4 Nov 2012

Hackney Hipsters

Broadway Market

Hackney is one of the best places to observe the dramatic changes brought by the age of triumphant neo-liberalism to London and British society. Here on the edge of the City of London, that symbol of conspicuous wealth, obscene greed, recklessness and short-termism, you will find in a ‘world city’ of extravagant riches one of the poorest communities in Britain. Every ward in Hackney is amongst the 10% most deprived in the country and nearly half its children live in low income households. But despite this social injustice Hackney is in many ways a dynamic, resilient and successful community, one which has housed immigrants from around the world and who now make up nearly half the population. With its traditional industries now largely extinct as a direct consequence of the infatuation of Britain’s political elites with finance and the City, Hackney residents in service jobs play a crucial if largely unrecognised role in underpinning the comfortable lifestyles of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. But Hackney is also at the cutting edge of a new economy with the ‘silicon roundabout’ at Old Street, the great hope for a new white heat of information technology revolution.

Looking for Douglas

Hackney is famous for Hipsters – those shock troops of gentrification difficult to define but easy to spot that regularly provoke the very amusing wrath of locally based writer and critic Douglas Murphy. Although concentrated in Shoreditch, hipsters may now be observed in unlikely places such as Hackney Wick and Stoke Newington. Shoreditch is allegedly Europe’s biggest concentration of creative industries and is seen as a model for regeneration which even Osborne is willing to fund. Gentrification of inner city areas is positively promoted by public agencies – all part of the Urban Renaissance agenda. But just as the built environment outcomes of the regeneration industry are usually highly dubious, so are the social effects of adaptive re-use and ‘mixed communities’. This is explored by Benedict Seymour in ‘Shoreditch and the Creative Destruction of the inner city’, and in his London Particular films.

A lively working class high street - Hackney Central

Few hipsters here - Lower Clapton Road

But Hackney is much more than Shoreditch. Like most London boroughs it does not make much geographic sense, having many distinct neighbourhoods. The magic roundabout is on the border with Islington while Shoreditch High Street becomes Tower Hamlets, all a bit confusing. Hoxton which was uber cool is in Hackney but seemed too obvious a starting place for our search, so being literal minded we went to Hackney Central. Here north of the station we found a lively but far from cool inner London high street - a jumble of impressive Victorian buildings, Georgian survivals and familiar chain store styles. Greggs is at the upper end of the shopping hierarchy and Mare Street does not have the opportunity to ‘love Waitrose’. The village-like jumble quickly becomes Lower Clapton which, as Clapton Square illustrates, has lots of potential for gentrification but as yet just a few subtle examples. Lots of buildings are desperately in need of adaptive re-use.

Vintage civic (Hackney Town Hall)

PFI civic (Hackney Library)

To the south Mare Street becomes an arterial road displaying the confidence of Hackney’s early C20th heyday, when London was actually a great industrial city, as Jerry White shows in his absorbing history. Here you find a ‘cultural quarter’ around the unexceptional 1930s Portland stone town hall with its nice Deco light fittings and exotic palms in the formal gardens. It is flanked by Matcham’s wonderful, restored Hackney Empire, a riot of Baroque terracotta, and by the recent Hackney Technology and Learning Centre (library) designed by Hodder and Partners. This is as cheap and tacky as you can get, all dumb cladding and pointless gesture. It is shamed by the quality and coherence of the Edwardian Methodist library opposite, once the infamous Ocean music venue and now transformed by Fletcher Priest into the Picturehouse. The developers see this as the latest step towards gentrifying the area, following the example of The Ritzy in Brixton. Currently screening an interesting programme of African films, this arts cinema does seem like a good move for Hackney but also underscores Benedict Seymour’s thesis on art and gentrification.

