cunning political/social commentary… But it was still ‘street art’. All the courtyards of the shared warehouse living spaces were covered in pieces, yet the streets surrounding them were bare.
This was the crest of the wave of socially acceptable, tongue-in-cheek street art. It was naughty, but only when it was allowed to be. It was rarely painted illegally, and rarely in places where lots of people could see it; inside the living room of a sandal-clad nut-loaf artisan, or on a peaceful stretch of canal. While the original breed of London graffiti writers tried to paint busy train lines and rooftops, these ‘street artists’ prefer to hit up Tumblr, Flickr and Twitter with photos of their work. ‘Getting up’ has been integral to graffiti culture since the beginning – it is the pure manifestation of the territorial roots of the art form, except now the art form is becoming gentrified, intellectualised and critiqued by Guardian columnists, and ‘getting up’ has turned into social media marketing. While all this is happening, grass-roots graffiti writers are still being locked up with criminal damage charges, sitting in police cells around the corner from a perspex-enclosed stencil that may or may not have been painted by Banksy.
Two street artists, Boe and Irony, recently painted a four story chihuahua on the side of a tower block. They suggest in an interview to have pulled this off without alerting anyone as to their activity. I mean, granted, the piece is nice. It’s a definite improvement over the old, plain brick wall, However, as someone who has spent their fair share of time crawling around on rooftops and side streets with buckets of paint, I don’t buy it. All credit to them if they actually managed to walk around the streets with their faces covered from the cameras, holding a fuck off ladder and the 20+ cans of spray paint they would have needed, set up shop on a residential building for 4+ hours and paint an entire face of said building without anyone even knowing they were there. That would be fucking impressive. There are writers who have been painting in this city for decades, who know all the dark secrets of how to get into train yards undetected and have hit up at least one rooftop in every borough in the city, who wouldn’t attempt a stunt like that.
Street art has always had its own lines of communication. Taggers, know each other by tag and reputation and possibly on the tracks. It’s territorial. Now, the territory is worldwide. The territory is in the bank. The artists get cash, the local authorities who pay them get kudos, and global gentrification accelerates week by week. ‘Street art’ is becoming just another kind of civic prettification – even the Southbank Centre has commissioned some to make itself appear more relevant. Individual neighbourhoods may get brightened up, but the work is mainly for the portfolio and the commercial opportunity.
The big street animals are unobjectionable. Even the Daily Mail likes them. People didn’t want Hackney Council to paint over the rabbit in Hackney Road a few years back – it’s inoffensive and it got a reprieve (and no-one likes Hackney Council). But now you get big animals wherever business is moving in on an ‘up and coming’ area. I see a giant bird or squirrel or fox and all I see is money.
… for The London Column.
From Urbanism and Spatial Order by Erno Goldfinger, 1931:
From the point of view of the town, the individual is a mere brick in the spatial order of the street or square.
Thus sprach Erno Goldfinger, doyen of the Modern Movement, Brutalist visionary, Marxist voluptuary, and namesake of James Bond’s most memorable antagonist. (The story goes that Ian Fleming was unimpressed by the house Goldfinger built for himself in Hampstead, whose construction required the demolition of some pretty Victorian cottages. In revenge, Fleming appropriated the architect’s name for 007’s next outing; Goldfinger is supposed to have considered legal action.)
Goldfinger’s most conspicuous buildings in London are Elephant and Castle’s Metro Central Heights (formerly Alexander Fleming House, no relation), West Kensington’s Trellick Tower, and Trellick’s almost-identical East End counterpart Balfron Tower in Poplar. Trellick and Balfron are often cited as inspirations for J.G. Ballard’s dystopian classic High Rise, wherein the denizens of an exclusive tower block turn feral.
To some extent, Trellick Tower saw this narrative played out in reverse. Commissioned in 1967 as social housing for the London County Council, upon completion in 1972 Trellick quickly became a ‘problem’ estate. There was talk of demolition, it became a byword for urban grit (name-checked in The Sweeney no less) – but, facilitated by the gentrification of seedy/glamorous West London and an increased appreciation of the charms of ‘mid-century modern’, the tower gradually became a suitable address for aspirational professionals, and was Grade II listed in 1998 – two years after Balfron was.
Now it is east London’s turn. Balfron appeared first, topped-out in 1967 in an environment even more forbidding than old West Kensington. The location is still uncompromising: Balfron abuts the churning A12, feeding the Blackwall Tunnel just two hundred yards to the south. This piece of civic engineering affords majestic views of Balfron from the east and south but blights the lower floors facing the motorway. Balfron’s unprecedented height, hammered concrete finish, and stand-alone service tower with flying corridors and arrow-slit windows combine to give it a distinctly pugnacious aspect. The overall impression is of an urban fortress – a building fit to shelter the last bastions of humanity against marauding zombies (a role it plays in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later).
Balfron and its sister block, low-rise Carradale House (also by Goldfinger), are relics of a lost civic culture. There was a time not that long ago when modernity was a form of social utopianism. The East End had been blitzed, the residual housing stock was seen as Dickensian, and a clean, futuristic solution (Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Docklands) was an irresistible prospect for the ambitious bods at the LCC.
Balfron Tower was a brave project, and it took a fearless architect to see it through. It was intended to herald a dawn of new, better housing. Its flats meander up and down different levels, and the interiors are full of sensitive detailing. Goldfinger himself spent two months living in one of its penthouse flats, to evaluate the building; this led to important technical variations at Trellick when it was built a few years later. Amongst other things, he made sure Trellick had three lists instead of just two, after finding himself waiting twenty minutes for a lift to Balfron’s 27th floor.
Faced with accusations that his building constituted social engineering, he was robust: ‘I have created nine separate streets, on nine different levels, all with their own rows of front doors. The people living here can sit on their doorsteps and chat to the people next door if they want to. A community spirit is still possible even in these tall blocks, and any criticism that it isn’t is just rubbish.’
For all its elegance, sincerity, attention to detail, and integrity of construction, Balfron suffers from design flaws which mitigate the modernist dream: the lifts don’t serve every floor, concrete decay is an issue, and the uninsulated solid walls suffer from heat loss. However, the East End is being relentlessly gentrified, and Balfron is about to be transformed into a block fit for the well-heeled and design-conscious (let us call them hipsters). The old tenants have been decanted elsewhere for the works to begin, and before the tower gets its upscale makeover, Balfron has become a sort of temporary sink estate for artists – this in response to special cheap deals on the rent – who are softening the place up for a bourgeois and executive future.
The accepted rubric is that the artists ‘inject new life into communities’; and in recent times Balfron has itself become something of an installation. In 2010 it hosted an ’empowering’ photographic project, and this year has seen, amongst other things, a site-specific production of Macbeth, not to mention a bid by a Turner-prize nominated artist to throw a piano off its roof (abandoned after protests from residents that someone could get killed).
All this corporately-licensed conceptual ‘playfulness’ masks the fact that an important piece of public housing is being very deliberately annexed by the private sector. No longer a vision of better housing for a better future, Balfron is now the deadest of things: a design icon, a beacon for those who crave tokens of retro-urbanism. Owen Hatherley has coined the term ‘Gormleyism’ to describe the use of Antony Gormley’s solitary figures as cultural embroidery in bland civic developments; perhaps ‘Balfronism’ will become shorthand for the use of artists en masse as a form of social cleansing.
The patina of time makes quaint what was once brave, difficult, or merely awful. It won’t be long before ‘Ballardian’ is a term used by estate agents. D.S.