Venue: Excel 22 - 23 November 2006
The recent annual Thames Gateway Forum held at east London’s Excel Centre in November attracted record numbers of people, organisations and businesses involved in ‘regeneration’. They all came together for two days to discuss how far the massive re-development of land alongside the easterly section of the River Thames had progressed. Amongst them was a group of RCA Society members who also wanted to see what had happened since last year's event. This year's modular conference featured 165 top-level speakers and keynote presentations.
Amongst the exhibitors were London’s local authorities, many of which line up along the “gateway” as well as those boroughs who will share the economic, cultural and ecological impact caused by the changing environment along the Thames. There were plenty of government agencies, architects, developers, planners, and “eco” organisations providing masses of information and their vision of the future. The event is certainly worthy of its award winning accolades with a good mix of ways to find out what is going on - from friendly “one-to-ones” with informed representatives from both local authorities and the private sector, and a series of open forum s led by an impressive line up of keynote speakers from the world of politics and pressure groups such as Ken Livingstone, Ruth Kelly, David Higgins and Jonathon Porritt. There was also an excellent range of seminars held inside large ‘conference pods’ that pulled together panels of experts from planning, design and economics. The progress of the 2012 Olympic Games project was, of course, a central feature of the forum, but as the Olympic site is centred around the Newham and the Lea Valley region it is just a part of the Thames Gateway story. The epic transformation of the Thames region stretches from City to Sea and is not without its share of massive social and ecological problems with the issue of flood risks and global warming high on the agenda.
But a year is a long time in politics! Thankfully, in comparison to last year’s Forum, there was more emphasis on achieving eco friendly developments with a good mix of cultural, industrial and residential locations. Most thinking has veered away from Mayor Ken Livingston’s 2005 vision of sterile ‘hi tech’ ghettos, stretching from Tower Bridge to the Kursaal, inhabited only by Chinese computer programmer graduates supplied via the GLA’s Shanghai Office. Planning authorities were expressing healthy enthusiasm for designers and architects to continue putting forward progressive cutting edge solutions. It was heartening to observe real interest in proposals for live - work centres for the cultural industries, with ‘creative hubs’ of designers and artists being acknowleged as inspirational environments that improve the quality of life for everyone.
Maybe this position had been encouraged by the news that morning, of the government’s acknowledgement of the Cultural Industries ability to generate wealth and promises of increased financial investment into this sector. However, it is difficult to figure out which aspect of the Cultural Industries will be receiving encouragement from the Exchequer. Hopefully it will not be a second ‘great wall of China’ or the Super Gambling Casinos that are the only built objects visible from outer space! Although there was plenty of positive comment on ‘creative hubs’, the danger remains that artists could be located – at best - in ‘short life’ refurbished warehouses, and at worst, in cities of refurbished ‘sea containers’. One of the major risks in these propositions is the ease by which such temporary solutions can be so easily dismantled. The economic and social repercussions for practitioners are obvious. “History has shown over and over again that artists are perceived as ungrateful itinerants that, after breathing life back into the dead carcass of social dereliction, are moved on to make way for the cherry pickers...” “Art is a Luxury?” - remembering St Katharines Docks, Wapping Studios, Cable Street Studios, Chisenhale Studios and countless other artist communities ... (Journal of Art and Art Education) Such ghettos are not suitable and do not, in the long term, strengthen the economic, social and intellectual role of artists and designers. So-called recycled shipping containers are not eco friendly and stultify the dynamic of architectural and design solutions. What is required are ‘purpose built’ environments that evolve from intelligent discourse between artists and design practitioners rather than short sighted quick fixes, often proposed by unscrupulous operators with an eye on the “bottomless pit” of public funding. “Quite what will be the outcome of the latest Government push to expand the city with half a million new homes remains a mystery… the signs are mixed. There is no overall plan and no vision. What is likely to get built is a patchwork of mediocre housing projects that are dumbed down enough for the developers to sell” Prof. Nigel Coates (preface to “East of Eros” – RCA Architectural annual 2005) You may recall seeing the results of the RCA’s Architectural Design Studios “East of Eros” projects that were exhibited and published in 2005. If not you should revisit the project and have a good look at the creative visions put forward by the College’s architectural students. Many of the massive physical and environmental problems exposed at the Thames Gateway Forum were thoroughly ddressed in these proposals, yet two years later questions still have to be asked... Why is it that we rarely see such progressive solutions materialise? To what extent can expert bodies that include specialist universities (such as the RCA) be more influential in getting progressive design solutions realised? Why is it that the mediocre quick fix persists? Well, we all know the lazy answer … How about giving voice to the real alternative? Now for the good news... A consortium made up of individual practitioners, universities, independent design companies, UK Co-operative movement, the Co-op Bank, and trade unions are in the process of developing the real alternatives located in the Thames Gateway region – if you are interested in this issue or want to take an active role please get in touch. Jenni Boswell-Jones MDes(RCA) Click for more photos