diamond geezer

 Saturday, March 17, 2012

Sometimes, when somewhere's ugly, the best thing to do is to hide it.

Stratford's ugly. Not the bright shiny Westfield shopping centre, apparently, because blocky towers and illuminated billboards are 21st century chic. But the old brown Stratford Shopping Centre, the building that resembles a multi-storey car park, because that's essentially what it is. Pig-ugly, all of a sudden, now that the eyes of the world are coming to town. Imagine the shame if international tourists heading to the Games went walkabout in E15 rather than E20. Best hide it.

Hey presto, a wall of artistic spikes has arisen. Or rather a forest of twisted steel, bending upwards from the pavement opposite the bus station. They've been climbing along the edge of Stratford's central concrete island for some time now, unexpectedly densely. Eighteen metres high, the tallest, so you really can't miss them. Anyone not in the know might have mistaken them for lampposts, very thick lampposts, and been waiting for the council to come along and slap some lights on top. Not so. Instead they brought leaves.

This is The Shoal, a major new artwork designed to raise Stratford's Meridian Square above the ordinary. Each leaf is rhomboid in shape, maybe two metres in height and clad in titanium. Each seems to have a subtly different metallic shade, some more blue, some more green, others definitely more silver. None of them overlap, merely almost tessellate, to create a scale-like vision when viewed from afar. Currently a couple of dozen are in place, mostly at the western tip, but soon there'll be more than a hundred along half a kilometre of road. And every leaf moves, apparently, because The Shoal has been designed as a kinetic sculpture. I can't say I've noticed anything flap or wiggle yet, not even a slight twitch, but maybe when the wind gets up we'll see these panels shake.

The architects are very proud. You can tell architects are proud when they use flowery language to describe some bits of metal in an over-enthusiastic way. The Shoal, we're told, consists of "dynamic foliage". Its purpose is "illuminating and delighting the arrival into Stratford from the main station". The leaves provide "an impression of colour, light, movement and structural joy." And then there's this description to help explain how the whole thing hangs together:
"The massing of a typical frame, consisting of a support structure and seven ‘leaves’, has two distinct zones similar to a tree: trunk and foliage. The trunk level is where the pedestrian meanders through the frame, where retail frontages are exposed and where vehicle movement remains unrestricted in accessing the car parks and service bays. The foliage is where the ‘leaves’ help distract from the unattractive car park and service yards behind and provide a visual welcome by consolidating the fractured edge of the Island’s existing architecture."
The Shoal therefore exists not to shield but to distract. It's still perfectly possible to see the concrete service ramp leading into the multi-storey, but your gaze is elsewhere. The bleak offices of Morgan House still rise behind with all the charm of a housebrick, but you're looking at the shiny things in front. And the upstairs seating area at Burger King simply vanishes into the background when there are hinged wiggly metal leaves to enjoy. There you go, job done.

But there is a gap in this artificial forest, a single point where the curtain raises to reveal Real Stratford behind. That's the entrance to the shopping centre, which The Shoal is designed to frame in an attempt to attract visitors and shoppers within. Heaven knows what international tourists will make of Poundland, Sports Direct and the Half Price Jewellers, and one doubts they'll ever make it through far enough to find the lone aspirational Starbucks on the Broadway.

Rest assured that Stratford Shopping Centre remains popular with the real residents who live hereabouts, those whose budgets prefer the 99p Store to Westfield's string of boutiques. Only a couple of shops have boarded up in the six months since Stratford City bared its retail teeth, which in the face of a major recession is something to celebrate. So let's hope that the Shoal helps to raise the profile of the businesses on Stratford Island, as an investment in their future rather than a curtain to screen them out.

Sometimes, when somewhere's ugly, the best thing to do is to make it beautiful.


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