Stratford in East London is the kind of place that exists to serve other places. It wasn’t a destination in itself. Stratford had a specific function; any real human settlement there was incidental to this function, and did not long outlast it.
For a century and a half, Stratford’s business was conveyance. As we all know, Victorian London produced everything in terrifying abundance: too many people; too much waste; too many goods; too much brackish runoff. This all had to be sluiced in and out, somehow, and Stratford by dint of geography was nominated for this role. The great pumping station at Abbey Wood – one of the grandest in London – squeezed much of the city’s accumulated muck out of the sewage system and into the estuary beyond. Stratford was the main rail gateway for the East End into central London; and for London into Essex, up to Cambridge, and then onto Norfolk. The rail yards that grew up around the station built the trains that carried the passengers. As a place where byproducts of all kinds could be easily drained away, Stratford was a natural home for London’s chemical works – the other main employer.
Smog, sewage, sulfates, pressed people: all these conspired to produce what became known as Stinky Stratford. What amenities there were, like the department store and the Theatre Royal, were squeezed between the tracks and the canals. You weren’t really supposed to linger there. Stratford was an economically important place – but it didn’t get any of the usual desserts afforded to other exchanges, like Euston, or Victoria. There wasn’t any room for a park. There were no leafy squares off the high street, nor was it graced with any Victorian public school foundation.
Not that there was anything wrong with this – necessarily. Every advanced society needs places like Stinky Stratford, places where the function comes first; the people second. Keeping a modern city ticking over is no mean feat, and most really do have to devote entire districts to this purpose. It is places like Stinky Stratford that, ultimately, allow neighbourhoods like Highgate, Kensington, and Westminster to exist.
Stratford maintained its vocation into the 20th century. Here’s what Nairn’s London noted about Stratford in 1966: a factory; the pumping station at Abbey Mills; and the high street thoroughfare, which is described as a baffling helter-skelter of traffic bound out of London. Our author was reasonably confident that some kind of diversion would be built to spare residents from the din. It wasn’t.
By 1991 the rail yard was gone, so were all the chemical works. Stratford had a practical function, but no longer. Nor was it likely to acquire a new one. The Britain which began in 1997 does not see human settlements primarily as places where people live and work, still less as a means to generate money, but rather as moral and social statements. This society would now need a physical expression of its own; and it was Stratford that was nominated for this role, long even before the success of London’s Olympic bid.
Stratford is now the kind of place that exists to serve an idea. Every social order needs places like Stratford, places where the idea comes first; the people second. The Stratford City redevelopment, which is being carried out under the aegis of the Olympic Legacy Corporation, has been warmly welcomed by all factions national and local. It enjoyed something like a carte blanche. It could’ve been anything. What Britain’s governing classes elected to build in Stratford was a model city, one which stands for their particular idea of life in Britain in the 21st Century, an idea which had its Festschrift in the Olympics of 2012. Stratford was centrally planned out from above; like most such projects, its purpose is to freeze a social order in place. Britain’s rulers would make everywhere like Stratford, if they could.
For one, Stratford declares that the particular retail habits of the 20th Century must endure – forever. The centrepiece of the Stratford development is the Westfield shopping mall, which is now Europe’s largest. This 1.9 million square foot complex, which is within spitting distance of the City of London and Canary Wharf, was opened in 2011 – just as online shopping was making these kinds of places obsolete. Westfield Stratford City is a moral and social proposition, not a commercial one. It’s implicitly directed against the famed ‘decline of the high street’, which offends a certain idea of British biedermeier and so needs to be arrested. The rest of Stratford also speaks to this impulse. Most planned cities, like Brasilia, or Canberra, or Haussmann’s Paris, tend to favour the street grid and the broad avenue. But you’ll search in vain to find many of these here. The streets of new Stratford are almost invariably narrow, winding, and cute. And with awful results: the ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ observation tower and the London Stadium, two colossi, are traversable only through a narrow and wooded footpath – which caused a horrible jam when I was last there. This combination of hyper-density with narrow footpaths is simply medieval; what we see in Stratford isn’t so much urban growth, but the bucolic and walkable ‘New Urbanism’ of Charles Windsor.
What’s also prominently featured in Stratford is that other great shibboleth of Late Elizabethan political economy: university education. Campuses of University College London and Birkbeck have been set up here, with the latter situated on a dedicated University Square. That this British model city would devote so much room to higher education is surely telling. It’s now taken for granted that modern Britain will earn its bread by marketing education services to others; this idea owes something to Harold Macmillan’s remark that we were now a Greece to America’s Rome, and something more to Harry Potter. It’s now become the main justification for Britain’s current system of migration, which at the last count admits upwards of one million people a year. What Stratford shows is the basic poverty of this model. Modern Britain makes much of technology and innovation, and is proud that its universities nurture lots of it. But seldom is it supposed that Britain might put these things to its own use, beyond charging an international student a five-figure sum for their degree. Stratford provides the campuses, sure, and the ArcelorMittal tower has a Tech frisson. But nowhere in Stratford – which used to be a manufacturing centre – do we find the new industrial estates or laboratories where these innovations might be brought to commercial maturity. It’s not surprising, then, that the products of these universities are whisked off, bought up, or choose to list themselves elsewhere.
