East Bank, a new cultural quarter emerges in London

Branches of major museums and universities are setting up shop in the former Olympics park

The new East Bank cultural quarter aims to revitalise the formerly derelict area. Photo: East Bank
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East Bank, the new cultural quarter in East London, opened the second of its major sites last week, as the London College of Fashion set up its campus in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

East Bank is an ambitious, £1.1 billion multiyear plan to create a cultural quarter in Stratford, an area of London about eight miles east of Oxford Circus.

University College London was the first to set up its space last year, with eight faculties in engineering and design opening in a new expansive building. London College of Fashion, part of University of the Arts London, is the second educational establishment.

A branch of the performing arts institution Sadler’s Wells, the BBC Music Studios and V&A East – part of the art and design museum – will follow by 2025. Artists such as Michael Landy, AA Murakami, Larry Achiampong and David Blandy have been commissioned to make bespoke works in and around the sprawling site.

Tamsin Ace, director of East Bank, referred to it as the biggest development project that the office of the Mayor of London has ever undertaken.

The project is expected to generate £1.5 billion for the local economy and bring in 1.5 million visitors each year, according to figures supplied by East Bank. Billed as part of the economic legacy of the 2012 London Olympics, residents of the four Olympic boroughs – Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest – which comprise some of the poorest areas in London, will be given priority for jobs.

The project also reflects the shift in the centre of gravity for the cultural field, which started moving eastward around two decades ago as artists sought cheaper rents and spaces in which to work and exhibit. East Bank also demonstrates London’s commitment to the creative economy and Stem, with expanded scope for new forms of design, engineering and technology.

Eleven years in the making, however, the project is still palpably unfinished. Not so much in terms of the buildings but in terms of activity – £640 million of the planned £1.1 billion has already been spent and most of the architecture is already up.

Arrayed across from the football club West Ham’s stadium – a repurposing of one of the Olympic sites – and the Anish Kapoor monstrosity of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the area feels remote and unpopulated, and serviced mostly by chain restaurants rather than the local businesses that the East End was known for.

Perhaps anticipating this criticism, the organisers were keen to underscore the site’s embeddedness in the community. Most of the sites, they maintain, will be open to the public, though how this will be managed was not clear.

Members of the local community are allowed to use the high-spec engineering and technical labs at UCL. The university has equipment, among other offerings, for a microbrewery that it will make available to local beer artisans. And many of the architects impressed the flexibility and openness of the spaces they are creating, which can be used for dancing, singing or just hanging out, whether in Sadler’s Wells or at UCL College of Fashion.

I asked one East Bank architect how they prepared spaces in which the organic nature of creativity will develop. His response was that you plan and hope.

In terms of architecture, each of the four main buildings is designed by a different firm, which gives them individual characters, although it makes for a bit of a hodgepodge overall.

The London College of Fashion was designed by Allies and Morrison, who made the master plan for the site as well as that of the regeneration of King’s Cross, London’s other most recent urban redevelopment. King’s Cross was an easier brief. The vast disused space, located in the centre of the city, was crying out to be integrated into the surrounding areas, and Allies and Morrison cleverly took advantage of the beautiful former storehouses and 19th-century architecture of the site.

East Bank is not so simple. The buildings are developed from scratch, and there is little for residents to do beyond the Westfield mall. And unlike King’s Cross, East Bank is east – even further east than the studios and galleries set up by the artists and musicians, many of whom have now moved to South London, chased out again by rising rents.

The corporate feel of the chain restaurants and cookie-cutter modern housing will be difficult for the site to shake, even once Sadler’s Wells and the BBC Studios bring in performing artists and their cultural consumers.

Still, even with these caveats, East Bank is a major cause for celebration. It shows the city continuing to invest in itself, in education and in culture, at a time when many Londoners feels depressed about the Tories’ continuing cuts to cultural funding.

Everyone probably thought the Southbank Centre was a mad idea too – and now the city can’t live without it.

Updated: November 30, 2023, 3:04 AM