Still life in the East End: Mark Gould, Arch 481 – and a nod to Don McCullin?With Docklands and the City on their elevated horizon, passengers travelling above the East End on the old London, Tilbury & Southend Railway viaduct probably don’t notice the houses, estates and businesses of Whitechapel and Mile End, or the green handkerchief of the trimmed and tidied Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park. And as they pass through Bow, they almost certainly won’t look down into the narrow access road that runs alongside the viaduct and the steel-shuttered fronts of its rented arches. Equally, however, the sound of their train’s passage arrives in the workshops beneath the tracks not as the clattering syncopation of wheel on rail but as a distant kettle-drum rumble whose timetabled regularity is a reminder a world far removed from life in Arch 481 where Darcy Turner, the Caractacus Pott of Bow Common Lane, “fiddles and fumbles,” as he puts it, inventing and developing the machines that he uses to run craft days in schools.Letting the arches was the railways' way to defray the expense of building the viaducts, but the workshop-under-the arch has now entered popular culture
Running beneath the railway tracks, the arches are, quite literally, a parallel world: “If I ever advertise these spaces,” says Darcy, “people look white by the time they [arrive].” His neighbours include, among others, market traders, a supplier of scene-setting accessories to Bengali weddings, a printer, a hydroponics company, and a couple of carpenter’s ‘shops – “proper workers,” as Mandie Beuzeval calls them, “not beardie hipsters.”
Clearly, Mandie wasn’t put off when she and fellow Cass graduate, Mark Gould, answered Darcy’s ad’ and rented bench space among the galleried shelving that carries Darcy’s ‘stock’ (“Everything’s important,” he protests from their depths; “it’s not junk!”)
“It’s like a hotel for [gastarbeiter] in a Dubai construction company,” Mark replies with a rise and fall of the shoulders that tells you he’s laughing. Yes, the cramped working conditions call for a degree of co-operation and manoeuvring. And no, there’s neither heating – which is fine in the summer when the brickwork is soaked with heat; less so in the winter when that energy has drained away – nor running water, and no toilet…well, not unless you count the survivalist plastic bottle-and-funnel set-up between the roller shutter and outer steel doors. And, really, who would count that?
But if comfort was the first consideration, of course, Mandie and Mark would probably be office-bound on the train that’s just passing overhead rather than here, using the toe-hold in the city they’re afforded by Arch 481 to start their cabinet-making businesses. Besides, as Darcy says, the mental space you occupy while doing anything new is an uncomfortable place to be – “I see it all the time when working with kids,” he says, and adults find it no different except that they've learned to ‘lean into’ the discomfort and move forwards – so perhaps it’s fitting if the physical space you occupy sometimes presents challenges, too?
There’s also a certain poetry to their situation: Mark, Mandie, Darcy, and the thousands of others who work under arches around the country are following in an honourably gritty tradition that’s as old as the railways themselves. In her paper, Underneath the Arches: The Afterlife of a Railway Viaduct, Leicester University’s Emma Dwyer writes about the old Eastern Counties Railway viaduct in nearby Shoreditch which, having been constructed between 1836 and 1840, predates the one in which Arch 481 stands by about 15 years. It was, however, built for much the same reasons – the arches’ feet were able to high-step their way through the crowded East End, “minimising the number of buildings that [had] to be demolished, [and] raising the railway line above adjacent properties in a congested district.” But, like the Bow viaduct, no doubt, the Shoreditch structure was expensive: “It was a mile and a quarter in length and comprised 160 arches…To that end, many of the arches underneath the viaduct were let out as warehouses and workshops.” Since then, the workshop-under-the-arch has entered popular culture, nowhere more memorably perhaps, than with Victor’s Alf Tupper, the duo-tone ‘Tough of the Track’, the Olympic medallist, and all-round working-class hero who ran his welding business from a railway arch workshop. “Bloomin’ Ada,” as Alf would surely have said, “it’s a good life - if you don’t weaken.”
There’s something rather satisfying about the pithiness of architects; their observations often seem to combine the creative and the critical in just the right proportions to produce pocket-sized measures that can be held up to the world. Take Denise Scott Brown, for example: “Architecture can’t force people to connect, it can only plan the crossing points, remove barriers, and make the meeting places useful and attractive.” Cut around the dotted lines of that yardstick and hold it up to the eastern end of Stratford High Street - a ribbon of glass-faced redevelopment bordering a tangle of public transport, and four lanes of tarmac and traffic lights - and it becomes heavy with the same irony that surely prompted Richard ‘Lloyds building’ Rogers to observe that, “‘form follows profit’ is the aesthetic principle of our time.”
