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The Displacement of Artists on the Olympic Fringe: The role of Conservation Essay by Kat Ballo

The River Lea looking at Fish Island (adjacent to Olympic stadium). 1960 on the left and 2012 on the right. (Train of Barges ,1960)


1: 40,000 Lower Lea Valley in shown in green, and Fish Island and Hackney Wick in brown 2

The Lea Valley, Hackney Wick, and Fish Island:

Hackney Wick is located in East London in the borough of Hackney. It borders Fish Island which is in the borough

of Tower Hamlets. These two areas are almost always thought of as one territory because of their similar landscapes and characters, and form here will be referred to as HW & FI. HW & FI lie in the Lower Lea Valley and border the western edge of the 2012 Olympic Site. Since the early 19th century, the area had been home to heavy and light industries. The Lea Navigation is a canalized river which borders and intersects HW & FI. The canal system—and later the rail—defined the area as an industrial hub owing to its excellent transport links. In the late 19th century a new population of factory workers migrated to HW & FI to work in the factories. In turn, this created industrial slums. After the heavy bombing of East London in WWII, a portion of the terraced homes were destroyed. Instead of being rebuilt, the terraced slums were cleared to make way for lighter industries, which by 1980 had completely dominated Fish Island and lower Hackney Wick.

While the Lea Navigation canal was useful to industrial transportation it was and remains largely isolating to the

pedestrian. In addition to being bordered and intersected by canals, the rest of HW and FI are sectioned off from the rest of east London by the A12 motorway. Mainly owing to the fact that there was very little housing in HW & FI, there was little need for connectivity or safe pedestrian links to the rest of the city. As a result the area resisted a normal or residential style of inhabitation. In the 1990’s artists began to move into the area because of the cheap rents and the huge amount of space and light available in the older Victorian warehouses. The influx of live/work conditions grew rapidly, giving rise to the tight-knit artist community which has so far been able to thrive based on its very isolation. In 2010 there were 610 artists’ studios in the area—making it the densest population of artist in Europe (Design for London, 2009). This regeneration of the HW & FI is a direct result of the colonization of the area by artists.



Mapping Hackney:

Conservation areas in Hackney were mapped along with listed buildings-- buildings which are protected by the

council-- because these would define areas which would not radically change or be developed. Conservation areas are about preservation, and so it can be assumed that they are areas of a city which are less likely to change. Arts areas such as studios, galleries, art supply stores, and venue spaces for performance, were also mapped in the same manner. these two maps were overlaid on each to see if there was any connection between conservation areas and arts in Hackney.

A result of the mapping showed not only that some art galleries and studios fell in conservation areas of Hackney,

but that most of them did. This relationship between art and conservation areas made logical sense because artists inhabited turn of the century warehouses, which with their large windows and high ceilings made for excellent artists’ studios.

Shoreditch was one such area on the map which had an obvious link between arts and conservation. Even

though now, it offers little in terms of affordable studio spaces for artists, it is still a hive of creative activity because of its past. In the 1990’s as industry was leaving Shoreditch, the industrial warehouses were vacated, and artists moved in. Even though today most of those original artists have been forced to rent in cheaper areas, their artistic legacy remains. The following section will question how artists could make more lasting impression through their actual habitation of industrial areas, without being forced out due to development and high rents.


The North East corner of Fish Island in 1999 and 2011, as documented by Hackney local photographer Chris DorleyBrown. The industrial buildings (on left) were torn down to create a ten storey residential block (on right). This perfectly captures the ‘spirit’ of most new development in HW & FI.

(Dorley-Brown, 2011)


The Role of Conservation Areas:

HW &FI have the densest concentration of artist’s studios in Europe, and they are also situated next to the

largest construction project in Europe. If the area is to remain a creative hub it will need to be resilient—and more specifically—resistant to the mass changes and developments as a result of the 2012 Olympic Park. The very same canals and rivers which enabled the area to thrive as an industrial centre have created ideal ‘water front property’ conditions, which put the whole area at risk of new development. For example, in the last ten years, Crown Wharf and Iron Works, two industrial sites on Fish Island were razed to the ground. Several 8-10 storey tall apartment blocks were built in their place. Naturally, if the canal side warehouses, which are currently occupied by artists, are replaced with new developments, the artists along with the industries on HW & FI will be displaced.

