PUBLIC WORKS & ISAAC MARRERO-GUILLAMON
Hackney Wick and Fish Island (HWFI) is located in east London, directly adjacent to the Olympic Park and separated from the surrounding neighbourhoods by a network of motorways and canals. It is, quite literally, an island. And it is so in a figurative sense as well; it was one the last industrial areas in the East End and until the late 2000s a semi-secret, unregulated and cheap location.
Artists and creatives started coming to the area in the late 1980s. They transformed many of the empty warehouses into self-built, collectively-run studios, and with them came a wide array of more or less unsanctioned uses, from live/work to informal markets, gra!iti or notorious raves.
The early 2000s showed the fragility of this ecology. During the economic boom, East London became a prime investment "opportunity" and the kind of generic new builds that have become synonymous with London made an appearance. Some industrial buildings were demolished, others converted into expensive lofts. Prices went up; new cafés opened.
And then, in 2005, the bid to host the Olympic Games was won. A huge plot of land that had until then existed in close psycho-geographical continuity with HWFI was compulsory purchased, emptied, fenced up, remediated, cleansed. The blue fence erected around the 16 km perimeter of the future Olympic site - later replaced by an 3,000 volt electric version - made clear that the mega-event was to be protected from its undisciplined neighbours. The physical extirpation of the Olympic park from its surroundings was later complemented by an exceptional set of measures destined to further isolate it, from the military policing of the fence and dispersal zone orders to image-making restrictions and tax exemptions.
However, the concentration of most interest and resources around the Olympic project, together with an economy in ta"ers following the 2008 crisis, produced a respite for HWFI. This is the context in which R-Urban Wick has developed: an area under temporary relief, enjoying a "delay", existing in an interim condition.
Now that the Games are long gone and the respite almost certainly over, the question is whether the Olympic site will expand into HWFI or the other way around; whether exceptionality and order will take over, or rather the informal, collective, DIY city-making practices that have shaped the area will prevail.
HWFI has not been a site of protest in any traditional sense. Unrest has been subdued, if at all. And yet, we argue that the bo"om-up city-making practices that have shaped the area o!er an important experience of vernacular progressive architecture. These actions occupied an interstice, a terrain of urban vagueness which o!ered the possibility of experimenting with and prototyping a city made from below. R-Urban has been inspired by these practices, and hopes to contribute to their continuing capacity to a!ect the area. Within RUrban, architecture is a tool amongst others for creating networks of commoning practices, i.e. an infrastructure for producing and capturing the commons, a time and a space for sharing communities and o!-market exchanges.
We have proposed exerting two displacements in approaching the relationship between planning and protest:
- From urban planning to minor urbanism: actions that operate tactically, in the interstices of planning. -
- From the politics of protest to the micro-politics of the commons: practices that stand for creating commons through reciprocity and solidarity.
Somewhat surprisingly, Olympic-related development did not trigger an immediate surge in construction in Hackney Wick and Fish Island. Combined with the economic crisis which hit the city soon afterwards, a very unlikely respite took place instead. This produced a vital parenthesis for the area. In spite of the increasing pressure that private landowners were putting on tenants, the Wick's informal condition continued to prosper under the shadow of the Olympic spotlight.
From urban planning to minor urbanism. The actions and projects here gathered do not operate at the level of planning. Rather, they are embedded in tactical networks of bottom-up practices which operate in the interstices of planning. They are temporal and mobile; they roam and adapt. They are also relational: they involve more than plans and propositions; they summon objects, events, publics and knowledges in the pursuit of an alternative, collectively-made city.
From the politics of protest to the micro-politics of the commons. R-Urban does not attempt to foster protest in the sense of "standing against" something; it rather aspires to contribute to ways of "standing for things together". It is about creating spatial commons which feed into, and are fed by, other social, cultural and environmental commons. Re-appropriations, self-management, knowledge exchanges, sharing and caring are some of the methods deployed.
R-Urban exists within a glocal network of bottom-up city-making initiatives. It draws from its parent project in the City of Colombes, near Paris, led by aaa (1). It is closely linked to Richard Brown's Affordable Wick campaign (2). It shares key values with Assemble's Yardhouse project in Stratford (3). It could be seen as part of a local movement for collective self-management, which also informs the people's plan for Carperters Estate, also in Stratford (4), or neighbours-led planning in nearby Clapton (5).
The practices included here show us how so-called scarcity can be a source of abundance. In times of imposed austerity and generalised precarity, it is not banal in the slightest to consider the politics of these actions. The respect and understanding of the environment, the rejection of corporate strategies, the production of unsanctioned knowledge, practical wisdom and ingenious tactics, the will to share and learn from each other, they all speak about activating relations of solidarity and reciprocity. R-Urban Wick shows how an expanded understanding of architecture can contribute to creating what aaa call "networks of commoning practices, i.e. an infrastructure for producing and capturing the commons, a time and a space for sharing communities and off-market exchanges."
What follows is a glimpse of the constellation of subjects, objects, knowledges and practices which are effectively re-making Hackney Wick and Fish Island from below, collaboratively, openly. The four legs of R-Urban Wick and the methodologies they use are an extension of the local dynamics the project has identified and aims to support. They represent four ways of doing, four distinct ways of intervening in the city fabric and developing an economy of the commons.
The Wick on Wheels (WOW) is a roaming production and recycling unit. It is an open resource which engages with local communities in order to reuse, recycle, repair and re-make. It facilitates direct, collective on site production using existing local materials, resources and skills. WOW has been used to organise experiments with Comfrey plants, in 'suplus food harvesting', and in workshops which are part of the process of building an anaerobic digester.
The Wick Sessions are a series of talks, walks and workshops dedicated to Hackney Wick and its surrounding area. They are designed to provide a public forum for debating and creating a shared body of knowledge around issues of bottom-up and sustainable developments. The politics of self-building; the legal side of communityled development; or strategies for interim use are some of the topics that have been addressed. Sessions take place in varying locations, hosted by supporting organisations, and frequently co-organised with collaborators.
Experiments in Household Knowledge are a series of collaborations with East London ecological and environmental innovators. They gather and showcase unusual and inventive ways of making and experimenting, from gardening techniques to alternative forms of energy production. These are often unique and self-taught skills that operate outside of sanctioned knowledge. They include making cladding material out of burnt timber, building a self-regulated plant growing system using discarded bathtubs, or extracting human-friendly juice of market waste.
The Wick Curiosity Shop is an alternative archive which exists on-line and as a series of pop-up events. The Shop documents the area's unofficial and "minor" history through an eclectic collection of memories, local produce, memorabilia, oral history, songs and stories. It doesn't provide an overarching narrative, but a tapestry of mostly disregarded facts and experiences one can navigate in various ways creating as many narratives. The Shop highlights the area's industrial and working-class history, and provides the elements to connect it with present-day circumstances.
To see the full publication and purchase a copy visit: www.planningforprotest.org
To download this contribution as a pdf click here.