What you notice is the emptiness. Not just the huge empty wastes outside, but the empty-headedness of a society that has abandoned all hope that it could create something better than this bloody mess. ~ Owen Hatherley
2006 was the first time I went to the then future Olympics Park site on a school field trip. The objective was to get a feel and visualise the Olympic structures that was to be built on the vast industrial wilderness. It was a large over grown weed infested wasteland with occasional intervals of industrial infrastructure.
Stratford in East London is a deprived neighbourhood in the London Borough of Newham. The area was the subject of round the clock bombing raids by the Luftwaffe in the 1940s. Post war rebuilding began with modernised planning, tower-blocks and social housing where the impoverished in the tower-blocks would appreciate the Victorian houses in the horizon. The nasty contrast was a concoction of an unfinished dream. During the 80s and 90s the popular notion of fragmented modern urbanism continued with no regards for the overall landscape. First came social housing that already started to look aged, but then came something radically different.
It is good to be a bit like Barcelona!
With grids of well planned streets, sustaining residential properties, shop fronts and offices – single purpose offices or businesses should not predominate.
2005 – London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Westfield Group, argued that the original Barcelona style plan wasn’t working; flats above shops were bad for business. Instead a massive lump of shopping centre with hotels (‘Shop then sleep’ as Premiere Inn will tell you ), casinos and ‘state of the art’ cinema was the answer. This was an idea which backed the robotic segregation of a different more modern urbanism; shopping complex, village, stadium and pet project of Boris Johnson and Lakshmi Mittal all inclusive in the Olympic site.
The building of Westfield Straford City shopping centre is larger than anything else in the area or in Europe; 1.9 million square feet (20 times the area of St Paul’s Cathedral), boasts to be the biggest urban shopping centre in Europe; is right at the edge of the London 2012 Olympic site.
A shopping complex, clad in clean ceramic and glass surfaces, within a few year swallowed half of Stratford, obscuring everything in its way; from office blocks to train stations. It had a strange contagious effect on the area; the retail portal with its vast empty 5000 capacity of multi-storey car park. You can’t walk there, you can only drive there.
Stratford Railway Works once had a vast site here which closed in 1991; North Norfolk railway still has one of its working goods locomotive decedents. Stratford always had a love fair with its transportation infrastructure. As a result, many people will use the public transport. At least the previously inaccessible industrial land will have no concern when it comes to public transport.
Crucially, there is nothing to look at and be amazed. The Wembley Way like corridor that leads to the Olympic Park is neither eye catching nor iconic. The only thing you can see from the portal is a bland white bowl which was once graced by the likes of Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis-Hill. The new landscape isn’t concerned about the visuals. The hapless legacy of the landscape and architecture will remain for generations to come.
Then came the usual worry about the death of the local high-street. The pound shops survived but the local retail facilities suffered from the increased competition. Off course, Westfield won’t be the only retail feature of the area – others in include the Stratford Shopping Centre, Becton retail park, Gallion’s Reach Shopping Park among many others. Tears should also be shred for the out-of-town facilities like Bluewater in Kent or Lakeside in Thurock or the shopping thoroughfare of Oxford Street and Central London. To be fair Westfield created an extra 10,000 jobs for the local folks, but on the other hand it did off-set a string of job losses from the retail businesses who lost customers. Nonetheless, it might actually be good if the congested high street pavements might thin out and some of the premises can find other uses than shopping.
The gigantic Westfield Stratford City was the gateway to the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics games. 7 million of the estimated 10 million people passed through the retail corridor. The Australian Westfield Group, also a sponsor of the games welcomed international visitors to the very British Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park with big signs of Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Aspers casino. To paraphrase Napoleon, Olympics visitors indulged themselves with the impression that Britain is a nation of mindless shopkeepers.
This consumerist statement clad in wipe-clean glass surfaces is exactly opposite of what is needed. The local folks can barely afford Poundland and Tesco not Prada and Waitrose and I’m one of them. I’m not saying that Westfield will incite a ‘rioting and looting’ sentiment amongst the locals because material riches are being placed in a deprived area where the access to it is then blocked due to socio-economic circumstances. Perhaps the whole project doesn’t feel right because its sole purpose is to satisfy the rich rather than address the less well off.
Westfield isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It puts the east-end on the map alongside the Olympics legacy. But it is unnecessary? There are ample amount of retail facilities still available in the local vicinity and around London. Ideally, I would have preferred to see a 180-acre vast open square for public and public use only. In theory Westfield is a dream of the future which is here a decade too early. At least it isn’t anyone’s nightmare, not yet!
Image courtesy of HerryLawford