Over the last two or so years, I've been a regular visitor to Stratford and have witnessed a complete change in the area as the Olympics draw closer and closer.
I have considered myself at various stages of my relationship with Stratford, a tourist, a pedestrian and now, after years of walking around a somewhat battered Stratford Centre during the day (when it's a hubbub of cultures and colours) and at night (when it becomes, rather magically, like a free indoor skate park) a lover of Stratford and its surrounding areas.
Not only is the mall home to some of the best cheap and cheerful shops in London (check out their Wilko's if you don't believe me) there are great transport links, the Queen's market sells an array of exotic African and Asian produce, there are nice parks, gigantic fairy lights as you enter the area and a sculptural, spiraling, clock that mysteriously moved from Stratford to Maryland seemingly overnight, much to the surprise of the locals.
Now, the new Stratford City and the surrounding Olympic village are so vast, that they have earned themselves an entire postcode - E20. But perhaps E2012 would have been more apt, because after this year, when the Olympic stadiums have been dismantled, all that will be left are 11,000+ new affordable homes (that have saturated the housing market and positively quashed the anticipated housing boom in the area)... and Westfield.
The Westfield, incidentally, is more than just a shopping mall. In Layman's terms, this is 'the new bit' of old Stratford. The side where 'The Stratford Shoal' unashamedly hides the ugly 70s buildings that make up the real and authentic parts of East London and its cultural heritage, making way for a great generic boulevard that leads directly to the Olympic park, and is so bland that it really could be anywhere in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, Studio Egret West (the innovators behind this sculpture) weren't quite as forthcoming as to admit they were trying to conceal the back entrance of the Stratford Centre and instead, articulated a series of offensive quotes on their website, designed to pull the wool over our eyes. According to them 'The Stratford Shoal' is:
"A series of curvaceous and branch-like steel 'trees'. On these are fixed giant leaf shapes of titanium that glisten in the light and are able to move in the wind. The leaves also provide a screen for the assortment of Stratford Centre buildings behind. Rather than hiding this elevation behind, the leaves act to enliven it, divert attention from it and playfully raise the spirits of its onlookers, rising and falling with the choreographic elegance of a shoal of fish."
But all you have to do is read between the lines and suddenly you realise that every word, despite it's context is about 'screening', 'diverting' or 'hiding' what already exists in Stratford, lest the areas that look a little shabby and rundown offend the precious eyes of all of our foreign visitors this summer. This pretty-pivoting-moves-with-the-wind-and-did-we-mention-it's-made-from-titanium structure must officially be the most expensive smokescreen ever, costing a whopping £3,000,000.
Yes, that is three whole millions, poured straight out of our pockets and erected in a tangled mass of metal that only looks good from one side... and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out who is benefitting from the good view (anyone exiting the station and making their way to the Olympic park) and who is coping with the eyesore that is the back (anyone exiting the Stratford Centre).
Perhaps I could be accused of forming an emotional connection with Stratford, and in turn being unable to judge it accurately for the 'eyesore' that it is - after all, for me, the smell of African food cooking as you wander from the Stratford Centre car-park to the Theatre Royal reminds me of love and home comforts and good times with good friends. But then again, I'm sure the residents feel just the same way. They are the people who can't go home after two months. They are the people that will remain when the stadiums are dead and gone and East London life is restored to normality.
No one is denying that Stratford, Leytonstone, Forest Gate... in fact the entire borough of Newham, needs work. It's desperate for it. From its social infrastructure, to the state of the historical architecture, to youth unemployment, changes must be made. But a city that is proud of its heritage should surely want to invite international guests and media to a part of London that they could be proud of without erecting a vast and impersonal shopping village and well positioned architectural devices to ensure that the unsuspecting eye, at no point, ever lands on Stratford itself. God forbid the French got a look at Poundland!
But what is the real implication for old Stratford over the Olympics? All over town we've begun muttering our complaints, but the Stratford locals are the ones who really have to put up with life being turned upside down during the games. The Olympic route runs right through the delivery roads of many local businesses, and already there are fears about the whether goods vehicles will be able to get through. With the threat of Westfield looming, prospects don't look good for the Stratford Centre itself. Of the people coming from station to stadium, it will only be the seriously curious that will deviate from the carefully assisted routes in and out of the Olympic park, up the stairs and far away from anything that resembles real East London life, with the glimmering shoal as a backdrop to it all.
I can't help but wonder how long after the Olympic games are over, the man with his high pressure water cleaner will keep coming along to make the paving slabs spotless? I wonder when the first graffiti will be sprayed (and not removed) on the sexy black-glass bridge that takes you over the railway line? I wonder how an aspirational mall like Westfield, that arguably prices local people out of their own area, will affect the youth of Newham, who like all young people today, are already struggling with the problematic ethos that we have instilled in them, that consuming 'things' will somehow make their lives better, more important and more worthwhile.
And I also can't help but wonder what might have happened, if instead of going to the Studio Egret West to figure out an architectural and sculptural solution to the problem of the ugly Stratford centre, the council had put that £3,000,000 into getting the actual residents of Newham - the young people themselves - to do something about it. At least then they might have killed two birds with one stone, keeping the kids in employment and out of trouble by allowing them to feel a sense of pride in their environment and confidence in their own ideas. Maybe they wouldn't have made something as impressive as a titanium shoal, but I can guarantee that whatever their solution, it would have been homegrown, authentic and a real taste of East London.
The sad fact of the matter is, that we're living in a country that would rather spend £3,000,000 on hiding it's ugly past, than investing long-term in it's beautiful future. And sadly, nothing is more indicative of the state of not only our Government, but also today's society as a whole. That's right Britain, pave paradise and put up a parking lot, slap a Westfield on it and bump up security, ignore the real problems and slap a lick of glossy paint over the whole thing... because if we can't see it, it isn't really happening.
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