Stratford to South Bank: the emergence of cultural districts

The cultural district as a typology appears in many different shapes and sizes. Berlin has an island, Vienna a quarter, and Los Angeles has a mile. Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi are building whole new cultural waterfronts. Cities often thread pieces of glittering cultural jewellery together. To use artistic expression as a means to achieve civic improvement has been an impulse since before the days of Albertopolis in Kensington.

Locating the Lea Valley

One such district is being designed today on the banks of the River Lea in Stratford, East London. Grouped together on a waterfront site will be a series of new buildings: a new home for the London College of Fashion, a branch of Sadler's Wells theatre, a large public gallery jointly curated by the Victoria & Albert Museum and Smithsonian Institution with additional arts spaces. Just a few yards away will be UCL East, a new campus for University College of London. The new district, at Queen Elizabeth Park, will be an important investment in East London's renaissance and in the economy of the East London boroughs.

This is, however, all quite new for this part of London. For decades, the park site itself sat largely idle, a post-industrial landscape threaded by canals, dotted with warehouses and depots gasworks and degraded waterways. A marshy valley with the River Lea running through it like a trench, it long defined an eastern edge to London. To its west was the borough of Hackney and central London beyond; to its east, suburban hinterland. The neighbourhoods lining the Lea Valley though had been well-established communities for generations and in recent years had become an important magnet for young families and creative talent.

While it was a bit of a back yard, the park site was surprisingly well-connected. A major rail interchange at Stratford connected three underground lines, two main line railways and the Docklands Light Railway. Areas such as Hackney Wick/Fish Island became a hub for vibrant arts scene. The good connectivity, the relative affordability and ample warehouse spaces were a draw. With good links but underused, it was also an opportune place to put on the sporting spectacle of the Olympics. By 2012, the area was transformed into parklands that hosted the Games.

A new cultural district in East London

As a global city in the 21st century, the energy and talent generated by cultural clustering are important to maintaining London's competitive edge, which is why there is an emphasis on building hard-working buildings that will last and bring different types of educational and cultural offerings together. The institutions will attract diverse audiences and create new synergies yet to be known.

Take the new London College of Fashion (LCF) building, for example: when complete, it will be the world's largest building dedicated to the study and research of fashion. How will what happens here relate to the exhibition programme at the V&A or the artistic communities that are found along the edges of the park? We're not quite sure. But what we do know is that it will create new dynamics, which will reverberate far beyond Stratford - and perhaps London itself. The LCF will be an important asset, part of the city's cultural fabric and an addition to its knowledge infrastructure especially when one considers that fashion as an industry today contributes nearly £40 billion to Britain's GDP. This industrial back yard, it turns out, has become the perfect place to grow post-industrial creative economy. It's an audacious thing to do and an audacious place to do it in. By 2022, with the opening of the Stratford Waterfront cultural quarter, its place as an international cultural destination will be firmly established and an important piece of London's Olympic Legacy will have been delivered.

Festival in the City

The genesis of the Olympic legacy echoes the optimism of the Festival of Britain, the national celebration of the new and the modern that animated London's South Bank in 1951. Then too, a largely backwater of a place was populated with temporary pavilions in the hopes that one day it would become firmly fixed in the cultural imagination. The Festival was a serious revelation at the time. It showed a war-weary country the promise of great public spaces, where one could sit outside and enjoy the simple pleasures of urban life and do so in a bright, open and embracing place. Like Stratford, the wider area had long been defined by qualities that were quite the opposite. Crowded and hunkered down, it was teeming with industry expressed through warehouses, power stations and timber yards. These had only a utilitarian relationship with the riverside, which was not the public realm asset we know and use in South Bank today. As the national economy transitioned, the need for these industries declined and so did the South Bank's fortunes by the 1960s and 70s.

