Below a belated write up of our B&B daytrip to Barking before Christmas...
Sunday 6th December 2009: Barking Town Square, MUF Architecture/Art/+ Peter Barber Architects - Tanner Street Gateway
There's a fairly full description of this scheme in a November issue of BD online giving a good overview of MUF's approach to the landscaping of this newly created series of public spaces.
The most notable features are a fake-old folly which terminates the end of a piazza (and screens off the back end of a delivery yard) and a dell-like wooded area, which brings to mind some forgotten,non-picturesque fragment of Hampstead Heath.
Fronting the latter is a raised 'stage' which is rather crudely put together and both dell and stage are ringed by hurdle-like barriers 'protecting' the patches of wooded ground or keeping you safe from some fairly unthreatening little slopes.
There's also a concrete tree stump housing a water fountain (presumably for children as it's aperture is too small for an adult head), and an Alice in Wonderland chequer-board floor to the arcade fronting the re-vamped library building.
Despite Muf's apparent determination to embed their work into the hearts and minds of those who use or experience it, Barking square feels oddly alien - even aloof and it's quite easy to imagine the whole thing reassembled in the turbine hall of the Tate Modern and somehow making more sense there.
The other question our visit raised in my mind is why a firm with sufficient stamina and self belief to persist in what, over the years, must have been a pretty unsupportive climate, haven't executed here with more conviction, either in terms of detail or the weight of the conceptual punch.
The new buildings surrounding all this seem generally to scream out for more funding, or simpler detailing and it the only uplifting image I was left with on my camera for the whole trip was this council run sports centre which at least sits comfortably in it's own skin.
On our way back to the station we also took a turn around the Peter Barber designed Tanner Street Gateway project where three mid-size slabs of social housing have been replaced by 2.5 street's worth of terraced 'dwellings' - which is an urban planning point bluntly put - and one which I would guess demostrates accurately the temperature of the times.
What this appears to offer over it's bulldozed precursor is safer communal space (ie overlooked streets) and a reduction in the impact of antisocial behaviour (of the weeing-in-the lift/loitering in the stairwell type) though whether you buy into the former may depend on whether you can think of any streets you've ever avoided walking down.
For me the reality is that these are really quasi-streets - being considerably narrower than those which neighbour the development and with no front gardens, hedges, fences etc to define the private realm. And while opening your front door directly onto the street worked when the only traffic was the rag and bone man, these ones unsurprisingly, are full of cars - both parked-up and in motion.
All this may or may not point to the irony that, having pulled down three large residential blocks it's then quite difficult to shoe-horn the same number of people back into a couple of terraced streets....