‘What the hell was Colin doing with a Limehouse minicab driver in Belfast? ‘


A really nice bit of flaneury at Homo Ludens,  which identifies exactly what makes the former docks at Wapping in London such a profoundly dispiriting, disorientating experience.

I would add that Wapping is interesting because this is where the Thames widens significantly, and where a visitor first understands the enormity of London’s 19th century mercantile infrastructure. Most importantly and I think this is what HL post reveals is that Wapping makes you aware of the degree to which London commodifies its history. Not simply re-uses it but repackages it and sells it.  The docks were doubly despised in the 80s, an embarrassing reminder of how Britain really was neither a manufacturing nor military world power any more. The warehouses had to be conlonised again. The scene in the The Long Good Friday were Harold Shand spouts off to potential US investors in his development scheme as they sail up the Thames is a great comment on the times.

‘What I’m looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world: culture, sophistication, genius,’ he says. ‘A little bit more than an ‘ot dog, know what I mean?’ Shand ultimately fails to understand that the forces unleashed by Britain’s colonial endeavours are still alive and it ultimately brings him down. Indeed it’s still hard to appreciate it when you visit Wapping today but the docks are part of an ongoing historical process.  In  the first line of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx writes: ‘Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.’ You can feel the tragedy and farce simultaneously in Wapping.

Perhaps HL missed a trick by not going to the Wapping Project. It’s a wilfully avant-garde establishment probably outwith his interest area but it strikes an interesting note of discord with the double layer of imperialism that he rightly discerns in the area. Interestingly it is not funded by the Arts Council or any other grant giving body but on private sponsorship and the profits from its restaurant. It’s not art-led regeneration. It’s just a progressive art space that hits the mark more often than missing it.

It’s a former pumphouse for the hydraulic system that used to run the cranes on the dock. The subterranean tentacles of piping that run from the building throughout the adjacent docks of Wapping provided pressurised water to move cargo. These ducts were bought up by private telecommunications companies and used to feed fibre optic tubes down in the early 90s.

All too late, Tower Hamlets Council have decided that Metropolitan Wharf, one of the only undeveloped warehouses on the waterfront in Wapping cannot be used for residential purposes. But must be mixed use. Far too late they’ve realised that pisspoor residential conversions of warehouses sat next to new build high-rise ‘luxury’ apartments, makes a buck but doesn’t make a place.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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