20 September 2017

Open House

At Open House weekend, once a year, all sorts of interesting places open their doors to the public. This year, Walthamstow's offerings included a hipster popup bar and a trendy house extension. It has to be said, there were not many venues locally apart from places that you can just walk into anyway, like the William Morris Gallery and Vestry House Museum, but a little can go a long way. Nothing to compete with getting to visit the revolving restaurant at the top of the BT Tower (you have to apply on a lottery basis and I finally got lucky this time) but interesting enough.

We visited Sideshow first, the temporary bar space on one of the demolition sites next to Blackhorse Road station, a spin-off from Blackhorse Workshop that is only there until the end of the year. Although it is open for coffee in the mornings and as a bar a couple of nights a week, I hadn't seen it before, and the architects were there to explain about the place. It's colourful, a series of plywood walls painted in bright primary colours, with zigzag tops to remind us of the factories that have been demolished all over the area. The bar has a roof but most of the space is open to the sky. There are tables and benches, various bits of art to look at, a metal fence to lock your bike to. The colour is uplifting, as is the indoor-outdoor feeling on a fairly cold morning. The star turn though, is the Heath Robinson-ish ball race contraption. Turn a huge rubber tyre and steel balls slowly rise way above your head, propelled by a very long archimedes screw (like a wood screw but much bigger) until they reach the tipping point. From there they race round a complicated array of tubes overhead, making a lot of noise but, since the tubes are mostly opaque metal, it's impossible to work out where they are - you can only guess from the sound, and look out for them hurtling through the clear plastic bits. When the balls get down to the lower levels, there are levers you can pull to let them go a bit further, until they get back to the beginning. Worth a look on a normal opening day, probably a nice place to drop in when they open in the evening. Catch it before it closes and the excavators move in.

The other venue was quite different, a private house that has had a drastic overhaul of the sort you expect to see in Islington, not in Walthamstow. Or did until recently. Originally a quirky Warner house with tiny rooms, the back of the house has been extended to make a spacious kitchen / living room with big glass doors opening out to the garden. Upstairs, a new bedroom extension juts out from the back of the house, a tall bright space internally, on the outside clad in trendy charred timber. Charred timber is literally burnt black on the outside instead of being painted. It's burnt somewhere else, before being nailed on to the outside of the building. I was sorry to see the downstairs part of the extension - although it's also black - is not charred but painted, perhaps because all that burnt wood will blacken anything that touches it. The combination of old and new does work, up to a point. You have a sense that the original rooms are very much secondary, and there is inevitably something a bit jarring about the juxtaposition of old and new. One of the original front rooms is an office, the other is really just a way through to the back. But it helps having some old furniture in the new part. A bit of inconsistency makes for a more interesting place to live, and it's certainly a cut above the standard kitchen extensions and loft extensions you see all over Walthamstow.

15 July 2017

Designing the town centre

On Friday I joined a group touring the High Street with members of the council's design and development team, an event that was designed to show off the many development sites in the area. The most interesting discovery was that the council have an office on the top floor of the Scene, a corner flat with great views across London. We met there for coffee and introductions before setting off to look at the quiet private courtyard for residents of the Scene. It's a car-free development. Is it true that (as rumoured) after three years tenants can get a parking permit? Nobody knew the answer but they thought probably not.

I spent two hours with an assorted bunch of architects and a contractor or two without really discovering what the purpose of the tour was or who it was aimed at. But as a resident it was at least a chance to make a point or two about the Mall proposals. We got to discuss (briefly) the loss of public space, 150 year old trees likely to be cut down, and the lack of joined-up strategy for the overall space including the bus station and Natwest. Vague plans for an overall strategy were mentioned but it certainly isn't at the stage of hiring designers to work out an acceptable solution, an alternative to the Mall's commercially driven proposals.

