Ken Worpole – terrific defence of the untamed and unregulated

Latest (post Games) review by Ken Worpole of the book in SPACES 2012  – news and views about Hackney’s built environment from the Hackney Society. Issue 38 Autumn 2012.


After the Party, the hangover and the bill. Even those sceptical about the Olympics and Paralympics should be please and relieved that the games passed safely and enjoyably. Even so, it remains important to remember what seemed so disturbing at the time – the suspension of routine planning and policing procedures, the swathe of compulsory purchase orders, the frequent misrepresentation of the site and the people who lived and worked there as being in a state of near dereliction-amongst the proliferation of many dubious practices. This collection of essays, photographs, artworks is an invaluable aide memoire to what all the fuss was about, particularly as developers set about creating a 21st century model of urban living bearing little relation to what existed before, Given that there are over 60 contributors, the editors have adroitly shaped the argument of the book into a coherent narrative under the themes of ‘incursions;, ‘excavations’, ‘displacements’ and ‘aftermaths’. It replays close reading,

Oliver Wainwright and Juliet Davis seperately provide an unnerving glimpse of what may yet come. Wainwright suggests we note what is happening in Stratford immediately adjacent to the site. High rise apartment  blocks in gaudy colours are mushrooming everywhere, mostly owned by overseas investors keen to get in on the ‘buy to let’ market, often characterised by high tenant turnover, multiple occupancy and absentee landlordism. Things may turn out better in hte five new Olympic communities subject to much more stringent regulation we are told, but here the story goes the other wya. In the imagery of the lifestyles portrayed in promotional literature there are no libraries, charity shops, betting shops, corner cafes, queues for buses, skate boarders, dogs or cats, mosques or churches just shiny happy people walking pristine streets. Really?

The disillusion with a dominant corporate visual imagery and code is expressed by many artists, who remain fascinated by the power of entropy and unregulated use (the ideas of the American land artist Robert Smithson inform the work of a number of contributors). There is more sadness than anger, though sometimes humour is the best revenge, Photographer Chris Dorley-Brown describes a series of hilarious engagements with police or security guards  who try to prevent him from photographing near the site, revealing that the security personnel were often as confused as everybody else as to what was going on.  The comradeship of the former Manor Garden Allotment gardeners is remembered fondly as are theself sufficient lifestyle of boaters and members of Clays Lane housing co-operative.

If the spirit of the book can be summarised in one phrase it was coined by the architectural group studio superniche  who argue for “the cause of the niche against the tide of the generic”. Niches are at the heart of biodiversity, as they are complex social systems, and the River Lea was once the home of a multiplicity of ecological, industrial and elective  social niches.  This eclectic kaleidoscopic collection offers a terrific defence of the untamed and unregulated without the hubris of ‘we told you so.’