"We left the house in Alderney Street together to walk a little way out of town along the Mile End Road to the large Tower Hamlets cemetery, which is surrounded by a tall, dark brick wall and, like the adjoining complex of St Clement’s Hospital, according to a remark made by Austerlitz in passing, was one of the scenes of this phase of his story. In the twilight falling over London we walked slowly falling along the paths of the cemetery, past monuments erected by the Victorians to commemorate their dead, past mausoleums, marble crosses, stelae and obelisks, bulbous urns and statues of angels, many of them wingless or otherwise mutilated.."
(Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald p320)
Following in the inquisitive footsteps of Sebald’s protagonist we went forth, criss-crossing the dense and varied social topology that extends from Mile End to Bromley-by-Bow. For our initial project, a ‘test strip’, the 2013 London-based group of students from Diploma Unit 6 were tasked with exploring and surveying a diverse but deprived borough - one with the highest rate of child poverty in the city.
The exercise involved mapping the metabolism of a region, outlining the spirit of a place and gaining a fluency in the ways the site’s character surprises and delights as it permeates a range of spatial scales: building, street, neighbourhood. As well as uncovering some of Tower Hamlets’ energy, novelty and history. Such mapping finds also that the physical and cultural artefacts betray the vast urban anxiety, dereliction and madness so vividly captured in Austerlitz.
The site in question falls in an ambiguous fringe between the energetic hubs of the City, the Olympic Park and Canary Wharf. Locally, the area selected for our investigation is bounded conspicuously by major transport arteries: pieces of massive civic infrastructure which threaten to dominate the fragile feel of this small district, suffocating the life of it by their impassability. To the North stretches unbroken the loud and unforgiving Mile End Road, hailed as Highstreet 2012 during the Olympics, this road was the site of three of November’s shocking series of cyclist deaths. To the South, the intersection of three Victorian railway lines generates a web of divided urban pockets in a warren of low-density industry and intrigue. The effect of these rail tracks on the site typifies the urbanism of the ‘East End’ - a term which gained a pejorative sense in the social fallout from the 19th century’s rapid and unplanned expansion of a desperate population alongside the ruthless industrial spatiality of docks, mills and the railway.
To the East, access to the River Lea Valley and historic mill district beyond is abruptly cut short by the Blackwall Tunnel approach. The limit of the site is marked at the North-east corner by Bow Church, where a statue of William Gladstone with bloodied hands overlooks a traffic island before Bow roundabout. Further down, to the South-East Bromley-by-Bow is another edge marker made boldly visible by St Andrew’s recent addition of towering residential blocks. Lastly, to the West, the long Millennium Park following Regent’s Canal offers an edge to the site, sympathetically, but absolutely. This greened strip now sits atop the rubble of the houses intensively bombed in some of the worst of the destruction wrought by World War Two on London.
Somewhat hidden behind unkempt trees, but commanding a strategic position at the centre of this metropolitan block stands the former St Clement’s Hospital: a workhouse, before it was an asylum. The walled site begins on Mile End Road and backs onto Tower Hamlets Cemetery park, (a 27 acre woodland in zone 2!) This large central piece in the mosaic of the site aptly presents two quintessential heterotopias, in the terms of Foucault, asylums and cemeteries are spaces of otherness, altered microcosms of city life, found typically on the fringe of society, where life crises can be processed, or deviations perpetrated.
It is on this site, closed since 2005, that London’s first Community Land Trust is being developed. On our first visit we were introduced to the Trust and their Shuffle festival, whose aims parallel those of the unit: to be a catalyst for adaptive change, cultural exchange and authentic revitalisation, at the heart of a hinterland marked by the volatility of migration, rash regeneration and a lack of legible public centres. And in the vein of the ELCLT’s ambition, the preliminary project, following the survey, was to conceive adaptations, subtle erasures and additions to the existing found fabric of Mile End and Bromley-by-Bow.
This exercise sent us to draw out the jewels in the metabolism, like Kingsley Hall, which embody a memory with many layers, here the temporary home to Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, elsewhere thousands of stories of historic Huguenot refugees, Irish weavers, Ashkenazi Jews and, in the 20th century, Bangladeshis - who have shaped the landscape, defined the economy and rendered this topology rich with potential for an architecture of exchange.