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