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Chelsea Fringe | caravanserai

March 19, 2012

Canning Town is a funny bit of east London. It’s by the river and has views of the thrusting Isle of Dogs, but has an empty and slightly down at heel feel.  The landscape is wide and flat, spiked with cranes and pylons, and woven all over with major roads.

Lots of houses stand abandoned, their owners asked to leave and their windows shuttered up.  Lone survivors hang on, refusing to budge.  And where everyone’s been convinced to move, there are gaping gaps that are fenced off with hoarding and gathering broken glass.  Elsewhere, vast tower blocks are springing up.

Opposite the tube and DLR station is one such gaping gap.  It’s about 6,000 square metres and was once a block of flats.  It’s now an expanse of gravelly rubble, with a footpath to nowhere and a lone street lamp, odd bits of brickwork and plenty of buddleia and moss.

It’s oddly charming, probably because the people I meet roaming about it have grand plans for its future.  In just two weeks, this rough bit of wasteland will host a joyful April Fools weekend event, which will mark the start of a five year Canning Town Caravanserai.  The idea is Ash Sakula Architects and was a winning proposal in the Meanwhile London Competition. Later, in May, the site will host gardening themed events as part of the Chelsea Fringe.

A caravanserai was a meeting point for travellers – an oasis of rest and refreshment along the ancient Silk Road where people could trade goods, swing in a hammock and feast on local delicacies.  The exotic and relaxing spirit of the caravanserai is set to infuse this patch of Canning Town. The plan is to have market stalls, a café, micro-allotments and even a skate ramp.  Local people will be invited to sell their wares on site.

The architecture students working determinedly behind the scenes are going to transform the space using reclaimed and recycled materials.  There’s a wealth of such stuff on offer in Newham – they’ve already secured stacks of pallets from a building project over the road and have been promised access to old ExCel centre displays.  They’ve got themselves a shipping container for storing materials in, and a team of willing helpers from local community projects to assist with the build.

This area is part of the Olympic Walking Route and an estimated 20,000 people a day will be passing through Canning Town during the Games.  But the project will continue for much longer than that, and the hope is that it will be a community enterprise hub long after the Olympics have finished.  And then, ultimately, the site will likely be turned back into another block of flats.

This article is taken from my Chelsea Fringe blog.

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