A good thing

Broadway Market - markedly different from Hackney Central

Sometimes I wonder about the hipster in me (nice paving by the way)

If you follow the bike route through London Fields you reach Broadway Market, a case study in gentrification. It is almost like a Home Counties market town; simple small scale late Georgian, early Victorian brick buildings now sporting every kind of niche shop you can imagine with a few useful ones hanging on as well. It is not colonised by the usual suspects like Spitalfields Market and the Brunswick Centre however. Art, or rather style, is the main driver, not Mammon, and some shops clearly have a definite green ethic. Bikes are big and it is difficult not to like the ambience of the place even if you do not entirely approve. It is all an amazing contrast to Mare Street, maybe a kilometre away; noticeable too that the street paving is of far higher quality than that for the shoppers of Hackney Central.

Dalston Culture House

There's hope in Dalston Market

Making things better - pavement widening, Kingsland High Street

According to the Core Strategy Hackney Central is only a ‘district centre’ whereas Dalston is the borough’s ‘town centre’. Kingsland Road was a Roman highway and dictates a very different character although with the similar mix of surprisingly grand fin de siècle buildings, more modest earlier survivals and quite a few flashy inter war shops together with the lovely streamlined Rio cinema. The new wide pavements on Kingsland Road are a quiet exemplar of how to get the balance right on a busy high street. Just off the high street the jam packed Ridley Road street market has amazingly exotic food stalls and is high on atmosphere whilst the antiseptic indoor shopping centre next door is virtually empty, so maybe there is hope. Hope too in the Dalston Culture House which includes the Vortex jazz club, gallery and artist workshops as well as outdoor performance space at Gillett Square. This was a backland car park but is now reimagined as a new public square on the oft quoted but rarely realised Barcelona model. Designed by Hawkins Brown, as Jonathan Glancey says ‘what is particularly right about this building is its lack of pretension; it is a working tool rather than the kind of showy icon ….which would have been in danger of going out of fashion within a couple of years. Instead, the Culture House feels almost elegantly anonymous.’

Hang on, this is nice. Is this Dalston Square? (The Print House)

Nope, sorry - this is.

The new Dalston Square development does a different sort of anonymity – in your face but instantly forgettable. A classic ‘regeneration partnership’ between Hackney and Barratt Homes its 8ish storey boxes with balconies crowd around a bleak plaza which may eventually boast a Sainsbury’s Local. Public private partnerships are not big on quality as evidenced by the new library under the flats; the architect, Muf, was ditched midway through the job, with the specifications downgraded, and it shows. The clinical nature of the development is in striking contrast to its surroundings which actually are vibrant and mixed use. Across the road the Reeves artists’ materials factory has gorgeous mosaic decorations. It is partly converted to the Arcola Theatre which stages ‘Grimeborn Opera’ – très amusant.

Useful youthful urbanism

Dalston Square is yuppiefication rather than gentrification. It is built above the new East London Overground line station which has finally put Hackney on the Frank Pick map (the borough is only served by Underground at its extremities). The Overground, procured directly by TfL, is a great success story which underscores the idiocy of privatisation and rail franchising elsewhere. The new line will quickly whizz you to Hoxton and Shoreditch, the epicentre of hipster culture, of which we had only found tentative traces in Dalston. (My daughter points out that actually Dalston  is now hipster central at least after dark, but we missed it.)

Hard engineering - Shoreditch High St

Gaudy Victoriana - Hackney Rd

Shoreditch is still kind of edgy, not yet fully manicured and sanitised with familiar shop and restaurant brands. Along High Street many of the buildings are unreconstructed and the Overground bridges emphasise a hard engineering ethic. However the massive early C20th Tea Building on the corner of Bethnal Green Road is emblematic of the new economy, converted by AHMM in 2004 to an easily adaptable ‘ideas factory’ for creative and media companies. Opposite in front of Shoreditch station a Pop Up shopping mall has materialised – 60 shipping containers filled with designer brands which you could see as an entirely appropriate metaphor, or just shit. It will soon be replaced by a less honest permanent shopping centre.

