Thursday, May 10, 2007

Woolwich Buildings and Society

Woolwich is a place built, essentially, for war, so you'd think it would be flourishing around now. But despite the barracks at one end and the (long since disused) Arsenal at the other, and some piecemeal attempts at regeneration/gentrification, its a very depressed place, particularly when one is there in order to make a claim for jobseekers' allowance. And it's raining. In Ian Nairn's Nairn's London (the greatest cityguide in the history of the genre: a building as 'the satisfied laugh of a full-bodied lady that doesn't give a damn' being just one of its joys) Woolwich is one of London's highlights: an independent industrial city plonked into South East London, 'thumping selfcentred vitality, a complete freedom from the morning train into work'. The main shopping street, Powis St, a cornucopia of odd shops and bustle. Needless to say, 40 years later any vitality has been sapped out by the chain stores, yet at Woolwich's edges there's still a strangeness that marks it out from the stockbrokers' dockland on the other side of the river.

Coming up from Charlton, there's the barracks: 'no need to go to Leningrad', writes Nairn, when this rationalist quarter mile of classical accommodation for war is in a corner of London: and up a bit from that, Nash's creepy rotunda and inexplicably, a black geodesic dome; and further on into Powis St itself, there's a pair of brilliantly demonstrative architectural curios, both built by the Royal Arsenal Co-Operative Society, the most militant of the co-ops. The earlier one, of 1903, is a redbrick and terracotta eccentricity, featuring amid the curlicues inset screaming heads (the cry of the toiling workers? Of the capitalists about to be expropriated? Some oblique Munch tribute?), and at its centre a statue of some tremendously sideburned co-op worthy, staring grandly at its counterpart across the street, with 'EACH FOR ALL AND ALL FOR EACH' above him, like some sort of Fabian Musketeer. The other Co-Op building is a heartbreakingly dilapidated art deco confection of 1938, its tiles flaking off and in some places missing entirely, an adaption of the picture palace to some sort of palace of social democracy - appropriately, in a terrible state. The aforementioned slogan can be seen in there somewhere, just below a rectilinear tower that can still be seen in most of Woolwich.

It's almost inevitable, then, that this melancholy beauty is on the way out: the first thing to fall, apparently, to the march of gentrification, as Greenwich Council plan its demolition prior to the replacement with luxury flats/retail/whatever, preserving some (I must admit) horrible 60s offices nearby. Still, there is more of the same round the corner, two picture palaces (one now dedicated to bingo, the other to God) still in decent enough condition albeit dedicated to rather depressing practices. Then you're opposite the Ferry: a gloriously pointless free boat that gets you to the wonderfully named (if not all that interesting) Silvertown, and to the 'London Teleport', a field of satellite dishes opening themselves out at the Thames for no immediately apparent reason. Unlike on the North side, the South is still all turrets, chimneys and towers, smoke-blackened and crumbling. Then there's a covered market, still full of shabby and potentially interesting stuff all over the place. However, according to Nairn, on the Silvertown side there is a pub that is a 'good private place to hatch a revolution...right out of England, never mind out of London - something from another planet.' A derive to said pub is being plotted.


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