Liza Fior studied architecture. She was born in London where she continues to practise as one of the founding partners of muf architecture/art. The work of the practice negotiates between the built and social fabric and between public and private in projects that have been mainly focused in East London but not exclusively so.muf were winners of the European Prize for Public Space and nominated for the Mies Van de Rohe Prize and the Swiss Prize for Architecture for projects with limited budgets and briefs enriched by the unsolicited research which was and continues to be, entwined into every project. Read more about Liza here.
Liza Fior on Arrival City Chapter 1: On the edge of the city
This morning I walked down Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets at 8.40am and at the junction where a sign states ¼ mile to the ‘city’ (London’s financial district) was almost run over by a young Bengali woman driving a BMW. In one near miss encounter Doug Saunders’ entire thesis is proven. I kept walking, past other women who looked both poor and were busy with children. If Doug’s thesis were correct the BMW driver would live in a low rise house in a cul de sac, the second group in the 5 storey Peabody housing and towers – but she was driving fast and I didn’t have a chance to ask her.
I found the book’s segue into building form and life chances a disruption in a narrative flow which seemed more about setting a scene – and wonder if the rest of the book will carry on with this theme. It grates because it doesn’t acknowledge the complexity of Tower Hamlets* but instead relies of singular examples and then extrapolates from there. (1)
One route out of Whitechapel [in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets]is education. If a reader would like to know more, visit http://www.central.towerhamlets.sch.uk/Home. At this all girls school every pupil take part in a 6 week course called urban adventure where they canoe and cycle and even camp, unusual for London in the locality.
I have the honor of being given Chapter 1 to respond to where the author sets out his thesis care of one example – Liu Gong Li, a place completely unknown to me – and a second one – Tower Hamlets, which I probably know too well to give the author a fair chance.
As a child I was outraged by inconsistencies between illustrations and text and so inevitably I approached the second example of Tower Hamlets looking for the pleasures that come in the recognition of detail. The danger of an overview is that it can so easily be just that. Rather than sweeping generalizations the book uses detailed examples in order to make its points, something which, when familiar with a place, just emphasizes what is not being dealt with. Whereas I enjoyed the description of Liu Gong Li – we saw more of it, met more residents and, unlike Tower Hamlets, witnessed within the chapter itself its origins and its subsequent transformation. Other readers, have you visited Liu Gong Li? Did he get it right?
The description of Liu Gong Li fits much more closely our preconceptions of the right mode of description – i.e. the literary tropes of diaspora literature – in its detail of the minutiae of survival. I am thinking here of Zangwill’s “Children of the Ghetto” (2), where a penniless widow is instructed how to buy lemons at market and sell them individually in the street as a first income – incidentally, to position herself at that very same block in Brick Lane. Doug Saunders convinced me in this descriptions of a village which deliberately allowed itself to be absorbed into a city, where its maintenance of village-ness was in its multiple small-scale enterprise.
Altab Ali Park: muf have worked across Tower Hamlets but most recently on 3 linked sites one of which was Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel. The park makes visible some of the multiple histories of this site. Four former churches but also a Sharheed Minar monument to the language martyrs and memorial to a murdered garment worker Altab Ali mentioned in the book. The long plinth marks the profile of one of those lost churches, the fragments of portland stone the location of the original “white chapel”. Even on quite cold days this is a platform for more than one thing at a time a companionable place to sit which makes is way across the former churchyard. Once a year up to 5000 people come to mark their respects to the martyrs for the preservation of the Bengali language at midnight and line up on the plinth waiting for their turn.(2nd image) Lastly a compilation of images of the research process- an archeological dig for 700 volunteers to locate the churches and Alpana painting to mark the shrine before we commenced construction.
Arrival City begins simply with our author establishing his premise that another category can be added to the taxonomies of cities, the very specific condition of a city, or part of a city, to host transition but also to allow entry. Unlike Foucault’s description of a heterotopia as an open place but one that has this property of keeping you on the outside (3), Saunders gives as one example, the 18th century South American house with its room just before the entrance for the visitor passing through; but the room didn’t open into the house itself and so the visitor could not penetrate the interior of the family home. Whereas the arrival city does have two doors: one a connection back to the place you came [from] (for the sending back of money earned and a maintenance of old ties); and the second a bridge into the host city/nation itself – a two way stretch. Liu Gong Li is too young to have really proven itself and Tower Hamlets…it needed more pages.
(Full disclosure-I have never been a member of a book group if I have completely missed the normal etiquette, my apologies and I look forward to reading the next chapters alongside your insight.)
1. For examples of descriptions of the complex terrain of Whitechapel, see essays by Michael Keith, the former leader of Tower Hamlets Council who is now a professor specializing in migration studies at Merton College, Oxford or the novel, The Islamist (2007), by Ed Hussain
2. Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People (1892)
3. Architectural Association School of Architecture. In: AA Files, 69 (2014), from an essay originally delivered as a radio program
By Liza Fior.