Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Are You Arsenal in Disguise?

Winner of the inadvertently bizarre gentrification (cough, sorry, regeneration) award this week: The Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. I've spent lots of time in Woolwich in the last year, and it's a bustling, shabby, impoverished place: fine charity shops, a certain weirdness and independence that you don't get in most SE London areas - but a place, on the whole, fairly un-'regenerated'. I'd been told that the former Arsenal, a huge complex of factories and warehouses that churned out materials for maiming and murder for several hundred years, had been tidied up and made into a little enclave for the more comfortable, and had been past it a couple of times, not bothering to venture inside. I had no idea quite how large-scale, how jarring, this project would actually be. You cross the vastly unpleasant arterial road that runs alongside the river and the ferry, going past some fairly standard Victorian warehousing and a sign saying 'PRIVATE ROAD' - then you're in the Arsenal, and a hotch-potch of infill pokes out among the industrial utilitarianism - some designed in an achingly precise Quinlan Terry neo-Georgian, some in the more familar Ikea Modernism idiom of stock-brick and plastic.

What makes it so very peculiar, though, is the Arsenal buildings themselves, with their brooding darkness, their air of menace, something made all the more unnerving by the way in which the portland stone strips and columns are still utterly smoke-blackened - museum culture here has decided not to be as Disney-tidy as is usually insisted upon. The plan has guaranteed all kinds of squares and public spaces, and I've never been in a council estate precinct so empty and intimidating - literally not a soul about, all the traffic and shouting of Powis St and environs seeming miles away rather than a 3 minute walk. Finally a couple of policemen cross my path. At the end of the development, as you approach the main road again and sounds other than the birds can be heard, the obligatory public art awaits. Or, at first you think, the Men In Black loom into view, consulting with each other about some Operation. Then you realise what we actually have here: iron men, with huge neanderthal heads and hollow bodies, clipped together like the guns in the nearby museum. With war as a part of heritage, here is the luxury development as place of terror.


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