9 April 2017

Cherry blossom time

The street was lined with cherry trees, each one loaded with heavy clusters of pink blossoms. All exactly the same heady shade of pink. After all the streets we visited, all the little two-storey houses each with something right and something wrong about it, the cherry blossom swung it.

We were looking for a house we could afford in Walthamstow. There were things wrong with that house, like all the others, but it wasn't as bad as some, and there was obviously going to be a downside to every one of the houses that were for sale. This one had no fireplaces, an awful kitchen and vinyl wallpaper everywhere, but it didn't have pvc windows or a crappy home-made kitchen extension, or rooms that you could only get to through another room. And it did have a good sized garden with a cherry tree of its own. So we went for the immediate feel-good factor and put in an offer. Four months later we finally got the keys.

Every April pink petals made deep drifts on the pavement and in the gutters, and sprinkled the parked cars with pink confetti. Some of our down to earth neighbours thought it was a nuisance and swept them out of their concreted front gardens, but we were newly pleased every time. Our two growing boys were a plausible excuse for childish games, throwing handfuls in the air or at each other. Twenty years later, we still live there.

The trees must have been as old as the houses, nearly a hundred years old. The gnarly old trunks oozed resin and blocked the pavement in places, so you had to squeeze past between crusty bark and overgrown hedges. We lost a tree when the boys were still in primary school. The lady next door but one used to bleach her front yard every day, and the chemical run-off drained across the pavement into the tree roots, with predictable results. The council came and cut it down. Other trees disappeared, and the council filled some of the gaps with new trees, but they were all white blossom varieties, not pink.

At the end of the street is a little warehouse and lorries come most days to unload pallets of car parts in wooden crates, using a gas-powered forklift. The lorry drivers have a hard time parking in the narrow street, and several times they backed into my car, wrecking the driver's-side door just enough for an insurance claim, but not enough to make it worth getting the damage repaired. Eventually one of them managed to back into the tree nearest to our house, knocking it right over. I watched, torn between amusement and indignation as they decided what to do about it. They looked worried. Eventually they decided to hide the evidence by using the forklift to load the tree on to their lorry. Before driving off, they thought it would be a good idea to back the lorry onto the pavement to smooth down the patch of bare soil. Then they burned off in a hurry. I called the council but they were not very interested. So it was a surprise when a month later a new tree appeared, complete with two stout posts and a watering tube. As I write, it is getting to a decent size, past the stage of being easy to vandalise, and doing its best to resurrect the almost defunct pink blossom effect.

Last year most of the old trees were in a sad state, with obvious rot in the old trunks, and many dead branches. This year they all got cut down, all but three of the original trees, leaving stumps a metre high. Later, an expensive-looking machine came along to grind the stumps down to sawdust, and a new timber pole marks the location of each former tree. If that means replacements are on their way, maybe it's the beginning of another generation of hundred-year old trees.

5 March 2017

The Lime Tree Walk etc.

Above: aerial view of the gardens as they are, with the reduced footprint outlines in green.

Redevelopment of the Mall came a step closer with their second exhibition of proposals, held in the Mall on 24 and 25 February. There is a bit more detail, but nothing much has changed, except the towers have become even taller. The area covered remains almost exactly the same. My particular concern though, is with their intention to build over a large part of the present Town Square and Town Gardens which, let’s not forget, won the Mayor’s Award for Planning Excellence in 2004.

The gardens were laid out nearly 150 years ago, in 1869. They were originally much larger, a big open space very similar to St James Park (the Walthamstow one, not the one in central London) with trees all round the perimeter and an avenue of trees running diagonally across the middle. Construction of the Mall and then the bus station account for two thirds of the original area, but what is left is still a decent-sized bit of green open space right in the centre of town. Open space is a valuable resource, and this serves a very necessary function, a space for things to happen, and a relief from the busy market and the densely packed streets of terraced houses. You can of course point to the many other parks and gardens, and in fact the borough as a whole is well endowed with open space, but that does not detract from the value of public gardens in this busy location where people congregate in large numbers. With the increasing population represented by the many new flats about to be built, that pressure will only increase. In my view building over the Town Square and Gardens is short-sighted and quite simply should not be considered. But there is every indication that the council must be providing active endorsement of the proposals to do just that. The proposals will result in a much smaller space, a busy urban park that is mainly paving with planting beds here and there, fragmented spaces that will not allow most of what happens there now to continue.

