Sunday 18 January 2015

On Spiegelhalters (3)

Plucky survivor

Plenty of media coverage in the past few days for my online campaign to save the historic facade of the former Spiegelhalter's shop in the East End, and here are just four links of many:

BBC Radio London  (interview at 02:49:30), The Financial TimesThe Independent and Londonist

As well as nearly 1,500 signatures we now have the invaluable support of both The Victorian Society and Twentieth Century Society, the latter organisation kindly sponsoring the leaflet and poster campaign which began yesterday.

Three of us spent the afternoon on the Mile End Road. We spoke to hundreds of locals and the response was overwhelmingly positive - most, whatever their background or nationality, were aware of the 'David and Goliath ' story behind the lop-sided frontage of the old Wickham's department store, and were against plans for its demolition.

As I prepared to leave I fell into conversation with a friendly and knowledgeable chap who, it struck me afterwards, probably worked for BuckleyGrayYeoman, the architects behind the scheme. He seemed very informed about the proposals and suggested that a piece by the artist Rachel Whiteread would be a more appropriate commemoration of the Spiegelhalter story than the current proposals (see below). Whiteread, as I'm sure you know, does things with casts of empty spaces, and has been doing so for decades since becoming the first woman to win the Turner Prize. 

He had a point, although if any hypothetical commission involved the demolition of the original facade, no matter how distinguished the artist, it would be no more acceptable than what is currently proposed. You can't, as they say, polish a turd.

The architect Matt Yeoman of BuckleyGrayYeoman has been defending his practice's scheme. Speaking to the Architectural Journal last week he said:

‘We want that void to be at the heart of our development. With this Cor-ten artwork we can be slightly more sophisticated in telling this story.’ 

I've already written about the delicious irony of the heartless void. But a 'Cor-ten artwork' is something new.

It certainly isn't an arwork, not least because there's no artist involved. What Yeoman's plan proposes is that two enormous slabs (or, more pretentiously, 'shards') of thick oxidised metal sheeting will line the walls of the space where the Spiegelhalter's shop now stands. This 'artwork' is Poundstore Richard Serra, a cheapjack and cynical gesture that makes as much aesthetic sense as replacing the noble Cenotaph in Whitehall with a garden centre water feature. And it certainly isn't architecture either - simply the spiteful demolition of an historic landmark and its replacement with a crass bit of interior decorating (call it 'hipster bling')

Can two metal Cor-ten slabs really deliver a 'more sophisticated' narrative? No, but neither could a piece by the award-winning Rachel Whiteread. The self-evident truth is that this simple David and Goliath 'story' doesn't need a more sophisticated narrative because it's already plain for all to see and enjoy as the best visual joke in London. If the plans go ahead the real story will be forever obliterated and the gormless, charmless metal walls will tell another story, and vividly: a tale of heartless appropriation and shallow cynicism.

Yeoman added in his AJ interview:

'Of course, the counterargument is that there is no better symbol of this battle than keeping the existing building. But we say it can be commemorated in a contemporary way. '

Yes - that is the counterargument, and an overwhelmingly strong one, because there is no better symbol of the building's indomitably than allowing it to survive in situ. But Yeoman is quite wrong to claim that it's a battle that's being commemorated because the battle is not over, and it never will be. Spiegelhalter's may be derelict at the moment but it has always stood, and will always stand, for the continuing tension between individual and corporate values, between preservation and destruction, between textured history and impersonal slickness.

We call on Tower Hamlets Council to 'locally list' 81 Mile End Road to secure its future, and we urge the developers (Resolution Property) and their architects to come up with appropriate alternatives (which is no big deal for a distinguished firm). We are happy to support regeneration of the Wickham's sight but will energetically oppose any scheme that involves the destruction of the Spiegelhalter facade. What's left of it is what matters, and it's what we're fighting for. If I might be allowed a sentimental moment - it's the heart and soul of the East End that's at stake.


  1. Good work, keep up the fight! Valerie

    1. Thanks for your support Valerie. Please spread the word!