As the result of a chance encounter with design students studying the impact of the olympics on the unique area of Hackney Wick, Colin Priest has organised their work in to an exposition to coincide with the London Festival of Architecture

The prospect of urban change and the everyday negotiation of regeneration can be uniquely witnessed in Hackney Wick right now. Cut off by the infrastructural margins of the A12, the Lea River and the Greenway path, the area has become a peripheral periphery, a working island nevertheless. Signifcant as an influential creative urban community on the edge of Olympic transformation, it is simultaneously a curiously solitary place on the brink of irreversible change. From a confused urban melting pot of historic fish smokeries, out-of-the-way industrial complexes and, most recently, extensive consultation processes, residents await an urban renaissance and imminent initiation of legacy. As a resident of the area, I witnessed that the transformation was most apparent to me in the disruption of everyday street life. So I began roaming the area and recording these events on wickers – an eventful online record of public-realm investment.

It was on these regular check-up walks that I bumped into a number of students coincidentally assigned the area as a theoretical site for study in their various degree courses. Eventually I discovered 12 design student groups working in the area, all unknown to each other. A plan then emerged to organise an exposition of sorts to showcase the group’s various work in time for the 2012 London Festival of Architecture. It includes dossiers and drawings from the student groups and the public, and contributes to a larger local discussion about how the next generation of designers sees this landscape.

The area of enquiry sits vaguely between the Lea River inside the Olympic site and the A12, taking in Three Mills to the south and Mabley Green to the north. In this area the transformation and stasis of urban renewal, and perhaps a motivating force for the breadth of inquisition, can be found. What follows is a brief precis of the work, which now froms part of the exposition.

Constructing an ecology

Before the Olympics the landscape was marked as brownfield and labelled as purposeless. In any city context this is debatable, but not many can dispute that the area has now been replenished with wildlife and recreation. Project ADS5, led by Jon Goodbun, Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui and Justin CK Lau at the Royal College of Art, explored the construct of an ecology in an investigation that considered the near-future, non-linear environments of material production and socio-spatial events to uncover radical forms of breathing architectures.

Water lines

The guiding threads of the area are its water lines, with the Lea Navigation and Hertford Union Canal both cutting through its habitable space. Like Hackney Wick, the River Lea as an entity is difficult to pin down, as the psycho-geographic lines determine a sense of self-discovery of the banks and streets. The short film Wanderlust down the Lea, by Veronika Albrandt and Katharina Violeta Dressel from the degree course photography and contemporary media practice at University of Westminster, testifies to a natural condition of perpetual transformation. But these lines simultaneously divide and offer an opportunity to reimagine connection and the adaptation of the existing fabric.

Stage 2 at the University for the Creative Arts at Canterbury, led by Pedro Castelo, Adam Hiles, Kristina Kotov, Matt Shaw/Rhys Jones and Gabor Stark, looked at the many linking bridges over the A12, Old Ford Lock, White Post Lane and Hackney Wick Overland station. It engaged with the particular environmental and social issues, to propose a different shelter providing a skin for each bridge.

Kingston University addressed the Olympic legacy with an examination of the character of Hackney Wick and how the distinctive, everyday elements of the neighbourhood could inform the design of a proposed bicycle workshop, diner or community arts space to reaffirm a sense of place.

Negotiating the many islanded communities and the possibility of a constitutional ideal, Diploma Unit 9 at University of East London, led by Robert Thum, investigated the legitimacy of educational building programmes for the civic city as an activator for this post-industrial urban context. Meanwhile, strengthening civic proximity to a shared contextual culture of work and play was considered by Studios 1-3, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, led by Miraj Ahmed, Dingle Price, Nikolai Delvendahl, Eric Marin, Bobby Open and Stephen Smith. Students evaluated the commonly found ‘factory and yard’ typology and the insertion of a library, public baths or a centre for furniture making in response to the anticipated increase in population.

To the north

In the past year Hackney Wick has had a number of public-realm improvements, including the installation of place-specific art works by Martino Gamper, Rowan Durrant and Francis Upritchard, among others, to enhance the urban realm and improve connectivity across the site for key routes to the Olympic Park. Alongside the nodal public realm improvements by MUF art/ architecture, the area has an imperative spirit, examined by Studio 15: Laboratory of Spatial Self-organisation, led by Sam Vardy from the University of Sheffield. It studied the political and social tactic to reclaim personal and collective involvement in detached processes to configure self-organising assemblages of spatial practice. This form of creative making inspired the Wick Session, organised with publicworks and held at Sugarhouse Studios. It can be witnessed across the area and is particularly evident near the new White Building, recently renovated by David Kohn into a temporary theatre space. This project looked into the creation of temporary scenography for the theatre by FdA interior design, led by Tomris Tangaz, at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Hackney Wick’s loose urban grain has supported a particular freedom for its artistic communities, notably Hackney Wicked. It has a resilient attitude towards change, and allows overlooked communities of various backgrounds a place to articulate. Taking this as a starting point, students from U9 at Bartlett School of Architecture, led by Max Dewdney and Chee-Kit Lai, imagined an afterlife for these agents in the area.

To the south

The extent of transformation is signifcant around Stratford High Street and the Bow Flyover interchange, with pending planning applications for new housing developments. Students on the housing & urbanism MA/ MArch at the Architectural Association linked this to the larger Lea Valley development for a focus of study, highlighting the need for macro- and micro-scale thinking to organise a dynamic and responsive spatial conversation. Landscapes of mPOWERments, by Unit 6, led by Cordula Weisser and Rahesh Ram at Greenwich University, propose such alternatives.

The remaining fabric and its agents in this area offered an opportunity to a sensitive critique from Unit F, of Oxford Brookes University School of Architecture, led by Bruno Silvestre and Christina Godikse, surveyed the urban topography. Working in collaboration with Assemble Studio they subsequently proposed a number of urban landscapes, largely formed by the topography of infrastructure. Here issues of temporality were raised by catalysing the impact of the Olympic legacy on the fabric of the post-industrial city.

In parallel, the Diploma Unit 2 and MA urban design team, led by Christoph Hadrys at University of East London, explored ways in which architectural interventions can mediate a synergetic urban life and relate to particularities of open land, and proposed acupunctural intersections.

As this critical landscape heads towards legacy, the speed of change necessitates a sense of immediacy for enquiry, decisive opinion and the representation of ideas for an alternative future. Where academia offers a space for speculation and imagination, potentials emerge that may contribute to how one envisages participation beyond the recognised status quo. Across the spectrum of experience, from year one to post-graduate study and discipline, film to architecture, comes a larger challenge: how will the particular characteristics of this landscape remain and evolve?

The exposition runs until 8 July and is hosted by Sugarhouse Studios., with the generous support of Assemble CIC at Sugarhouse Studios, Blueprint Magazine, and London Legacy Development Corporation.

Colin Priest is course leader for BA interior and spatial design at Chelsea College of Art and Design and founder of Studio Columba, an interdisciplinary art and design practice.

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