Above: the plan of the gardens after development. But ignore the trees, most of them will be replaced with saplings.

The Town Square is big enough for the many events that take place there. The evening screening of the Olympics opening ceremony was a highlight. Some of the things I’ve seen include a BMX stunt display and a cycling event where you could try riding all kinds of unusual bicycles. There was a regular French market on Saturdays for a while, out in the square, not where the Sunday market is. The Walthamstow Acoustic Massive packed the square. I’ve seen more than one rapping contest (I think that’s what they were) and various other musical events, not all of them evangelical Christian. There was a road safety event that brought in some beautifully restored vehicles including WW2 Jeep and the fire engine from the Pumphouse Museum, and an HGV lorry to show cyclists what the view from the cab is like - I may have misunderstood the overall theme, but the point is there was plenty of room for the vehicles, information stands, the usual market stalls and still room for people going about their normal business. The planned expansion of the Mall will reduce the size of this space to a “gateway”, not big enough for anything.

Then there are the gardens. A large undulating expanse of grass, room for kids to run around, for lovers to find a spot away from the crowd, a pleasure just to walk through at any time of year. The children’s playground nestles conveniently across from the Mall entrance. It’s a little tired but nothing that can’t be resolved. Sometimes there is a small funfair. Then there is the avenue of 150 year old lime trees, which I particularly love. It’s nice in winter with the bare branches and network of sparkling blue fairy lights. Spring and summer are amazing as the leaves come out and turn the avenue literally lime green. Even autumn has its moments as the leaves turn colour and fall. It forms a natural connection between the tube station and the market - which the Mall doesn’t like because, in simplistic planning logic, it directs the flow of people past them. It seems especially inconceivable that the trees might be better got rid of, chopped down to make way for what might or might not be called progress.

There is a problem with the gardens though: the space between the avenue and the bus station is a bit of a wasteland, not so pleasant to sit out next to the buses and the blank back-end of the library, with unfriendly gravel surfaces that are not really used for anything. It would make more sense to build here and leave the other side well alone. There is space to create shops and cafes where you could sit out in the shade, a habitable space along the edge of the park, and flats above looking out over the treetops. That is unlikely to happen though, what with commercial logistics and the issues of ownership and development capital. The Mall proposal is to cut down the trees so the bit of space left isn't split up. At least they don't want the space for an American-style car park, but as Architects E17 point out, the Mall proposals don’t provide a plausible strategy for the whole. It’s up to Waltham Forest council to provide that overall vision.

Note: the diagrams are based on published information and are as accurate as possible given the limitations of the material available. The Mall proposals are here. Click here to view the Lime Tree Walk video.

11 February 2017

Another one bites the dust

This is the big Art Deco factory building in Burwell Road. It's the biggest feature of a little complex of industrial buildings, not the elaborate Victorian architecture that would perhaps be listed, but simply solid brick buildings with big Crittall metal windows, metal roof trusses and lots of rooflights. Nothing fancy apart from the decorative street frontage, but the buildings have a solid dignity that could have formed a basis for something really interesting, perhaps a mixture of flats, shops and studios, a place with a real sense of identity that would be an asset to this end of Lea Bridge Road. That isn't going to happen though. The site was sold for development, the developers applied for planning permission for flats, and despite highly vocal opposition, planning permission was granted without any serious modifications to the densely packed tower blocks that were drawn up. What is going to be built on the site is just flats, too many flats appallingly shoe-horned into the space to maximise profits. The last tenants have gone, and now the demolition machines are working their way across the site, leaving this imposing structure until last. It's unlikely to be a great place to live, let alone 'affordable'. The little two-storey terraced houses across the road are going to be diminished by the close proximity of very much taller buildings - and it is no justification to point to the familiar presence of the factory even if it is twice the height of the houses.