Due to threat of mass development, HW & FI are perceived as one large transient space on the precipice of

change. The boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets have recognised this potential threat to the artists’ community and the industrial nature of the area. As a result the “White Post Lane Conservation Area” just became designated. This is crucial to the preservation of HW & FI’s character. Simply put, conservation areas are important because they are resistant to major changes. The first step in preserving the character of a place is to preserve it physically. After the area is designated as a conservation area, other factors can come into play, such as initiatives to maintain low rents for artists. This is one way which conservation not only acts to preserve, but also orchestrates a change. Leading urban conservationist, John Pendlebury (2012), argues that “conservation has largely successfully repositioned itself from being regarded as a barrier to development to being regarded as an active agent of change”. If suddenly HW & FI were rebuilt from the ground up, they would become homogenous new territories, devoid of character. By preserving parts of the areas, conservation promotes variety, and by conserving we are making active changes to the fabric of our environments.


the White Building white post lane conservation area conservation areas art studios/ galleries/ venues

1: 8,000 8

The Symbiotic Relationship between Artists and Conservation:

Factory work required a high level of visibility, and before the commercialization of the light bulb, warehouses

took advantage of natural light by incorporating large and regular windows. The very same buildings have lost their original uses as a result of modernization, and now make for the perfect artists’ studios. One could argue that without the infrastructure of older buildings, the artist’s community in HW & FI would have been slower to develop. Furthermore, if all of the industrial buildings were modern metal sheds, perhaps no artist community would have developed at all, because a mass of dark cold warehouses could not foster the spectrum of creative arts.

Alternatively it can also be argued that without the artists to inhabit the warehouses, they may have been

disused, and as a result demolished. White Post Lane Conservation Area appraisal document is interesting to look at because of how it addresses the role of the artists on Fish Island. It highlights the relationship between artists and conservation areas: The buildings have often survived as a result of the inherently flexible nature of the spaces within which allow for their adaptability and reuse. With their large spaces and generous natural light many have been converted to smaller units that provide space for small businesses and artist studios. This community of artists now contributes to the character of the area introducing a slightly bohemian feeling (Tower Hamlets, 2012)

Clearly, by the use of colourful language in this appraisal, it is evident that the artists on Fish Island are seen as a thing of value. This is further reinforced under the section titled Land Use, where it states “Light industrial, employment uses and creative art industry will continue to be encouraged as part of a more mixed use approach as set out in the policies” (Tower Hamlets, 2012). This is a clear attempt to protect the existing artists and light industries that have colonized HW & FI. It is also steering away from large scale residential blocks, by emphasizing on reuse rather than rebuild.

There are two other conservations area on HW & FI that were designated in 2009, which are shown on the map

to the right. Both of those conservation areas, heavily favoured the creative residents of the older Victorian buildings, and thus set a trend for the area. The White Post Lane conservation area is the third in this group to carry this trend on. In reality, this ‘trend’ is much more influential than a trend in the traditional sense of the word. Unlike fashion, where trends change seasonally, built architectural trends take much longer to pass. The fact that this conservation and art trend is legitimized in legislation will ensure that it may last even longer.


(Pryce, 2012) (East Elevation of the White Building, 2010)


In his book, Conservation and the Age of Consensus, Pendlebury (2009, p. 7) argues that we only conserve

what we value, and what we value is specific to the society making the evaluation. He goes on to explain that value is not intrinsic to things; it is a cultural inflection. Consequently, conservation area designations can vary as much as local councils. The future of artists on the Olympic Fringe of HW & FI may rely on strategically designated Conservation Areas, which place value on artists, as has the White Post Lane Conservation Area.

The White Building is a current example of the regeneration of the White Post Lane Conservation Area. The White Building housed a chemical factory, a confectioners, and finally a printworks, before it was vacated. It has just been refurbished into artist’s studios and gallery space. 11

The Displacement of Artists on the Olympic Fringe: The role of Conservation  

An essay on the artists' community in Hackney Wick and Fish Island, London.