Spitalfields and Whitechapel walk

DSC_0044 copyAs our time in London is drawing to a close, Last Sunday we decided to go on one of the most interesting-looking walks from our guide book, London’s Hidden Walks. Stephen Miller’s book, seemingly aimed at the casual tourist, is actually rich with facts about the secret nooks and odd buildings in London, with enough information to satisfy even the most curious Architecture student. With its usual combination of history, architecture and social stories, the book didn’t disappoint in providing a packed tour of the Tower Hamlets area. Most of the information from this article comes from Miller’s guide.

The walk proved to be a good metaphor for our impressions of London in general: rich in history and architectural styles, wonderful and exciting most times, but hidden under an obtrusive layer of superficiality and over-priced pretence. We’ve had these mixed feelings about London for a while now, and it is one of the reasons we are leaving; how can a place be so visually enchanting and full of intriguing stories, but make it so hard for the curious student to experience it?

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Back to the tour now. Spitalfields and Whitechapel have a layered past, marked by the three big moves of immigrants. First there were the Huguenots, settling in from persecuting France in the 18th century and establishing the silk business in the area. As the tour lead us to Spitalfields Market, we were dumfounded by the character, or lack there of, of the place. In fact, we stood around looking on the map and walked back and forth in each direction for a good two minutes, looking for the market behind the up-market shops and pretentious wine bars. We then realised that the posh boutiques and expensive cafes WERE part of the market! The original interior space is completely overshadowed, with entire sections still being knocked down by property developers. Just opposite, a ghost facade is faintly kept up while the trucks and machines were busy “regenerating” the site behind.

We had the same feeling right after the initial reaction of seeing the mighty white facade of Christ Church faded off. Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Baroque masterpiece is indeed overwhelming, dwarfing every building that surrounds it with its gleaming facade. As soon as we approached it however, we found it difficult to sit anywhere for a coffee to do a sketch. We’ve rarely had this kind of issue in the places we’ve visited on the Continent. We eventually settled for using a bin in front of the church as a make-shift table for our tools. The quick drawing can be seen here: http://estudioesse.tumblr.com/post/139192677740/christ-church-spitalfields-london-making-the-most

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Next we started to wander around the Jewish quarters. The small alleyways and elements of the buildings give clues which speak of the time after the late 19th century where the East End became home to a large Jewish Community. Only very little remains now. The history of these streets and of the Jewish settlers is also intertwined with that of the Whitechapel Murders. Some say that Jack the Ripper might have been one of the Jewish immigrants coming to London after the 1880s. There was a peculiar feeling walking on the route of these characters living here more than a hundred years ago. The buildings are still in their location, the alleyways pointing in the same directions. In some moments, you could almost sense it.

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Moving on to Brick Lane, the third wave of immigration, starting in the second half of the 20th century, becomes apparent. Banglatown is the heart of new Bangladeshi community that settled here after the homes of the Jewish immigrants were bombed during the Blitz. Jamme Masjid Mosque expresses the metaphor of Spitalfields most clearly: built in the 1743 as L’Eglise Neuve, it was a house of prayer for French and English Christians first, then Jews in the 19th century, and Muslims now.

The stratified past of the area is both obvious and hidden. The walk showed how almost each building reflects the story of the different inhabitants, and also how good architecture and place-making transcends time and is adaptable to different uses by different people. However, the area is at a risk of being sanitised, “renovated” by greedy property developers and turned into a fake version of itself, through guided tours and souvenir shops. The irony is, of course, that we, too, are part of the current changes that will have an impact on the community, by visiting it with a guide book in hand.

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