In a parallel universe, old buildings like these would be an asset, even when their usefulness as factories and workshops is over. All over the country, old industrial buildings have been rescued and turned into thriving popular areas, using the inherent qualities of no-nonsense industrial buildings to enhance ideas and enterprises that don't fit easily with modern development. Camden Lock made it work by using the old warehouses, stables and workshops for the thriving market. Covent Garden and Spitalfields markets were due to be demolished, but instead became successful as a different kind of marketplace. Borough Market, better managed perhaps by the long-established Borough Market Trust, simply made the transition bit by bit, acquiring some modern additions that blend in with the whole sprawling, hectic phenomenon. In Clerkenwell, businesses and flats occupy the old commercial buildings. But it takes a particular combination of development control, economics and enterprise to make that sort of thing work: buildings and land with little in the way of cash-in value, or protected by listing or conservation status, and often, enterprises working on a shoestring while they becomes established. Walthamstow's industrial buildings are mainly doomed simply because the land they occupy is so valuable, and except in rare cases there is no statutory protection. A huge swathe of buildings along Blackhorse Lane and Sutherland Road went in the last five years, with just two buildings - Gnome House and Blackhorse Workshop - left as inspiring examples to show what might have been. At this point I don't think there is anything major left to demolish.

Burwell Road, photographed November 2016 (above) and February 2017

1 February 2017

Print show at the Mill

I entered a print for the current exhibition at the Mill, the community space in Coppermill Lane, and they asked for a website link - so I thought I would write something about the prints on show. The Mill isn't a commercial gallery and their criteria are simply that the artworks should be by local people, any age or degree of expertise. The results are quite impresssive, a fascinating sample of what creatively-minded people are doing in Walthamstow.

A lot of the prints are done with well-established traditional techniques, screen printing and all the print methods using a printing press: lino and woodblock prints, etchings and intaglio (must find out what that is). A few simply sent in a drawing. It's fascinating just trying to work out how some of the effects were created. I was evidently not the only person who looked for a way to produce a print without actually having a printing press. Several of the images are monoprints - a technique that can be as simple as using typist's carbon paper to transfer a drawing, and one exhibitor has done just that, creating a lifelike image of their dog. Others use the more traditional method of rolling out printing ink on a sheet of glass, laying paper lightly on top of the wet ink, and drawing or pressing on the back so that the image is formed by the contact of paper and ink, a nice smudgy or grainy effect rather than crisp hard lines. Surprisingly, there is not a single potato print.

My own effort (pictured) is only partly a print. I only had black and red acrylic paint so that dictated the colour scheme. The patterns are made by squeezing paint between two sheets of glass so that it spreads out into a thin layer, then when you pull the sheets of glass apart the paint naturally forms amazing fractal patterns. Lay stiff cartridge paper over the paint, smooth it down gently, and the patterns transfer on to the paper. I made a dozen or more of these, and spread them out on the kitchen table to decide how to use them. I cut out shapes and tried different ideas until I got to this abstract arrangement, then glued them onto black card. It looks decidedly worrying - someone said they looked like healthy and diseased lungs - and I don't think it will get hung up at home when the exhibition is over.

The exhibition Ink, Press, Go! opened on Monday and runs until 11 March.

More information on the Mill website

10 January 2017

Architectural limbo

Right next door to the Victorian extravagance of the Bell pub in Forest Road, this little architectural gem goes un-noticed. Clearly, nobody cares about it at the moment, it's just a roof over the fish and chip shop and some no doubt awful flats upstairs. The crass metal facade of Tesco Express next door really doesn't help (although that is not Tesco's fault, it used to be Jewsons the builders merchants), boiler flues are crudely bodged through the fabric of the building, and if all those satellite dishes are not illegal they ought to be. Even so, the architectural quality is rather outstanding, crisp bold details carved in good quality limestone, set off nicely by the red bricks. The original shopfront is long gone, but the upper floors are basically intact. Date, at a guess, around 1910, a time when buildings were almost extravagantly substantial, if not always outstanding as architecture. It sits stranded between the pub yard and the single storey supermarket, as if waiting for better times.

