Ahead of our next winter lecture on Making Space in Dalston 2007-2010 and ongoing, architect Nicolas Henninger (OFCA/EXYZT) – with Francesco Manacorda (Curator of the Barbican Art Gallery’s Radical Nature Exhibition in 2009) and Liza Fior (muf architecture/art) – writes about Dalston Mill in 2009 and the start of the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden in 2010.
EXYZT was founded in 2003 by five graduating architects in Paris La Villette. It grew to 20 active members and operated internationally, creating self-build and inhabited urban and architectural installations, until 2015. We first became involved in the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden project in 2008, when we were commissioned by the Architecture Foundation to take part in the London Festival of Architecture. Led by Sara Muzio and I, EXYZT delivered the Southwark Lido, which set a precedent on the local buzzy architectural scene.
Francesco Manacorda, then Curator for the Barbican Art Gallery’s Radical Nature Exhibition, wanted some off-site projects alongside the main exhibition. He asked us to create a “living architectural installation” in East London, this area being the political focus for art and cultural projects in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics. Francesco explains:
“This was a great opportunity to investigate both social ecology and how communities can take ownership of natural spaces in a city. The important part of the project was combining architecture and art, and with the involvement of different communities in daily activities.”
As I was based in Paris, I asked if someone could take us around the area. This was how I met Liza from muf. Muf had recently started a project with J & L Gibbons on Making Space in Dalston – a research and mapping exercise to identify Dalston’s cultural assets and plan potential projects to improve its public spaces.
“Sensitive to how much was being lost through an ‘efficient approach to development’, muf began mapping the assets of cultural and community organisations while J & L Gibbons mapped the green and open spaces. These strands then merged to identify empty sites which could be deemed – in the widest possible ways – a host to culture.
With the furious and energised residents of Dalston, we identified the derelict Eastern Curve as a garden in waiting. We saw the approach from the Barbican Art Gallery and EXYZT as an opportunity – to test the idea of a host space.”
Liza Fior, muf
The muf team took me on a tour of Dalston and showed us an abandoned landscape off Dalston Lane including the derelict Eastern Curve railway track – which actually still lies under the garden today. We were able to report to Francesco at the Barbican that this was the perfect site to host a month-long summer installation for the exhibition.
We planned to plant a wheat field, to re-enact Agnes Denes’ 1982 “Wheatfield – A Confrontation”, including the construction of a 16m high scaffold tower with a wind propeller at the top, so that we would be able to grind the wheat grown at ground level. The grain could then be used by the community to bake bread and other foods.
At this point, muf helped us build links with local community organisations such as Hackney Young Carers, to plan the project and bring it into being during the summer of 2009.
During this one summer month of our installation, the Dalston Mill quickly became a hugely popular public garden – a hive where everyone came to socialise, participate in workshops and engage with our wheat field oasis. It was also the place to meet local figures from Dalston’s art and cultural scene, including the internationally acclaimed local artist Stik and the legendary DJ Newton Dunbar from the former Four Aces Club.
The Mill was a real-life test of muf and J & L Gibbons’ research, and the impact on the Making Space in Dalston project was immense.
Whilst the public hugely enjoyed our Dalston Mill for a summer, planners and councillors from Hackney Council also came to join us, and saw that this hidden public gem had amazing potential to be developed into a community garden.
“The Windmill was a powerful catalyst to turn Making Space in Dalston into a capital project. 15,000 people visited the garden in three weeks, and what had been dismissed as just an art project ended up bringing £1 million to Dalston. £150,000 of this was the capital for the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, along with two years of a small grant.”
Liza Fior, muf
A few months after the Dalston Mill installation had ended, Liza told me that the Making Space in Dalston project had secured GLA funding to deliver some of its projects and recommendations, and that she would like to collaborate to deliver the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden.
My role from the beginning was to design a versatile structure to host various activities, and to build it with young people from the local Forest Road Youth Hub. The garden design process was accompanied by a series of workshops with these young people, to ensure they had all the necessary training and gained the confidence to build our design:
“muf’s Caitlin Elster worked behind the scenes with the Hub to establish the structures, protocols and training for these young people to work with EXYZT. This answered the question: can cultural life include those who live in a place? Yes, if you create conditions where this is possible.
Our initial mapping helped build a detailed understanding of the area and its “actors”. The power of the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden is that many of these actors remain part of the life of the garden now.
As more development happens and empty spaces are given more context, more spaces are open to use, and transformation becomes even more important.”
Liza Fior, muf
For me, there was one essential element that I retained from the Dalston Mill experience through to designing the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden. This was its access through a physical door: the door created a threshold through which the public had to go, to discover another world on the other side.
A further guest post on the Dalston Eastern Curve Garden by Marie Murray and Brian Cumming will follow in November.
Credits – Dalston Eastern Curve Garden
Landscape Architect: J & L Gibbons
Public Realm Architecture: muf architecture/art (Liza Fior, Caitlin Elster, Aranza Fernandez and Alison Crawshaw)
Artist: Nicolas Henninger OFCA / EXYZT
Structural Engineer and Civil Engineer: Civic Engineers
Cost Consultant: Artelia
Soil Consultant: Tim O’Hare Associates
Julia Kennedy (concept for blog content and editor)