Hoxton Square: neo-liberal hipsters & refurbishing experts

Suddenly we were in a provincial retail park - Holiday Inn

Self regarding Rivington Street

The attraction of Shoreditch is proximity, available, attractive, adaptable and flexible ex industrial and warehousing buildings like Clerkenwell, and the rents are (relatively) low. The main streets, dominated by traffic, are not people places but can be very interesting not only in the buildings but their specialist uses – like Hackney Road is wacky handbag central, if you’re interested. Cafes are full of creative types talking loudly but serve excellent coffee. Side streets like Rivington Street are stuffed with interesting shops, galleries and bars although some of these places are very self regarding. Across Old Street is Hoxton Square, home to the original White Cube, which has just announced its closure - the end of an era. It is difficult not to be seduced by this eclectic group with well considered new additions fitting seamlessly into the collection. Although already passé for hipsters it is worth noting how relatively recent the Hoxton phenomenon is. Right next to the Square on Old Street you find a real bummer – a Holiday Inn Express of the most desperate ‘we must have development at any cost’ kind that you would find in a depressed provincial backwater. This is what is so strange about the silicon roundabout - the extraordinary juxtaposition of the really cool and the utterly crass.

Windows Vista: Old Street roundabout

Apple Mac: Whitecross Street market

Old Street roundabout really must be about the ugliest, most depressing place in central London with its hideously assertive office blocks of which Dallas would be ashamed, its ludicrous advertising arch to provide identity (God help us), its swirling traffic and lavatorial subways. AHMM’s plans for a new 16 storey ‘White Collar Factory’ here certainly look competent by comparison and its concepts based on Silicon Valley experience are an interesting harbinger for future office design. But this monumental block will also be parasitic, feeding on but not contributing to the ‘social infrastructure’ of older city buildings, attractive streets and diverse activities and uses in the wider Shoreditch area. The workplace itself is less significant than its context. Cocooned in your private world of lap top and imagination the office environment is less important than the social life of nearby bars, restaurants, hip shops and street markets like Whitecross Street where you buy your fabulous lunch. But if this is the future, how is it to be replicated? There is a fundamental mismatch between what ‘regeneration’ does and the sort of organic development that resulted in the Shoreditch of today. Regeneration development is simplistic and tidy minded, focused on ‘quick wins’ and, for all the prattle about vibrant mixed use, usually produces a very standardised monoculture. Most developers do exactly the opposite of what makes Shoreditch successful. The lesson really has to be for the planning process to be much more focused on the incremental than on large scale ‘solutions’. Maybe the post-crash economy will eventually drive this, but in the short term everyone will get increasingly desperate to reinvent 2006.

Fashionable Boundary Rd 

What also makes Shoreditch such an interesting area is the extent and variety of its Council housing. Hackney has the highest proportion of social rented housing in London. Thatcher and Blair saw Council housing as a bad thing and it has been scapegoated for society’s ills for decades. But of course Council housing was an essential response to market failures of private renting and to the unacceptability of slums to broader society. The Boundary Road estate just off Shoreditch High Street (but in Tower Hamlets) is one of the earliest examples of large scale LCC housing and was featured in what was the best of an otherwise irritatingly shallow TV series ‘The Secret History Of Our Streets’. Begun in 1895 the layout around a central raised circus of garden was bold and the design of the flats, inspired by Arts and Crafts tradition, is striking. As Pevsner says they look at least as attractive as contemporary mansion flats in Kensington. After years of decline the area is now trendy - used for advertising shoots like current Renault ‘no matter where life takes you we’ll be there’ campaign (meaning what, for fuck’s sake?) The new social demographic is evident on the street with wildly chic greengrocers next to the Asian general stores for the surviving poorer families.

Social history & social housing

Civil Sivill House

Gentrification is slower in the Dorset Estate along Columbia Road, designed by Lubetkin with his partners Skinner and Bailey. The original 13 storey Y shaped blocks with patterned façades of reinforced concrete date from 1955 and are named after Tolpuddle martyrs – a nice touch. The circular library is also interesting. Sivill House of 1964 also shows the influence of Lubetkin in the spectacular curved service tower between the two blocks and in the bold patterning of applied concrete panels of the façade.