Walthamstow has a reasonable architectural heritage - thousands of solidly-built terraced houses, some good civic buildings, the remnants of some fairly unexciting country houses - but not so many buildings like this, ordinary commercial buildings with a bit of class. We can't afford to build anything like as good now, for complicated reasons which I suppose come down to all the things people didn't have and didn't even aspire to in 1910, but do now. All the more reason to value what we do have, a wealth of decoration and craftsmanship that can't be replaced, and saves the modern city from uniform contemporary blandness.

Discussion point: wanting buildings like this to be cleaned up is arguably a sign of creeping gentrification, but does this sort of mess really represent some kind of gritty authenticity?

29 December 2016

Filling a gap

We're getting used to seeing large buildings shoe-horned into every available corner of Walthamstow. Here though, someone has decided to build a little house, set back from the street and cautiously nestled up against the shop next door, where a much larger three-storey building would fit right in. I've no idea if that's all the planning department would allow, or whether the developer considered alternatives. Either way, it would be great to see the Forest Road / Palmerston Road corner rounded off with houses, to replace the hideous advertising hoarding that dominates the crossroads, and perhaps this is a start.

4 December 2016

Architect's vision

On Friday and Saturday, Gnome House hosted an exhibition showing the proposals for the latest segment of the Blackhorse Lane development site, where new flats are replacing the old industrial estate. The exhibition represents two different things. Firstly, the way the Waltham Forest Action Plan has been implemented means that large blocks of densely-packed flats with no amenity space and no car parking is a foregone conclusion. Precedent was established with the first scheme to get off the ground, the student flats which simply fill their plot right up to the edge, as high as they can get away with, which is around eight storeys, a bit less on Blackhorse Lane. The second thing is the way the architects for each plot have tried (or not) to come up with a good design within the limitations imposed by the overall plan.

This section is right in the middle of the site, and will replace the commercial units facing on to the large TfL car park, but not the car park itself. It will be surrounded by tall blocks and, unsurprisingly, this scheme is also an array of tall blocks. The architects in this instance are young and enthusiastic, and I think they would have come up with something more sympathetic to the locality if they had an open brief to design appropriate buildings to fit in with the old terraced houses, the station and the flats across the busy Blackhorse Road junction. As it is, there is a clear expectation that the development has to be tall, economically planned to fit in multiple units of a standardised size and design.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was a nicely-made plywood model showing their work in progress on the design. The model has an interesting, rather charred-looking appearance. That is because laser cutters have become affordable enough for the average architectural practice to afford one, but not perhaps the top of the range that would cut without the burnt appearance. The arrangement of buildings is simple and logical, with a courtyard intended to be open (although it might end up with gates) and public access all round. The care taken with the design is evident in their detailed design drawings. Fancifuly, perhaps with unintended irony, some of the inspiration comes from the vintage buses that were built in the AEC (Associated Equipment Company) factory that once stood there. An interesting feature of the scheme is a long, low block occupying the sliver of land between their plot and the Standard. If all goes according to plan, that will be workshop / studio spaces, that will link up with retail units on the TfL site next across a pedestrian use - a much-needed element of non-residential use. I just hope it isn't value-engineered out of the design. There are also a lot of secure bicycle parking spaces.

It's much better than the appalling commercial blandness of the first phase, the student residences that are being built now. None the less, the overall ambience is going to be a bit like high-rise Hale Village next to Tottenham station, only higher: something entirely separate from the old Walthamstow.

The exhibition boards, but not images of the model, can be downloaded at www.equipmentworks.co.uk