Inevitably football is also here, in the form of the London Stadium, which was sold to West Ham FC on the cheap in 2016. What’s meant to be played at the London Stadium is not so much football, a sport, but rather Football™ – which is a cultural and communal symbol, and an instrument of British influence overseas. Britain’s governing classes can’t really conceive of any kind of proletarian identity beyond football. They vaunt football as a social institution in a way that earlier ages would find bizarre; by the same token, they absurdly over-police it. This is, also, why Britain’s rulers are so continuously shocked and dismayed by the Ultra Right, not to say Odinist sympathies of many of the London derbies. Still, football just had to be here, and this explains the frenzied search for a new stadium tenant after 2012.
Net Zero also gets a look in. The default terrain of Stratford is a kind of dry and scruffy grass; any buildings, stadiums, or plazas appear as punctuations to this plain. The newer builds in Stratford are obediently sprinkled with shrubbery and more grass. The implication of all this is clear: that human civilisation only exists by Nature’s sufferance, and shouldn’t be permitted to shape or master the world around it.
Architecturally, the Stratford redevelopment will also stand as a symbol of its era. The dominant style in Stratford is what one might call the Cameronite vernacular. Cameronite architecture developed out of the student accommodation blocks of the early 2010s. It is broadly allied to the project of Postmodernism, which seeks to add variety and flair to post-1945 construction. But Cameronite vernacular goes about this in a very inept way: instead of any kind of sculptural variation, Cameronite architecture simply takes a glass box, coats it in plastic cladding, and then flecks the outside with polygons of colour. These are timid methods, and the result always looks raw and unfinished, like freestanding wallpaper.
All ruling classes build monuments to themselves. But seldom has a monument been so heedless to the needs and realities of urban life. Even the builders of Versailles or the great complex at Giza had the good grace to do so out of the way, on the edge of town. By virtue of its location Stratford remains a centre of transport. In 2021, it became Britain’s largest railway station by number of passengers. But the whole redevelopment project has been a futile rebellion against this. Its opening act was the rooting up and burying of many of the area’s useful roads and rail lines. But the verdict of geography cannot be so easily overturned. As we’ve seen, Stratford is designed to be a walkable town, but it’s one that’s gouged by the still-intact motorways and rail lines. The result is only discordant, and it doesn’t work. The Olympic redevelopment forbids Stratford from serving a useful purpose; in so doing, it kills the area more comprehensively than decades of chemical runoff ever could. It replaces a real place with a theme park. Like Britain itself, Stratford is run at a loss. Stinky Stratford certainly wasn’t.
On a material level, what Stratford says is that modern Britain can safely forget the brass tacks of railways, factories, pumping stations, and laboratories. It proposes that first world living standards can be maintained with recourse only to the tourism; retail therapy; sport; sport science; postgraduate education; and leisure sectors. As a country that now has precious few laboratories, or even water reservoirs, it isn’t an idea that can endure much longer.
But the cultural project of Stratford rattles on. And it’s one of very limited horizons. It is a mausoleum to a sporting event that ended 11 years ago. However much the 2012 Olympics meant to Britain’s governing classes, the fact that the athletes’ dormitory district will now become a permanent neighbourhood of one of the world’s great cities is something that will only baffle future generations. Sensible countries quickly forget about their Olympic games, and let sites like these fall to ruin. Even the streets are myopic and incestuous; named after marginal figures from the political class like Tessa Jowell.
More than anything else, Stratford declares that the society that produced the 2012 Olympics will stand forever. ‘Beyond the Games’, ‘Olympic Legacy’ – these are not promises, but commands. It’s a fortress of consensus, ranged against its now-defeated rival Canary Wharf – which represents commercial independence – and at county Essex, the most ungovernable of England’s provinces, which saw the first stirrings against this consensus in 2014. It’s a deadening physical presence, directed against everything live, heterodox, or even useful in this part of England. It is urban counterrevolution.
It’s a counterrevolution that is succeeding. The other great sites of development in London – Vauxhall, Croydon, North Greenwich and White City – all now take their stylistic queues from Stratford, not from Canary Wharf or The City. For their part, the Docklands and the Square Mile now hope, too, to rebrand themselves as leisure and hospitality destinations. ‘Beyond the Games’ will spread out from Stratford, and will cover the whole country. Stratford is an anachronism, but it’s an anachronism that looks increasingly like the future.