Thursday, July 17, 2008

Nil Scrap Value: Silvertown

[A photo-essay by IT and myself. Pictures taken by IT yesterday]

We left on the Woolwich Ferry, one of three free boats named after a local Labour leader. We wondered whether the alcohol ban on London transport extended to the ferry, not that we wanted a drink at this time. Words written in tar greeted us at the exit on the North Woolwich side.

Unfortunately the Teleport did not live up to its enticing description.

Silvertown, and the Royal Docks it was built to serve, begins as London's unofficial zone. Because it was officially outside of the city boundary it took in all the noxious heavy industry which was no longer acceptable in the capital.

'You took me behind/a disused railway line/and said 'I know a place where we can go, where we are not known'/and you gave me something that I won't forget too soon'

A grey scarf tied to the bridge over the disused railway speaks of a peculiar kind of loss.

'...the Henley Arms has not been geographically blessed' according to one pub review website.

The railway bridge surprises with its dogged persistence. One could stand up here and watch the non-trains go past forever.

A pagoda looms strangely by the side of the disused railway.

The sign was in better shape than the clinic.

The Silvertown rocket is not often mentioned in the official history of the British Space Programme.

Silvertown was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London. Graham Sutherland's paintings of blitzed East End streets were based on studies made in the area. It never fully repopulated after the war.

We pondered for all while whether the bricks replaced windows, or whether newer bricks had replaced older ones. From a distance the warehouse looked almost transparent.

Rather unusually, the Tate & Lyle factory still produces Golden Syrup. The image on the tin of a dead lion surrounded by bees refers to a Biblical riddle: 'out of the strong came forth sweetness'. The factory was mostly rebuilt in the 1950s, after Tate and Lyle had narrowly escaped nationalisation. The company were enthusiastic anti-nationalisation campaigners, and in the late 1940s all packets of sugar featured 'Mr Cube', a talking sugarlump who cautioned about the dangers of socialism.

This was once the Tate Institute, a social centre built for workers in the Tate & Lyle complex: an example of how the sugar magnate pioneered the use of culture as a means of social control (see also: the Tate Gallery he founded several miles upriver at Pimlico). It's unclear what exactly the symbols on the second floor refer to. Rumours that the institute will be redesigned by Herzog and De Meuron as a daring brick and razorwire structure to be called 'Tate Silvertown' have proved to be unfounded.

Despite the best efforts of copious amounts of blue paint, 'Cundy's Tavern' closed earlier this year, apparently after the landlord illegally rented out the eleven rooms upstairs without a licence.

The Tate & Lyle Factory dominates the area both visually and olfactarily.

Simulacra pubs feature on the wall of the Brick Lane Music Hall, the only dedicated music hall left in the country.

I'm sure Derren Brown has used the Music Hall in one of his shows. Indeed he has: filling the hall with masks on sticks, he disturbs a man into thinking he's a ventriloquist's dummy.

'A hard punch right in the guts...imploded, savage inward raids into the heart's essence, an architectural imagination the size of Blake's. The church is the nearest thing to a mystic's revelation that London has.' (Ian Nairn, Nairn's London)

This lorry wears its GPS on its sleeve.

The Newsflash vans bring news to the informationally starved. They are stored just next door to the Music Hall.

Local re-enactments of scenes from Crash end in finely-tuned disaster.

Judging by the 0181 dialling code, Newham Council 'acquired' this site more than 10 years ago. Newham is one of the poorest boroughs in Britain, and has had at its disposal since the early 1980s a huge amount of derelict land - the Royal Docks encompass an area the size of central London. This land, when leased to property developers, has since become a conference centre, an airport, the University of East London, many luxury developments and soon, the Olympics site. This will 'bring prosperity to the area'.

You could call either of these countries if there was still a phone left in the box.

Georges Diner sits on the site of what will soon be Britain's biggest aquarium. It will be designed by the architect of the Mi6 Building and is to be named 'Biota!'

The 'Graving Dock' Tavern looks very grave indeed. A graving dock is a dry dock where the hulls of ships are repaired and maintained.

The '01' number indicates that these submersible pump specialists might well be retired by now.

This box on the lamppost is measuring something, though now I can't remember what it was. Air pollution, possibly.

A 2-bedroom flat in Barrier Point will set you back £359,000. 'The detailing is very poor' says Owen.

Of all the things we see today, this image is the one for me that most indicates the apocalyptic nature of the current conjuncture. The recent theft of metals from public places (churches, schools) is a desperate realisation of both economic and material finitude. A bronze sculpture by Lynn Chadwick was recently stolen from my workplace, 'almost certainly' to be melted down for scrap.

Despite their centrality and magnificence, the Millennium Mills are almost impossible to capture. Although you can't see it here, some bastard car company has plastered a giant ad on the back of the building.

The Thames Barrier Park, next to Barrier Point. Doug once described this place as the closest thing to Corbusier's Ville Radieuse.

The cafe here is wonderful, all the more so for its total isolation and complete emptiness. You can sit and stare at the Thames Barrier in all its alien beauty.