Large scale post war redevelopment in Haggerston - Weymouth Terrace

A nordic drama - The Bridge Academy

North of Hoxton Square you are soon into interwar estates of interesting Council flats with more than a nod to the Amsterdam School. (Similar blocks appear elsewhere in Hackney.) Some of the new private flats around here are carefully proportioned and detailed in brick and could also be refugees from Holland but, more typically, new buildings lack this confidence and insist on gimmicky forms and assertive cladding, like kingfisher blue. In Haggerston there was large scale post war redevelopment which included Haggerston School, 1962 by Erno Goldfinger, his only secondary school. Pevsner says it is outstanding for schools of that period and has recently been restored by Avanti Architects, but it is difficult to appreciate from the street because of the overgrown landscaping. The estate as a whole has a remarkably leafy and tranquil feel. On Whiston Road the impressive Haggerston Baths of 1903 looks derelict but ambitious plans for renovation to provide healthcare and community facilities are allegedly being progressed by the borough. Beyond, next to the Regents Canal, is the striking but ungainly new Bridge Academy designed by BDP and which won an Engineering Excellence award. Security apparatus makes it look like a Belfast police station - so much for being in the community.

Portrait of a community that was not mixed enough, apparently

Across the canal is one of the saddest sites of our travels. The windows of the boarded up Samuel House facing the canal display a moving array of portraits of ex-residents. Initially we assumed this to be a cynical PR ploy, although actually it was the idea of the residents who will eventually be re-housed in the new development. Hackney decided that refurbishment of the extensive Haggeston West and Kingsland estates was not economic. The new development is funded by the HCA, that strange quango survivor, and will be at double the current density – the extra homes being for sale of course and the social housing passed to a Housing Association. These were the rules of the New Labour housing game. It does not seem a coincidence that this estate, picked for demolition rather than refurbishment, has a south facing location next to the Regents Canal. Further west along the canal the Colville estate is lined up for similar treatment. A masterplan by Karakusevic Carson which again will double the density and provide 50% of housing for sale has been approved and BD just announced that an ‘all-star shortlist of architects’ will compete for the design of the new estate. So why do I feel uneasy?

Loves the canal more than the street - Adelaide Wharf

Hackney’s population is expected to grow by 30,000 by 2025 and there is huge pressure on social housing. Planning policy seeks 50% ‘affordable housing’ but since 2001 75% of new housing has been private. Of course government policy would see this as a move in the right direction towards a social and tenure mix and a more balanced community. It probably does not feel like this if you are on the waiting list – mixed communities don’t seem to work in the opposite direction, as the recent nasty little episode about ‘million pound Council houses’ illustrated.

Decent social stuff - Richmond Road

Much of Hackney at least superficially looks very des res so it is no wonder that there is such pressure on housing from middle class incomers. The Queensbridge Road area is a good example. Next to the Regents Canal flashy new apartments arise taking rather leaden inspiration from their setting, like balconies suspended by mock cranes. This could be forgiven but why must it be a gated community, the commendable bike park being afforded extraordinary security. North of the canal attractive villas interplay with leafy council estates. A number of pastiche developments fit into the Islington-like feel and can be quite effective. The council housing around Brownlow Road by Colquhoun and Miller (1983) takes its inspiration from the very stripped down, severe early C19th villas nearby and is particularly good. However the Holly Street development of circa 1968, which Pevsner describes as bleak, quickly became a sink estate and, apart from one tower, has been rebuilt as low rise by Levitt Bernstein. According to its current managers, Circle - ‘Enhancing Life Chances’ - this has been a huge success, with 93% of residents now wanting to stay, although Ian Sinclair’s evaluation in ‘Hackney, That Rose Red Empire’ is rather less positive. A new housing scheme just north of Holly Street includes a very attractive street of terraced houses: clean lines, careful thought out details, ticks all my boxes. Unfortunately the price for this appears to be a dog’s dinner of flats on the main road. You don’t actually need all those materials and funny angles.

