Stratford in East London is the kind of place that exists to serve other places. It wasn’t a destination in itself. Stratford had a specific function; any real human settlement there was incidental to this function, and did not long outlast it.
For a century and a half, Stratford’s business was conveyance. As we all know, Victorian London produced everything in terrifying abundance: too many people; too much waste; too many goods; too much brackish runoff. This all had to be sluiced in and out, somehow, and Stratford by dint of geography was nominated for this role. The great pumping station at Abbey Wood – one of the grandest in London – squeezed much of the city’s accumulated muck out of the sewage system and into the estuary beyond. Stratford was the main rail gateway for the East End into central London; and for London into Essex, up to Cambridge, and then onto Norfolk. The rail yards that grew up around the station built the trains that carried the passengers. As a place where byproducts of all kinds could be easily drained away, Stratford was a natural home for London’s chemical works – the other main employer.
Smog, sewage, sulfates, pressed people: all these conspired to produce what became known as Stinky Stratford. What amenities there were, like the department store and the Theatre Royal, were squeezed between the tracks and the canals. You weren’t really supposed to linger there. Stratford was an economically important place – but it didn’t get any of the usual desserts afforded to other exchanges, like Euston, or Victoria. There wasn’t any room for a park. There were no leafy squares off the high street, nor was it graced with any Victorian public school foundation.
Not that there was anything wrong with this – necessarily. Every advanced society needs places like Stinky Stratford, places where the function comes first; the people second. Keeping a modern city ticking over is no mean feat, and most really do have to devote entire districts to this purpose. It is places like Stinky Stratford that, ultimately, allow neighbourhoods like Highgate, Kensington, and Westminster to exist.
Stratford maintained its vocation into the 20th century. Here’s what Nairn’s London noted about Stratford in 1966: a factory; the pumping station at Abbey Mills; and the high street thoroughfare, which is described as a baffling helter-skelter of traffic bound out of London. Our author was reasonably confident that some kind of diversion would be built to spare residents from the din. It wasn’t.
By 1991 the rail yard was gone, so were all the chemical works. Stratford had a practical function, but no longer. Nor was it likely to acquire a new one. The Britain which began in 1997 does not see human settlements primarily as places where people live and work, still less as a means to generate money, but rather as moral and social statements. This society would now need a physical expression of its own; and it was Stratford that was nominated for this role, long even before the success of London’s Olympic bid.
Stratford is now the kind of place that exists to serve an idea. Every social order needs places like Stratford, places where the idea comes first; the people second. The Stratford City redevelopment, which is being carried out under the aegis of the Olympic Legacy Corporation, has been warmly welcomed by all factions national and local. It enjoyed something like a carte blanche. It could’ve been anything. What Britain’s governing classes elected to build in Stratford was a model city, one which stands for their particular idea of life in Britain in the 21st Century, an idea which had its Festschrift in the Olympics of 2012. Stratford was centrally planned out from above; like most such projects, its purpose is to freeze a social order in place. Britain’s rulers would make everywhere like Stratford, if they could.
For one, Stratford declares that the particular retail habits of the 20th Century must endure – forever. The centrepiece of the Stratford development is the Westfield shopping mall, which is now Europe’s largest. This 1.9 million square foot complex, which is within spitting distance of the City of London and Canary Wharf, was opened in 2011 – just as online shopping was making these kinds of places obsolete. Westfield Stratford City is a moral and social proposition, not a commercial one. It’s implicitly directed against the famed ‘decline of the high street’, which offends a certain idea of British biedermeier and so needs to be arrested. The rest of Stratford also speaks to this impulse. Most planned cities, like Brasilia, or Canberra, or Haussmann’s Paris, tend to favour the street grid and the broad avenue. But you’ll search in vain to find many of these here. The streets of new Stratford are almost invariably narrow, winding, and cute. And with awful results: the ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ observation tower and the London Stadium, two colossi, are traversable only through a narrow and wooded footpath – which caused a horrible jam when I was last there. This combination of hyper-density with narrow footpaths is simply medieval; what we see in Stratford isn’t so much urban growth, but the bucolic and walkable ‘New Urbanism’ of Charles Windsor.