diamond geezer

 Monday, April 16, 2007

Random borough (13): Tower Hamlets (part 2)

Somewhere famous: Canary Wharf
The centre of Docklands is pretty quiet on a Saturday. The offices in the skyscrapers are empty, the financial folk are elsewhere and it's even possible to get a seat on the Jubilee line. But it's not completely quiet, not like the City of London gets at weekends. The shops beneath One Canada Square are a great draw for the richer elements of the surrounding community, and the wharfside walkways and bridges make ideal jogging circuits for panting fitness freaks. The weekend brings out the tourists too, here to marvel at the alien glass and steel landscape, like a chunk of transplanted Manhattan. Few places in Britain have been transformed quite so radically as these few acres of former marshland.

25 years ago it was really quiet here, even on weekdays. The West India Docks had just closed, made obsolete by containerisation, and the entire Isle of Dogs looked likely to become a forgotten post-industrial backwater. And then in April 1982 the newly created London Docklands Development Corporation formally designated the area an Enterprise Zone, and set about convincing big businesses that the location had something to offer. A 50-storey central tower was erected (still Britain's tallest habitable building, and still wrecking my TV reception) and the Docklands Light Railway was built to tackle the area's poor accessibility. A property crash in the early 90s forced the Canadian developers into bankruptcy, but a new consortium finally made the place profitable, helped out by the arrival of the Jubilee line extension in 1999. Today they can't build new skyscrapers fast enough. City banks, insurance groups, big media players - they're all out here forming London's new financial nucleus.
full Canary Wharf history

I took the opportunity to wander round some of the newer bits of Docklands in search of public art and good camera angles. There are a lot of modern sculptures littered around the various walkways and plazas (this map shows you where to look), some of them vaguely humanoid, some of them more abstract. Many are by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj including a bandaged head outside the tube station and splendid centaur in Churchill Place [photo]. But my favourite remains Pierre Vivant's Traffic Light Tree - a mass of blinking red, amber and green lights sprouting between two plane trees [photo]. The artwork has been placed slap bang in the centre of a roundabout, but local traffic is wise enough to ignore it.

Down on the quayside at West India Quay I visited an old boat given a new lease of life as a "visual literacy centre" (if that's not a contradiction in terms). This is the SS Robin [photo], the world's last remaining steamcoaster. She was built in 1890 in Bow Creek, but spent most of her working life chugging coal around northern Spain. Now retired and restored, she houses an exhibition space below decks, complete with mini bookshop, comfy sofa and under-frequented bar. I was welcomed aboard and got to look around the latest exhibition of 24 photographs, each depicting a different hour of New Year's Day. And I was thanked on my exit a few minutes later, even though I hadn't spent long interacting with the facilities. Worth a visit more to see the boat itself than its contents, I thought.
by tube or DLR: Canary Wharf

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