Ok, ten points to Adrian for finding this one - Lennox House

Intelligent and pleasant - Gascoyne Rd

Hackney is a big borough and we only explored a relatively small part of it but including South Hackney, which alongside Victoria Park, is about as far from the stereotype of the place that you can get. Facing Well Street Common on Gascoyne Road is a very fine group of streamlined brick flats built by the LCC in 1947, as elegant as Marylebone. Gascoyne Road is also an example of sensible low key traffic calming and bike provision. Not far away at Bentham Road are two elegantly thin Corbusian slab blocks, early LCC from 1952, reminiscent of Roehampton. Back towards Mare Street perhaps the most interesting example of social housing is Lennox House on Cresset Road built in 1937. Pevsner notes that this brick ziggurat of pantile roofed flats with stepped out private balconies is cantilevered out over a central space originally intended for a market. The traditional materials conceal an innovative concrete structure. It is a precursor for developments like the Brunswick Centre in the 60s.

Too exciting - Old Street

Other than Shoreditch, Hackney was largely unknown to us before our recent foray and the main surprise is how different it is from its stereotype. The hipster count actually seems fairly low outside the obvious hotspots. Gentrification is clearly widespread and spreading but less brash than yuppiefication - all those shiny ‘stunning’ luxury apartments. Of course with the towers of the City and Canary Wharf looming so close gentrification is inevitable. But it is not just proximity which is the attraction it is the place: the buildings, the parks, the facilities, the buzz and the community. The overwhelming impression of Hackney is vibrancy and diversity; it is an exciting place to be – maybe too exciting at times. Hackney is a poor borough, usually towards the bottom of those mendacious Blairite league tables, but it seems like it has done a reasonably good job in coping with the massive social and economic changes of the last 30 years within the limitations imposed by the sinister disempowerment of local councils by Thatcher and her political children. Three out of four residents think that different groups get on well together in Hackney and that is certainly the feel on the streets.

Fellows Court - London could not function without you

Crucial to this has been the role of social housing; in fact it is inconceivable that London could function at all today if it had not been for the extraordinary achievement of the LCC/GLC and the boroughs particularly in the pre war and post war periods. For 30 years social housing has been derided and denigrated, with politicians and the media playing up design and tenure as the cause of crime and social problems. Councils have been starved of resources for sensible maintenance and forced to outsource management in order to get funding, as we have seen along the Regents Canal for example. Actually what communities like Hackney need is for their local authorities to have more power and autonomy to provide social housing, not as a supplicant to the private sector but as the democratic and accountable expression of their communities.

A city is nothing without people


Urbanrepairista said...

What a superb piece. Again!

I will have a think and try to comment another time on the difference between gentrification, yuppiefication and hipsterification, and how, if more social housing could be built, it could be allocated.

Eleventhvolume said...

I look forward to reading your articles every time they appear in my newsfeed list. Couldn't agree more with your final assertion, but there seems no evidence of likely change for the better. The portraits of former residents are heartbreaking as the housing associations appear untrustworthy (see their treatment of residents of the Balfron Tower). The portraits remind me of the images of two babies posted on the side of a building in a semi-derelict 80s estate near the transporter bridge in Middlesbrough: http://www.eleventhvolume.com/mbro-1.jpg

Marmot said...

Thank you for this overview of parts of Hackney. I buy your scepticism.

Perhaps, the best bets are the settings too big to be dealt with one swipe. Big streets are the best example, and Kingsland Rd is Hackney's choicest.

Where settings get "owned" by a single idea, place becomes sales pitch, and we're enticed into tourism. London's big streets obstinately refuse this fate.

A new big street would be terrific departure for Hackney. One stretching from Kingsland Rd, through Shoreditch Park, to Clerkenwell, would be interesting. providing a huge new era-defining frontage as well as re-connecting a large part of London.

Eileen Sutherland said...


Just thought you might like to know that Straw Works www.strawworks.co.uk is running a 1 day introductory course to strawbale building at Hackney City Farm on May 4th. This is a course for people who are interested in building with bales but who haven't done it before. For more info see the website.

Bryan Myers said...

The Lennox House is a house worth looking for if you visit Hackney, it's like bricked duplex townhomes. The structure made it more marketable for tourists who would want to stay for quite some time and explore Hackney.