Isn't the value of the current square and garden their scale, large spaces flexible enough for all sorts of activities? No, the response was that a smaller space could be better designed and would provide somewhere to arrive at rather than just passing through. No, the trees are suffering from being too close together. The Scene is obviously a nice place to live and enhances the end of the High Street, tall but not too tall. But surely tall towers without their own public space are not going to enhance anything? I missed my chance to mention Grenfell Tower, but in any case we didn't get any response on that as far as I could tell. But it was pretty noisy, maybe I missed something when a refuse truck pulled up alongside our little group.

We looked at the shopfront improvements at the St James end of the market. Nothing to criticise there (except that whoever designed the new shopfronts ought to know that window sills need to slope so the rain runs off, otherwise they will go rotten). It's paid for by the council and lottery money about 50-50, about £3 million overall. Looks like money well spent (except for the window sills).

Lastly we walked over towards the South Grove site. Interestingly, there was talk about developing the dire bus park area behind the High Street, bringing that to life with new uses. Then the tunnel under the railway brought us into the old industrial area. The garages were all busy, and demolition of one large block is well under way. Nothing decided yet about the long-derelict pub. This site between the railway and South Grove is earmarked for tall blocks, which will be perhaps a bit like Tottenham Hale. What about the loss of business premises? Yes, they have to move further and further out. Could the small garage inits be turned around so they don't face the new residential area? NO, they are part of the land designated for development. Aren't there any plans to provide affordable business units elsewhere in the borough, perhaps where industrial areas could become denser? Well yes.. sort of, nothing definite though.

I would have liked to know more about the new requirement for significant planning applications to go to a design panel, but discovered nothing useful except that it happens. It was a frustrating morning. The team have obviously considered all the issues before, but the event (which to be fair wasn't designed for that purpose) provided only a hint about the reasoning behind the current official policies. Walking around provides immediacy but it's not really the best situation to discuss and understand the pros and cons of complex issues.

11 June 2017

On the Art Trail

With so much to see on the Art Trail this year, it's not easy to plan a tour of sure-fire interesting spots. Two things quickly became apparent though: firstly, it's much more interesting to visit someone's space and talk to them about what inspired them and how they achieved what is on show, than it is to look at a shop window or an exhibition in a public space. The other discovery was that what looks uninteresting from the short entry in the trail guide can turn out to be absolutely unmissable. Here are some of the highs and lows from the places we managed to cover so far.

St Mary's church has a huge scrawly painting by Hassan Vawda, an unframed canvas suspended above the pews, featuring a rough bearded character who might be biblical but is most likely a self portrait. The high point though, is getting to squeeze up the narrow stone spiral stair to the roof, where you can see across London to the City and Canary Wharf (see first picture). The tour also included a demonstration of bell ringing in the belfry.

At Today Bread there's a board inviting comments on the question "What's the point of art?" A relevant question that deserves a decent-sized space for responses, not the baby-size Rymans notice board they have given it, but then it is a bakery not an art centre. There is some nice photogenic lettering on the window too, but no clues to what "Growing Culture" means - later in the day I googled "today bread growing culture" and got a lot of stuff about beards. "Why CEOs are growing beards" and "Why does God like hairy chins?". Google must think I can't spell.

Invisible Numbers at Winns Gallery in the park is a mixed show of interesting if apparently unrelated artworks, although the common thread is explained in their informative handout. Hannah Ford's circus banners stand out, both for size and colourfulness and for their political viewpoint - an image of Theresa May comes at an especially appropriate time, in fact very possibly just in time. Andrew Baker and Kirsten Sibley's work on early computers (with a Walthamstow link) comes closest to the Invisible Numbers theme. At one end of the gallery are Denise Ford's calm paintings of Suffolk rope-making, contrasting with Rebecca Ward's alien Face Invader, which pumps out techno music and looks too scary to try on. Although a succession young visitors are not so easily put off.

