Monday21 August 2017

William Mann: Walking the Lea Valley

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William Mann: Walking the Lea Valley
September 15

An Open House guide launch revealed the glorious fragility of the Lea Valley

The refined space of Margaret Howell’s flagship store on Wigmore Street became an embassy for the untamed landscapes of the Lea Valley last week. This year’s Open House London served as a pretext for an exhibition held in the fashion store. Thursday saw the launch of a small guide to the open spaces and unique buildings around the Lea Valley prepared by Witherford Watson Mann Architects to provide an added incentive to explore this edge of the city.

Margaret Howell has long supported the Open House initiative, driven by the inspiration she found in visiting unique architecture. This year she was in search of urban inspiration, walking the River Lea with practice co-founder William Mann. These moments were captured in a short film by Juriaan Booij, which echoed the rustic yet urbane quality in Howell’s work, and was screened at the launch.

Mann, who wandered the Lea Valley since the nineties, began his introduction to the guide in a wistful tone. “Once a week, Stephen Witherford and I would meet at half six in the morning, and walk for a couple of hours, map in hand, exploring the gaps and edges of the city, before going into our day jobs.” Reminiscing over breakfasts in a Portakabin plastered with pages from Socialist Worker on Marshgate Lane, now flattened by the Olympic Stadium, Mann seemed to transcend the architect. Like a modern folk poet, he told of “metal shredding and salmon smoking, of cormorants fishing beside the Big Breakfast TV set”.

Still from Juriaan Booij’s short film of Margaret Howell and William Mann by the River Lea

Still from Juriaan Booij’s short film of Margaret Howell and William Mann by the River Lea

Mann’s careful oration was infused with the sombre and sublime photographs of Jason Orton and Philip Ebeling, as he described a series of experiences in the valley, rich with culture and history. The event felt like a ceremony to declare the Lea Valley open to the public, in all its glory.

But the observations of this wanderer seamlessly became proposition, and propositional critique. He hinted at the “opportunities and challenges that lie ahead” including the Olympics and “a hundred small stitches that need to be undertaken with knowledge of the valley’s ecologies, and humility in design approach”. Witherford Watson Mann has made steps towards this through its strategy work with Design for London, but the practice is clear that it needs “considerable political will and co-ordination”.

Talking the talk

Pointing to the accelerating speculative frenzy on the edges of the valley, and planning controversies such as Essex Wharf, Mann noted that the “the valley can be made less special”. The scheme at the southern end of Walthamstow Marshes, was given consent by the local authority earlier this year, despite the efforts of the Lea Valley Federation to oppose it, although a judicial review is under way. In a call to arms Mann saw “a London-wide public letting local and regional authorities know that they care about this special place, and demanding the greatest of care and the highest of standards”.

The final speaker was Ralph Ward, a planner at the Communities & Local Government department, whose long career has seen involvement in the valley from the level of government policy-making down to playing for the Hackney Red Star football team on Hackney Marshes. He demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the valley’s utilities and infrastructure, glorying in the gruesome workings of London’s sewage system. Mann’s influence was visible in Ward’s pride that “the valley is still supporting skilled industry” in line with recent manufacturing prowess. Ward is less interested in drawing big arrows identifying the “Lea Valley Corridor”, but rather beats the drum for an approach that is both strategic and particular.

The evening was an invitation to explore, enjoy and encourage efforts to “turn the valley from a landscape of edges into a common ground”.


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