diamond geezer

 Monday, January 13, 2014

London Ice Sculpting Festival - Wood Wharf

The second weekend in January ought to be a good time for an Ice Sculpting Festival. There's a good chance of the weather being cold, the sun might just come out, and quite frankly there's not much going on elsewhere in London in terms of competition. So this weekend several European experts were invited to Wood Wharf to showcase their skills and compete in three days of ice-based competition. And the general public duly turned up, well wrapped, to gawp and admire and take photos and eat and drink. That'll be the 6th London Ice Sculpting Festival, then.

The walk to Wood Wharf from the nearest tube station was a slow one. Those in the know took the correct exit, and many stopped to pause to watch a beardy guy chainsawing an block of ice. Those with kids took greater interest in the ice graffiti wall, notionally a chance to 'tag' or 'leave a message', but in truth a long queue for the opportunity to chisel something vaguely geometric into a long row of freezing blocks. For the main competition, access to the outdoor arena was somewhat limited. A slow moving procession, held back by pushchairs and wheelie suitcases and family groups, made its way across a pontoon footbridge to the other side of the dock. At the entrance a policewoman barked instructions about the one way system we'd need to follow when it was time to depart, via another route, most definitely not this one. And once all that palaver was over, there were the ice sculptures to look at.

Almost ten international teams were taking part, each with their handiwork gleaming atop a black rostrum. These were spaced out around the wharf, several metres apart, giving the illusion that rather more was going on than really was. Members of the public stood around the outside of each, phones aloft, hopefully only taking snaps rather than recording the whole lot to bore friends on Facebook. The freestyle competition took place over two days so Sunday was a day for finishing off, or desperately catching up, or even swanning in late if carving was ahead of schedule. What had once been a two metre high block was by now shaped to resemble something of its final form, but still with additional chunks to remove and intricate surface detail to create. The theme for this year's competition was "Fabulous Fashion", which sounds precisely like the kind of rubbish a shopping centre's marketing team would come up with. Alas early on Sunday afternoon I couldn't tell what any of the sculptures were supposed to be, let alone their relevance to the title, but the artists still had a few hours to go before the final deadline.

A wide variety of tools were being used, from electric saws that sprayed the audience with powder to precision blades and chisels for more close-up work. Most sculptors wore thick blue gloves to protect their hands from frostbite and from injury. Other braver souls went in raw, presumably for added precision, and for added respect. In larger teams one member had the job of chucking leftover chunks of ice into a skip as the 3D image was formed. And in absent teams the entire creation remained wrapped in thick blue sheeting, presumably added to prevent everything thawing out overnight. The event was interesting, but not several hours of interesting, even with the addition of a coffee cart and a winter food market around the edge. But it was still the most interesting collective public event taking place in the capital yesterday, because it's only the second weekend in January. So stick the 7th London Ice Sculpting Festival in your online diary now, as a Thing You Could Be Doing In 52 Weeks Time. And wear gloves.

Oh, and hands up if you read all the way through that without having a clue where Wood Wharf is. That's not especially unlikely, given that very little actually happens there at the moment. And yet these 20 acres are in a strategically important location, ripe for redevelopment, and you'll probably know all about them soon enough. Wood Wharf is in fact the area just to the east of Canary Wharf, on the neck of the Isle of Dogs, just across the docks from the financial skyscraper forest. If you know the shopping mall it's round the back of Waitrose and then some. It's also the reason there's an extra exit from the tube station pointing east towards a dockside... because eventually there'll be a road across the water and tens of thousands living and working here. Just not yet.

At present Wood Wharf is an expanse of nothing much, part of an island carved out by the creation of the West India Docks in the 1800s. On site is an indoor sports club, and a couple of lowrise red-framed office buildings, and a large area used for stacking containers, and a lot of space generally waiting around to be built on. It's been like this for years, home to temporary businesses and one short row of 80s flats... which will be demolished. I've seen film crews here before - they appreciate being off the grid - but generally there's no reason to come here at all. Access is via a dead end turn-off from the Isle of Dogs perimeter road, past what looks like an observatory but is in fact a Jubilee line ventilation shaft, then past three lofty cranes preserved for their heritage value. Pedestrians meanwhile can climb down a well concealed staircase from Canary Wharf proper or, if there's a special event on like an Ice Sculpting Festival or the monthly lunchtime market, cross the pontoon.

Both Tower Hamlets Council and Canary Wharf plc have been biding their time, for at least a decade, waiting for the right time to bring Wood Wharf's potential to fruition. And that time is now, or at least later this year, which is when ten years of future development is scheduled to begin. A masterplan is already on the books, refined last year, and which you can read all about here (if you can be bothered to unzip all the files). At least 3000 homes are planned, and a primary school, and loads of offices, and 1km of "dockside boulevard", and several small parks, and maybe even a bus stop. Expect high density highrise construction, the complete opposite of what's here today, in a mammoth scheme that'll increase the area of Canary Wharf's estate by almost 50%.

If you went to the Ice Sculpting Festival yesterday, the majority of the event took place in an area designated as "landmark residential". This'll include the tallest tower of all, a cigar-shaped monster providing penthouse views almost as high as One Canada Square. A large area of the adjacent dock will have to be filled in to complete the foundations, and those of other apartment blocks, there being no rental value on undeveloped water. The far end of the site where the winter food market was located will become part of the commercial district, close to new permanent moorings on Blackwall Basin. And a strip inbetween will form part of the estate's main east/west axis, a new "market square and festival retail destination" called The High Street. They might even hold the Ice Scuplting festival here in 2020, should you want to put that in your online diary too, as Wood Wharf prepares for utter transformation.

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