An elderly couple sit on the wavy stone seats under this rectangular canopy.

They've been among us since 1974.

The site of the Silvertown explosion is wasteland, 90 years later.

I have no idea what this is.

A memorial to those who died in the Silvertown explosion.

'At 6.52, there was no chemical works'.

The green on this ragged factory was discussed, briefly.

Kierbeck are the largest independent fabricator of cut and bent prefabricated steel reinforcement supplying the UK construction industry.

I don't know what this little zebra strip does. It was attached to one of the concrete pillars supporting the DLR track.

Reinforcement EXPRESSED!

Iron Mountain specialise in off-site data protection. If everyone gets blown up in Canary Wharf, company records will all be safe here. One of my students once did a project on the company. She informed me that their data storage site here is the most surveilled area of land in the country. Given that we are the most surveilled country in the world, that would make this location very well-watched indeed.

SunChemical trucks overlook Lyle Park. Here we watch a group of young cadets being taught how to erect a tent, and three young boys play football in the background.

The varnish factory appears to be set in some kind of rural idyll. The stench is unbearable.

A picturesque for the 21st century.

This free-standing gate bears the legend 'Harland and Wolff'. These were originally the entrance gates to Harland & Wolff Ltd, ship builders, ship repairers and engineers, which opened in 1924 and closed in 1972.

The flag assures us that there are many business opportunities to be had in the area.

We speculate that someone tried to steal the wire fence. More 'nil scrap value' signs may be appearing presently.

The main reason for the closure of the London Docks was Containerisation, which made the large workforces of the docks obsolete. Instead, the boxes are collected by the automated port at Tilbury. Within Trinity Buoy Wharf is 'Container City', where the boxes that decimated the London working class become a fun and imaginative urban living solution for young creatives.

Nobody tells me what I can and can't photograph.

This luxury development abuts Robin Hood Gardens, which is scheduled for demolition and replacement with a 30 storey tower. Any similarities to East German Plattenbau are purely coincidental.


Blogger roger said...

I like this pic essay, although it is not quite Herzfeld and Tucholsky yet.

However, I do have the impulse to advise you all to put on protection suits and respirators.

Also, just wondering whether the stolen metal is being reforged into those legendary knives that are making London the crime capital of the world - except of course for the statistics, which show crime dropping. Damn statistics! I notice Murdoch's Times now is suspicious that the statistics can't be right because... London is the crime capital of the world!

What's a fella gotta do to get a race baiting moral panic on in these parts?

10:16 pm  
Anonymous Anne said...

This is great Owen (and IT). The Thames Barrier is on my to do list for the next London trip so I'm cheered to hear about the cafe.

On another note, I was trying to contact you about NTSH but got a knockback from your Yahoo address. Could you get in touch?

8:57 am  
Blogger Murphy said...

Lovely work.
However - Owen, as a dilettante, you are not allowed to discuss detailing. Demarcation, you see, seven years and all that, you don't even know what a shadow gap is.
Also, I really do love that cafe. The potential for holding events inside should definitely be investigated and exploited.

10:42 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...


Indeed I have no idea what a shadow gap is...but the detailing is so bad that even I can tell, however. Barrier Point looks fabulous from a distance but up close one can clearly see it's held together with string.

I do have the impulse to advise you all to put on protection suits and respirators.

When I got back I found there was tar all over my bag and shoes, so maybe this is sage advice.

11:52 am  
Blogger it said...

You were covered in tar? Ha! I was fine (this time).

That great caff has an impending sense of doom about it (like all great caffs, perhaps) so we should act fast to ab/use it.

12:23 pm  
Blogger Murphy said...

'made out of kit-kat wrappers' is my preferred expression for cheap shit masquerading as 'luxury' architecture.

4:40 pm  
Blogger Blaize said...

The photo essay makes me really want to go there, and to learn more about the area. So, I would say, excellent work!

6:58 pm  
Blogger heronbone said...

im glad you done that walk.. i took k-punk and some others out that way once, years ago.....
craner wrote a nice thing about when we went trintiy bouy wharf too but i can't be bothered finding it. i think i dragged paul down to barrier park too for a coffee and a smoke before i left.
that whole area is great.... it was really good to see the pictures/

10:28 am  
Blogger Seán said...

This is fantastic. Great idea, well executed.

10:35 am  
OpenID architectureinberlin said...

Really enjoyed this - have just realised there are some things about London that I miss after all. Marc Atkins and Iain Sinclair would be proud of your efforts!
Has inspired me to set up a separate blog of urban wandering here in Berlin, although I'm not nearly as prolific as you, and often get terribly confused by Wordpress's attempts to make the blogging of images more complex than your average interplanetary mission.


PS it's probably just me though; I even find leaving comments on this site a tad complicated. The other day it logged a comment as 'Jim' but has now returned to architectureinberlin...

6:14 pm  
Blogger Blackheath Bugle said...

Lovely photojournal.. Reminds me of "London" by Patrick Keiller... It'll all be gone soon.

9:55 am  
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