Thursday, April 01, 2010

Beyond the Fence

“It is important to know the mechanism of transformation and above all to establish how we can act in this situation – not, I believe, through the total control of the process of change.”
Aldo Rossi

Eleven miles of blue plywood landed in east London in 2006, inscribing a vast ring around a newly sacred swathe of land: the site for the 2012 Olympic Games, consecrated with a fence.

Since then, the Olympic project has troubled the hearts and minds of east Londoners as an imposition, the blue wall trumpeting the arrival of wholesale regeneration. As an endless billboard, the fence projected the promise of a post-Olympic landscape of verdant valleys and glistening towers, emblazoned with scenes of cappuccino-supping avatars enjoying their 12,000 new homes and 10,000 new jobs. It was a heroic frieze of infinite promise and inclusivity, plastered on an infrastructure of dislocation and severance. The irony wasn’t lost on local residents, disenfranchised on the wrong side of the fence.

Last summer the blue wall came down (making way for a Guantanamo-style electrified version) and some of the ubiquitous plywood fell into the hands of Studio Superniche – a hastily arranged marriage of four students from the RCA’s Architecture and Design Products departments, brought together to champion the cause of the niche against the tide of the generic. Attempting to demonstrate an alternative future for the site, we began to develop an Olympic Legacy Toolkit, a catalogue of provisional urban furniture designed to encourage local re-appropriation of this vast terrain in the aftermath of the fleeting sporting funfair.

For, once the travelling Olympic circus has upped sticks, 230 hectares of the Lea Valley will be left bare, a tabula rasa to be magically transformed into a new piece of mixed-use masterplanned London – by 2050. Yet, struck down by recession, developers are in no position to invest in such vast speculative projects, leaving the plan discredited and open to strategic intervention. And herein lies our call to arms.

Through encouraging temporary use on the site, our Toolkit proposes a bottom-up alternative, a counter to the conventional top-down masterplan issued from on high. Using the very material designed to keep people out, we have developed a series of low-tech, ephemeral pavilions to suggest possible ways of inhabiting the site, taking inspiration from community groups that were forcibly displaced by the Olympic project, to encourage them to reclaim the empty landscape as their own.

From bird hides to allotment sheds, portable galleries to boat houses, this series of functional follies aims to provoke debate about potential uses for the site’s vacant plots in the wake of the Games and demonstrate the power of propositional critique in challenging the received wisdom of the planning authorities.

In recession-struck London – an architect-squatter’s nirvana of empty building sites – temporary intervention can provide a snapshot of the possible, a physical means of demonstrating alternatives. Public consultation – the souped-up roadshows of interactive maps, board games and Post-It notes so beloved of developers – can be transcended in favour of building a version of the real thing, at no risk and little cost. By showing what is possible, temporary uses have the power to rewrite the rules of the plan, forestalling final judgement on what plots of land might be worth, and what kind of activities are appropriate there. Interim users have the potential to open up fundamental debates on land use classification, temporary permissions suggesting the slackening of more permanent restrictions. Ultimately democratic, they must prove their self-sustaining viability through their own vitality: if spaces thrive and become established before the developers arrive, as facts on the ground they can redirect the development agenda and turn the whole masterplan upside down.

And this is already beginning to happen across the city, as empty sites are given over to interim projects by smaller architectural firms. From Chelsea Barracks to the Leadenhall tower, London’s most high profile plans are being surrendered to alternative proposals for provisional uses. This recession marks a watershed in conventional systems of masterplanning, from which we can only move towards a process-driven model of evolutionary development. Newly politicised, there is an opportunity for design to be oppositional once again, to battle the tide of win-win consensus planning and offer up a radical alternative. Like never before, the future of the city is in the hands of its users. So go and get building.

Originally published in ARC magazine, Issue 14