New Vs Old in Spitalfields

I took a trip to the big city today, and decided to eschew the tube and the vastness of commercialised London, opting instead to explore the area just outside Liverpool Street station instead.   I think we often miss the most interesting things, which are often under our noses, because we are in too much of a hurry.

I’ve wanted to have a good walk around the Spitalfields area for ages, but every time I have been into or out of Liverpool Street I have been in a mad rush to get trains because I am there for work, not play.  So today was all about heading off into the unknown, with my trusty rucksack, Clarks walking shoes and camera.

This part of London is interesting because it exists in complete contrast to its surroundings – the City of London is a sea of thrusting glass and steel, with skyscrapers reaching for the clouds and people rushing around ignoring their immediate environment.  However a quarter mile east is this lovely area, with original buildings and a completely different feeling.  Pictured above and below is Fournier Street, with its Hugenot weavers’ houses in beautiful condition.

I was reading an appropriate book on the train on the way down, David Byrne’s ‘The Bicycle Diaries’, which is writing based on Byrne’s travels, in which he always takes his folding bike to enable him to discover his surroundings as opposed to opting for the usual sterile hotel and airport routine.  He comments interestingly on the role of ‘ugly modern buildings’ and their significance:

“…maybe, I think to myself, these structures express something.  Something more than the bottom line on a developer’s budget…..maybe they represent, for some people, a new start, a new break with all the previously built things that have surrounded the townsfolk….they declare ‘We shall not be like our fathers!…..we, a modern people, are different.  We are no longer peasants…we want no part of the visual system associated with our past, however noble it might be….”

The impression you get from the bizarre juxtaposition of the new and the old in this little pocket of London is very much that of moving on; even though Spitalfields itself is packed with original buildings of historic significance, the renewal has arrived here too.  It has simply taken  on a different form.  Above is the entrance to the Old Truman Brewery, a site which has now been populated by small niche and artisan businesses where beer was once brewed.  But here, rather than sending in the bulldozers and building tower cranes to construct phallic skyscrapers to represent their aspirations, the incomers have used grafitti, modern art and ‘installations’ to forge their break with what went before.  London is a seething mass, always changing.  But I like the way the change has happened here.  It seems more organic, more human than the impassive glass palaces to money that overlook it.

The atmosphere here is lively and interesting – very much like Berlin or how I imagine parts of New York to be.  Humans rule the environment far more – although there is traffic [hey!  this is London!], the bicycle is far more in evidence than elsewhere, and pedestrians are also more numerous.  I was also interested to find a new outpost of Rough Trade, my erstwhile favourite record emporium, now proffering coffee and cakes with your Black Flag CD!

If you leave the Truman Brewery site you end up, more or less, on Brick Lane, home to a million Curry Houses all vying for the passing trade.  I preferred to find one of the many Asian sweet shops that also exist on this historic road, where Islam co-exists with Orthodox Jewry and bagels can be had as well as Shami Kebabs.  I lunched al-fresco on a corner by the Mosque, enjoying excellent and spicy street food.

As the rain began, I slowly worked my way back towards the City and a far less interesting world, where the harmonious buildings became fewer and further between as they were replaced by precincts of smoked glass and concrete, the scale altering from human to intimidating.

The visual aspect turns from unique – when you are in a dark street full of weavers’ houses you are aware of the unique nature of the buildings – to ‘could be anywhere’.  Every city has these skyscrapers jutting upwards like crooked teeth; all you notice is that each time there are more new cranes on the skyline, meaning yet more aggressive new structures are being thrown up.  Some high ranking architect will be behind it, their superstar ‘brand’ ensuring that the project makes the papers for six months or so.  Then another one, bigger, more ambitious, will be commissioned.  As Byrne notes, depressingly,

“So instead of a small number of really impressive ‘monuments’ such as those that survive from the disdained historical past, our century will leave, across the planet, a sprinkling of almost identical structures…..One city, in many locations”


One response

  1. i love spitalfields market. its one of my favourite places in the city

    August 24, 2011 at 8:47 am

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