Hewing Wittare Project Space turns out to be an upstairs Warner flat with distressed plaster, work in progress awaiting architectural perfection. It's a show of work by three artists under the title "Shapeshifting Рtactics to combat drowning" and the artworks all relate to the theme of survival, hence the floor of gold rescue blankets. Pictured is one of several papier mach̩ objects by Rebecca Glover, designed to be worn as a mask or perhaps a helmet.

Back in the town centre, Paul Tucker's photographs of trees taken over the seasons are let down by the way the Mall shows them, cordoned off in a desolate spot by the lifts. They deserve to be seen much bigger and without the clutter. We liked the idea of The Mathematics of Plants, shown in the window of XL Hair Design, but we were a little disappointed. The description talks about the whirling spiral patterns found in a surprising number of plants, but the photographs rather conspicuously didn't show that. Danny Coope's Contraptions was also a bit of a disappointment, not because we didn't like his collages but because they are just photographs displayed at the front of his amazing front garden. We definitely wanted to see the originals.

In the next street along, Gomacg - Curious Characters is an open house showing colourful multi-layered paintings on pop art themes. It's well worth a visit.

I would automatically avoid anything that includes knitting in the description, but someone told me the Howard Road House is good, and so perhaps undeservingly discovered the amazing knitted garden up there. Isaac Newton with an apple suspended over his head is a specially nice touch, along with the Smurfs, Dr Who and Einstein.

And finally, I read the description of Danny Neon Open House / Creative Vandalism and decided not to put it on my list, I don't know why because we had an entertaining time looking at the website. Fortunately we went to have a look anyway. The venue is a spacious flat above a High Street shop. Steep narrow stairs lead up to eight rooms including the kitchen and bathroom, all packed with amazing creative clutter and thoughtful and/or provocative artworks. No neon to be seen, but plenty to look at, easily the most fascinating show we saw all day.

Get the E17 Art Trail guide online here

13 May 2017

Veg without plastic

Fresh vegetables in a recycled cardboard box, with no plastic packaging. That is so obviously the right way to buy vegetables, but it is difficult to achieve in practice. It's all too easy to get vegetables along with everything else from the supermarket, but the quantity of plastic involved is becoming distinctly worrying, and the supermarkets don't care about the effect on the environment, only shelf life and marketing targets.

Last Saturday I set out to see if I could buy the week's vegetables without any plastic. I looked at the market stalls but got put off by the pound-a-bowl business, and decided to shop at the International Supermarket on the High Street. They are probably even less interested in being 'green' than Sainsbury's are, but (for different reasons) hardly anything is packaged. Most of their fruit and veg is displayed in the boxes it came in, inside and outside the shop. There are stacks of plastic bags but you don't have to use them. I cycled there (green transport!) and my shopping bike has a large box attached to the handlebars, plenty big enough to carry everything.

The selection of vegetables and salad ingredients in the Turkish-run shop is impressive, with many varieties that you wouldn't get in the big supermarkets: yellow courgettes, purple-and-white streaked aubergines and also white ones, long thin peppers in various colours, and lots more. Mostly the quality is good, although it's not consistent the way Sainsbury's is, but that just means choosing what is good and maybe trying something new, rather than deciding what to buy beforehand.

You collect purchases in a basket and most things can just go straight in, but it was impossible to avoid plastic altogether. Some things came with plastic packaging: celery is in a polythene bag, fresh chives come in cellophane and cooked beetroot is (unavoidably) shrink-wrapped. It didn't seem practical to get loose French beans so I took a polythene bag for those. I brought a used carrier bag with me for potatoes, so as not to push my luck at the checkout, also a big Sainsburys 'bag for life' to carry everything home.

I didn't entirely succeed in my plastic-free shopping mission. I underestimated how much would fit on the bike, so we needed to buy a few things from our local shops during the week. The comparative cost? About the same as Sainsbury's. And the actual saving on plastic bags? Sainsbury's often offer a choice between packaged and loose vegetables, and most of the things I bought could have been loose - so probably less than I expected.

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