Walk half a mile west, however, to where the river Lea, and the Three Mills Wall and Bow Back rivers bound a scruffy island of light-industry, and Brown’s axiom seems to read quite differently - though not because this is where the Olympic legacy company, LLDC, has given LandProp (IKEA’s property development operation) the mandate to build ‘homes, business and commercial premises around a public square and riverside park’; exactly who’s able to afford that vision we’ll have to wait and see. No, it’s more to do with the fact that, in the meantime, the LLDC is partially funding Sugarhouse Studios – a former signwriting works bang in the middle of IKEA’s sandpit – in order to provide, “a sociable and collaborative work environment…for creative practitioners to expand their frame of reference, learn new skills, and work with others,” according to Assemble, the design and architecture collective which developed and now manages and also works from the building. “[It] is not seen as a quiet, desk-based work environment but home to a range of messy, noisy, tactile and experimental processes.”
And it’s here, surrounded by demolition and overlooked by new development, that you’ll find Workshop East (WE), a ‘community interest company’, a limited company established for the benefit of a community rather than shareholders – a fact reflected in that acronymic WE. For the moment, ‘we’ comprises the four directors – Building Crafts College graduates Frances Gallagher, Steve Cook, and Mauro Dell’Orco, together with stonemason Nancy Peskitt – and two other BCC alumni, Daniel Kisiel and Andrew Tomlin, who’re renting benches there.
“For what we do,” says Steve, “we need old, slightly run-down industrial buildings that’re neither tacked onto housing stock, because of the noise, nor on an industrial estate that’s nowhere near anybody.” And that’s just what the old signwriter’s yard gives them: beneath its clear corrugated roofing, WE has a machine shop that’s well-equipped (thanks to start-up funding from the Carpenters’ Company) with machines that are heavy enough to support the workload created by the 10 to 12 makers whom it’s hoped will eventually make up the project.
It’s an enviable facility, offering as it does not only capability but space – a luxury that, despite the terms of the land sale requiring that residents’ rents be held down, would still be unaffordable for WE were it not for what sounds like a spot of practical Marxism (though the LLDC would probably shudder to hear it called that). The rent of the machine shop floor space has been set aside in return for making the equipment available to Assemble, so that WE only pays for the studio adjoining the machine shop where the first half-dozen ‘communards’ have their benches.
“...a sociable and collaborative work environment for creative practitioners to expand their frame of reference, learn new skills, and work with others.”
Just a snap, really, but one taken as we were carried past Paul Cummins' field of ceramic poppies by the quietly flowing stream of people that poured over Tower Bridge, around the moat, and on down to the river.
Stepping into the hangar and seeing the Würger (Butcher Bird), hunched and menacing on its wide-track landng gear, is how I imagine it'd feel to, say, walk into London Zoo's aviary and be confronted by a Pterodactyl!.
Read more of the story in Features
Waldo Pepper would've been proud: Mark Jefferies' Global Stars team caused a sensation when it staged the first airshows ever held in the Indian city of Ahmedabad (1-4 April 2015), but behind each of the fifteen-minute displays was a story of sweat, team-work, and Immodium that combined what I imagine is the spirit of a travelling circus with some C21st barnstorming.
Spannering: it was mid-40s in the hangar...
Income Tax bridge comes to a standstill
The sun and the Stars come out
L to R: Chris Burkett, Mark Jefferies, Tom Cassells, and Steve Carver
You can read my Air India magazine piece about the Global Stars on the Features page
People ask us why we've swapped the South East of England for the borders of Shropshire and Wales? I look around at the hills and mountains, the clarity of the light, the freshness of the air; I think about the people, the place, the pace of life, and for the life of me I can't think why – why anyone would ask.
I was recently introduced to Dinorwig by some climbing friends. On an autumn afternoon, the landscape of the quarry – part living rock, part-man made – its massive scale, and silent air of desolation make it a dramatic and, in a way, intimidating environment
In towns and cities, space of any kind is at a premium, and the sites that once provided affordable premises for sole-traders or small collectives – the superannuated workshops, the awkward corners, the redundant public buildings – are being redeveloped, and creatives and jobbing craftsmen are being squeezed into the margins.
Within a stone’s throw of the City of London’s financial glass houses, Sugarhouse Studios represents a model of creative co-operation and community that is home to Workshop East, an example of a 'community interest company'.
The Tower of London, November 2014: who could forget this act of rememberance?
After 20 years, Flug Werk – the Bavarian company whose painstakingly researched replicas of the FW190 put this almost extinct WWII fighter back into the air – is closing its hangar doors. I went to meet Claus Colling, the project's driving force, for the final interview.
I tagged along to India with Global Stars, the aerobatic display team that recently brought Ahmedabad to a standstill over four days with its riverfront barnstorming. Behind the flying, tho', there's a story to be written of sweat and Immodium...
People ask us why we've swapped the South East of England for the borders of Shropshire and Wales...
Dramatic DinorwigRising above Llyn Padarn, the abandoned quarry of Dinorwig is a part-natural, part-man made mountain of slate
I've thought about it, and I've decided that I don't much care for the word 'blog' and its shouty connotations, so I'm going with 'posts' to describe this loose pinboard of ideas, projects and pictures.
Scroll down and click on a post to expand the lightbox