Friday, 1 April 2011

Genius Loci: Barking

Barking is potentially going to become the first place in Britain to elect a Fascist MP. Although electing Fascists is considered normal in much of oh-so-civic continental Europe (a cheap shot, I know, but the point remains) in the UK it is often still, rightly, considered alarming that such a thing could potentially occur. There are some excellent, sharp analyses of this, as well as some stupid and knee-jerk ones (here is the best I've read so far), but I won't pretend this post is anything other than a light skimming of the (architectural) surface, based on a walk withsomeone whose natural territory this is. We walked there from Canning Town, not for sexy urban degradation frisson, but because she's currently working there, and thought I would find it interesting. Which I did.

The area we saw was Barking Central (in regenerator's order), rather than, say, Becontree, a huge 1920-30s estate which by some accounts is where lots of the BNP support is concentrated. This is a shame, as from what I know about it - council cottages in very close vicinity to a giant Ford works - it sounds a lot like one of the places where I grew up, but time was short. The area has been subject to a very ambitious regeneration scheme, which local MP, unctuous Blairite and spectacularly philistine 'culture minister' Margaret Hodge has described as 'her kind of architecture'. This is hardly a recommendation, but the comprehensiveness of the whole thing is at least impressive - there's a typically detailed and scrupulous analysis by Ellis Woodman here. Barking feels like a different territory very quickly. As soon as you pass under the flyover, the difference between the terraced density of east Ham and Barking's sprawling suburbia is noticeable, with a straggling collection of dodgy pomo, Victorian factories, '30s semis, tower blocks and wasteland announcing it, which then fades into a quite pleasant town centre, marked by medieval remains, pedestrianised shops and town-centre office blocks, all on roughly the same scale as, say, Dartford - though significantly more multiracial than the latter. This is one ofthe tiny handful of BNP strongholds that actually has a high level of immigration. Customarily, this is presented as being about housing - no new council housing has been built for decades, and right-to-buy has warped the perception of what exists - although to suggest that racism has nothing to do with it would be foolish. As Laura points out, the Fascist sympathisers in places like Bethnal Green didn't disappear in the 1990s - they went somewhere.

The edges of the town centre are where the tensions lie. One side features a large, derelict shopping parade, which has flats at the back, curving around a car park and some lumps that might or might not have been public art of some description, or mere traffic-controlling blobs; whether its been a recipient of Regeneration or not, it's surely undeniable that leaving a load of housing derelict in the middle of a housing crisis is rather grotesque, especially in a place this charged. It's hard to decide which side is the more depressing, the flats - which, I suspect, are probably of decent Parker-Morris proportions - or the shops, which were in the following case no doubt even more depressing when they were open. The race to the bottom, not even jollied up or glorified.

The eye is drawn, though, to two pieces of very jolly architecture. First, the Town Hall, proof that there are simply no uninteresting town halls in London, a Dudok-Georgian mashup with a wonderfully unscholarly silliness. The belltower appears to be full of suspicious-looking telecommunications equipment, and Bobbies On The Beat walk back and forth in front of it at a more regular rate than I'm used to seeing, presumably to make sure the place doesn't explode, although the centre seems calm enough on a superficial level. Then there's AHMM's Barking Central development. AHMM are some sort of exemplar of Blairite architecture at its most thoroughly developed, a glossy, brightly-coloured neomodernism that feels like CGI even when you touch it, Bruno Taut relocated to DOSAC in The Thick of It - their tendency to the rictus grin occasionally conceals talent, but if there's a better exemplar of New Labour architecture than the atrium of Westminster Academy, I don't know what it is. In the article linked above, Woodman is scathing about the contrast between the Fun of the facades and the grimness of the small, single-aspect flats - leading to 'the sense that the architect has allowed itself to be cast as a variety of Butlins Redcoat, ladling on the jollity in an attempt — both tyrannical and hopeless — to keep the poverty of the underlying conditions from mind.' I can't add much more to that.

Some of it is 'affordable housing', that all-purpose get-out-clause, and it bears constant repeating that affordable housing is not council housing, is usually shared-ownership or slightly cheaper to-buy, and so makes virtually no difference to the problems that are purportedly stirring up the BNP vote. Let's imagine for a moment, irrespective of the crappy space standards, what a gesture it would have been if a development this large, this shiny and optimistic, were let to council tenants - how many political arguments would then be won at a stroke. As it is, the place is not altogether hideous, for all its fiddling-while-rome-burns nature, and part of that is due to extraneous things, extras on the architecture which are surprisingly clever, and suggest how much more could have been done here - the colonnades (which may be by Muf rather than AHMM, though I'm unsure) are great, the size of the site letting the architects do something they couldn't have squeezed into a tight plot of inner-city CABEism - it's an actually quite pleasant and successful public space. The main occupants of the space appear to be the pigeons.

Across from this is - honesty here, at least, in the choice of name - the Folly, designed by Muf. It's rather asking to be judged as a description for the entire project, an act of expensive futility - but the sheer aggression of it marks it out as something perhaps more interesting, one of the few built instantiations of the recent ruin-mania of any consequence (cf). It's a compellingly weird urban object, from the headless creatures lined up and inset into it, to the gates leading nowhere -and there is after all a ruined abbey nearby - but the suggestion that it might be some comment or satire on the surrounding scheme, or on AHMM's refusal to imagine the possibility of ageing or weathering in their buildings, seems a bit much, although placing a sheep atop the whole thing has at least some tongue-poking symbolism. It derives from a much more interesting kind of architectural thought than the rest, but I can't help wishing Matthew Darbyshire had got the jobinstead. If he hadn't already.

Two other things in the middle of Barking that caught our eye....

One is Barking Station, one of Ian Nairn's favourite modern buildings, given typically forthright praise in Nairn's London, an angular roof in concrete so richly, darkly shuttered that it's hard to remind yourself it isn't wood, a bespoke station which suggests Barking could be somewhere quite special, a local centre far from Zone 1 which nonetheless has a sharp, defined identity for itself, which isn't reducible to being just another notch in the commuter belt. The other is a shopping mall, a glass and fibreglass atrium that resembles the iron-and-glass canopies of Leeds City Markets relocated to Thorpe Park, picked out in pink, with a false top-floor and an interesting selection of shops. Here, we found two images which fit certain Barking of them doesn't need much comment.

The other exemplifies the pandering that, as the NS article above makes clear, runs through Barking politics. You could see it in the notorious edition of Question Time, where the other politicians asserted how tough they would be on immigration, in a spectacularly misbegotten attempt to lessen Fascist support by telling them their policies were justified - but while they say it because they're racists, we say it because it's true (well done all). So everything is advertised as being for The Locals. At least they don't use the term 'indigenous'. Aside from the tacit racism, it doth protest too much - the implication is that there's something to prove here, that when they aren't loudly pointing it out, housing and jobs might not be going to 'locals'. But looking at the way a huge swathe of Barking has been redeveloped neither in the interests of council tenants or the poorer incomers, and how large-scale and blaring a development that is, you have to wonder who is fooling who here.

Posted on SDMYABT on 21/4/10


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