Wrong way to celebrate diversity

The designs for a new landmark at a place that resonates for all of us sadly miss the point

By John Nathan, July 15, 2010

Aldgate - the eastern-most exit from the City of London - is to get a new landmark. Next Thursday, the Architecture Foundation will announce the winner of a design competition to erect a "New Aldgate" on the ancient site of the previous one - an underarm stone's throw from Bevis Marks.

Timed to coincide with the Olympics, it is hoped that the landmark, which is unambitiously intended to last only for a year, will celebrate London's "openness and diversity". Great idea. This part of London has always been open to a lot of diversity.

The site is overlooked by St Botolph-without-Aldgate where there is still an embarrassing gulf between the haves within the City and, to the East, those who have much less, or, as St Botolph puts it, those who are without.

By the time the gate that straddled the road to Colchester was finally removed in 1761, it had seen the settlement of Britain's first Jewish community in 1181, their expulsion in 1290, their discreet re-introduction by Oliver Cromwell and the founding of Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1698.

Meanwhile, the eastern side of the gate saw 500 years of immigration beginning with the Protestant Huguenots, the Catholic Irish, the Jewish, er, Jews, and today's mainly Muslim Bangladeshis.

Several of these waves were replicated in Manchester, Liverpool and other northern cities but of course the place where the masses mostly huddled was on the capital's eastern side. And, if you are looking to put up a landmark on this land, there is a lot to mark.

Yet somehow the five short-listed proposals manage to ignore the unique history of this area and have come up with designs that, while they are no doubt striking, could be placed anywhere in the world.

The entry from Japan, called Vertical Forest, looks like a landscaped totem pole; a Dutch team has come up with what appears to be a giant croquet hoop, the Canadian offering is a suburban house made entirely from what looks like thatch including the single stilt on which it stands, like a heron, on one leg. As for the two UK designs, The Listening Posts is comprised of several lit columns around which people can walk and, presumably, listen; the other looks like a tall airport departure board.

If I sound disparaging, I don't mean to be. As street art, some of these entries might work well. But they really do not chime with this particular history-soaked city-limit. Nor do they form a link with the original, castle-shaped Ald- or Alegate - incidentally the only toll-free entrance to the City. It was here that Chaucer lived and wrote, and may well have been inspired by the already 200-year-old Jewish history of the place to write his version of the blood libel in the Prioress's Tale.

This is not an appeal for a Jewish landmark. God forbid there should be, say, giant tzitzit, echoing the ill-considered headscarf - aka hijab-gate - that was going to straddle the entrance to Brick Lane. The council claimed that was an inclusive reflection of many cultures because headscarves are worn by non-Muslim women, too.

But religious conservatism is never inclusive. A brilliant illustration of this now exists on the recently opened East London Overground line. The stations' murals depict local street-life, including Chasidic men and Burka-wearing women going about their business. None of the rather well -drawn images depicts these people talking to each other (maybe because everyone knows they would rather cross the road and risk death by bus than say "good morning").

Of course, this could be a brilliantly subversive campaign by Transport for London to illustrate the hollowness of Tower Hamlets' One Community, Many Cultures mantra. This ignores the central lesson of the past few decades of immigration: that multiculturalism is a busted flush unless the cultures are forced to have something in common - sending their children to the same school, for example. But that is for another soapbox.

But this is the problem when attempting to show the diversity of culture within a certain stretch of land. Unless you are a very clever architect or artist you either end up producing a missing-the-point totem poll sprouting leaves or creating a figurative representation of the kind appearing on the Overground, in which diversity looks an awful lot like division.

John Nathan is the JC's theatre critic. He lives in Tower Hamlets

Last updated: 2:24pm, August 13 2010


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