Enchanting places

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I’m doing a FutureLearn course on Urban Design, called Enchanting Cities. I’m keen to learn about the different disciplines and practices around and beyond architecture and placemaking because Flow has the contract to run Cultivate, a creative placemaking programme for young people in the Nine Elms regeneration area of London. I’m blogging my learning here to share with my colleagues.

The course set a task to find and share a place where there is either diversity of building types, or effect created by a ‘starchitect’ and iconic buildings. I was trying to think of an enchanting place in London that has been recently developed. It was hard to think of somewhere, so I just looked around where I happened to be going. Last night I went to Trinity Buoy Wharf, near East India Dock, opposite from the Millennium Dome and looking East to Canary Wharf. It is described as ‘Docklands’ most exciting arts quarter’ although I’d only vaguely heard of it and not visited before. This area was a centre for manufacture of buoys, and also shipping containers. There is an irony in this, in that it is container ships with their huge capacities that contributed to the demise of the Pool of London, as they could not come into the shallow water to be unloaded by hand. 109,000 people were working in Pool of London in the 1960s, and 5 years later there were only 9000.

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John Burton from Urban Space Management gave us a talk and tour. I was there for the private view of the John Ruskin drawing prize, all about documenting changing Britain, and the leaving party of Sue Grayson-Ford from the Big Draw, which she has led for 16 years. Incidentally, if you’re keen to explore this area, you could go along to Big Draw’s urban sketch crawl this Saturday 21st May. USM won the contract to develop the Wharf in 1996, and it was designated as a cultural zone. The old warehouse buildings are converted into art studios, workshops, gallery space and a private school (the Faraday school). The smell of rope and tar still lingers, imbued in the brickwork. The most exciting bit of our tour was to see the Experimental Lighthouse. I’m really into lighthouses, as I devised a songwriting project with schools to celebrate Orford’s threatened lighthouse. In part this project aimed to raise awareness of rising sea levels eroding the coast and threatening our coastal heritage. Lighthouses are like symbolic beacons mitigating threats from the sea. This was funded by HLF, so it was appropriate that I was climbing the lighthouse steps with Karen Brookfield, deputy director of HLF and was able to thank her for the funding making it possible.

Anyway, back to this lighthouse. The site was occupied for nearly two centuries by Trinity House that oversaw lighthouses. This was a lighthouse for training, research and development. The most famous experimenter here was Michael Faraday. For example he designed a new kind of chimney to stop lamp gases combusting. It is small and modest, but it contains an extraordinary and magical thing, the artwork Longplayer, by Jem Finer. This is a concentric installation of shelves with brass sonic bowls, and sounds resonating around the room, designed to play for 1000 years. You can listen to this online and in some listening posts around the world but it feels like a spiritual experience to be in its centre, and to think about London’s history stretching back 1000 years into the past when its river was much wider and gradually narrowed by development, and then 1000 years into the future as it will be surely affected by climate change. I was thinking about how shipping now contributes so much to climate change (but was left out of the Paris climate deal) – so much so that if the shipping industry was a country it would be the sixth biggest emitter.

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Climate is the ultimate threat facing London, but a more immediate or perhaps obvious threat is the rapid pace of development. The hyperdensity of development causes some insensitive juxtapositions. And, even here at Trinity Buoy Wharf we find a problem. Ballymore wants to build 804 apartments here, but the Wharf trust and USM is objecting because they are ‘overpowering’. I noticed that this development is called ‘Ecoworld’ with the slogan ‘Creating tomorrow and beyond’.

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I wonder how long that ‘beyond’ will last? Will the bowls of Longplayer still be ringing out and heard by human ears in 1000 years? Will urban designers and property developers start to respond seriously to the threat of ecological collapse? Will cities come to be designed in collaboration with industries that supply food and goods, to reduce the climate impacts of agribusiness and shipping?

These days I find I can’t really be enchanted by any kind of public artwork or cultural zone unless I feel that it helps me or the world address these issues in some way. Longplayer does in an odd kind of way, by raising the question of our relationship to time and by inviting dialogue. I like the fact that this sonorous artwork is here right in the centre of a lighthouse, ringing out sounds where once were lights, and the ring of metallic bowls echoing the imagined sound from the giant buoys you can still see round the site.

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