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Wednesday30 July 2014

The broken heart of east Greenwich

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Maybe because of the unusually good showing in last month’s Olympics, it seems we’re already starting to forget about the space behind the 2012 fence — the Lea Valley, with its derelict industries and strange wildlife. That of course is the point: the fences are supposed to efface what was there before until the shiny new buildings arrive. So walking past a fenced-off London “regeneration site” recently, I was taken aback to see “Greenwich District Hospital was here” scrawled on the bright blue fence. Oh, so that’s what used to be here. I had almost forgotten.

Odd that one would forget given the morbid entertainment provided by watching a concrete megastructure demolished slab by slab. The fence encloses the space occupied by Greenwich District Hospital, one of the huge general hospitals built in the sixties to service the burgeoning NHS, sold off and demolished by its New Labour council in favour of a “mixed-use scheme”. Sometimes a hole opens in the fence and you can peek in at a vast, overgrown wasteland, with a couple of lonely boxes and portaloos suggesting minor activity. At the end is a still extant health centre, an angular A-framed brutalist beast (“architect — DHSS” notes Pevsner, and it looks like it).

A blank fence would have been far too oppressive so at one corner there’s that most egregious of public art impositions, subsidised graffiti. Unlike “Greenwich District Hospital was here”, this one won’t get cleaned off. It cutely depicts the apparent transition of east Greenwich, from grimy Morlocks erecting gasometers to the cleanly utopian teflon Dome and the benefits of the “postindustrial knowledge economy” in one vaguely “street” image. If this were in North Korea, we’d call it propaganda. Just round the corner, meanwhile, you can see some panels declaring “My City Too!” Each details just what London’s kids want from regeneration. Children demand fountains, apparently.

Looking at the wasteland inside the fence, you might forget the “vision” for the site. The owners — the buck passed from the council to English Partnerships to it’s-good-for-you property developer First Base — are perhaps a bit chary given the ethics of flattening a general hospital for flats.

Make has been hired, residents “consulted”. One asked the unanswerable question, “Why are all buildings at the moment covered in this brightly coloured slatted wood?” Some of it will be “affordable” — none of it will be council housing, of course. It will include a health centre, perhaps a new job centre as the recession bites. Images show CGI folk wandering around the shiny plastic and pine surfaces, clearly delighted with the availability of coffee.

No work seems to have been done for two years, and as the property bubble finally crashes, maybe they’ll just leave it like this, a huge, rough and indistinct green space twinned with Blackheath up the road. Alternatively, the developer’s website promises a new “heart of east Greenwich”. As this was all done in so friendly and benevolent a manner, you might just forget they’ve ripped its heart out.

Owen Hatherley writes about architecture in his blog Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • He looks a bit like early Bowie, but the opinions are spot on.

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  • Wow, spot on article. I live in Blackheath and recently worked in a small practice in Greenwich. Lo how the high water mark is in evidence here in east Greenwich. If you happen to know the area, you'll notice the other architectural scandals defacing this region, and so close to one the of the most important sites in all of England. (in my biased opinion).

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  • Both my kids were born in the Queen Elizabeth in bedlam conditions. We were told by mid-wife the unit was designed for 2000 deliveries, it was doing 5000 then (2005), thus the diabolical service. I can't help but wonder if the council planners are getting backhanders. Either that or they are very bad at maths.

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  • I look at the derelict site (everyday for the last nearly 10 years). Previous comments all correct. I'm afraid this is what you get for having a disfunctional council like Greenwich has. Goodness knows what any visitor to the Olympics will think of Greenwich "The World Heritage Site". Seems like this town could spoil the whole shebang. Even more shops will close. the people of East Greenwich have been let down by this Labour Council

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