The South Bank

Several decades earlier in the midst of war, Abercrombie and Forshaw had imagined in the pages of their 1943 plan for London, a civic South Bank lined with cultural buildings that would create new kinds of employment and inject a modern spirit into the city. The plan they envisioned never quite materialised, but over time, cultural buildings started to spring up in the area. Debuting at the Festival in 1951, but really completed in 1964, the Royal Festival Hall was the first permanent cultural building here. Next door, by 1976, Denys Lasdun's National Theatre went up. But it took time for these to take root. The river's water quality remained degraded. The buildings, which for many people were their first exposure to the brave new world of Modern architecture, remained unloved. The buildings were impermeable, hard to get to and they didn't quite connect to the riverfront.

Slowly but surely, improvements where made to the National Theatre. Then the Royal Festival Hall underwent a major refurbishment and renovation, re-engaging with its surroundings to become a more public, open place. A new riverside walk was created, drawing huge numbers of visitors walking between the London Eye and the Tate Modern, which had taken up residence in the Bankside Power Station in 1999. A new elongated narrow building, the Liner Building, was inserted parallel to the Hall housing administrative functions for Southbank Centre. It created a new retail street while freeing up 35% of the space in the Hall. The Grade I-listed Hall itself underwent a comprehensive refurbishment as well, creating continuity between internal and external spaces. By 2009, it was attracting more than five million visitors annually.

A cultural waterfront

Today, the Hall is the westernmost anchor of a new cultural waterfront that spans, perhaps accidently, all the way from Westminster Bridge to Southwark Bridge, home to a remarkable concentration of attractions. Its companions in the Southbank Centre are an interdisciplinary mix: the Hayward Gallery (contemporary art), the British Film Institute, the Purcell Room and the Queen Elizabeth Hall (performing arts). A short walk along the river takes one to the Tate Modern, which has been so successful that it underwent an additional expansion that opened in 2016 by architects Herzog and de Meuron. There is also the new home for Rambert, the national company for contemporary dance. Its architecture echoes the character of Lasdun's brutalism at the National Theatre and the Rambert's move from a more suburban location to the heart of London brings contemporary dance to new audiences.

The evolution of cultural institutions

While Rambert is all about the new, Shakespeare's Globe is a reconstitution of the old. It was reborn in 1997 with the replication of the historic 16th century theatre that sat on the site during the time when this part of London was the less desirable side. The Globe has since expanded with an additional theatre and extension completed in 2014. The additions bring together a new Jacobean Theatre based on two 17th century drawings by John Webb, an environment that Shakespeare himself would recognise, with modern foyers that create new public spaces. The globe is continuing to expand with a new building planned to open in the next few years that will comprise a library, new production facilities, new rehearsal and education studios and an exhibition space. A bit further afield, the Old Vic and Young Vic theatres round out the diverse performing arts offering in the wider area.

Stratford to South Bank: Culture in the city

Between them, South Bank and Stratford reveal several parallels: two different rivers, both largely forgotten waterfronts, a pair of cultural neighbourhoods that had their beginnings in fleeting moments of celebration. One lesson learnt is that bold buildings are only part of the equation. They must work in an urban way by being open and accessible and set within a public realm that invites people. The spaces between buildings are just as important. Civic institutions should look out, not in.

Both experiences show that the power of clustering takes time. The magnetism of one institution can improve the fortunes of another but one often can't predict what exactly will transpire. Successful cultural regeneration should allow the energy of institutions to crawl out, unfiltered, into the surrounding piece of city. Less a standalone cultural district, what should emerge is a pluralistic Petri dish of creativity that enables different forms of expression to the benefit of established institutions as well as upstart ones and individual artists. It's why any masterplan should be flexible, if even one is needed in the first place. Who could have predicted that Bankside Power Station would one day house the world's most visited modern art museum? Or that the world's largest fashion centre would emerge on the banks of the River Lea? The answers tell us that cultural institutions and districts can take root anywhere. And that for them to succeed requires not just an active imagination but, crucially, a healthy dose of patience.