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Eastern promise

review - A13: A multi-disciplinary exhibition on an urban archetype At the Wapping Project, Wapping Wall, London E1, until 25 July

The A13 is our Route 66, says the Architecture Foundation (AF) handout for this multifaceted show. It is not the only overstatement we encounter but that should not be a surprise because the guiding force behind the enterprise is writer Iain Sinclair - seldom loath to intensify 'reality' with an adjective or allusion.

Why the A13? It is the spine of the Thames Gateway, prime site of government development activity; but both the road and the landscapes it traverses have already been a focus for writers, painters, film-makers and photographers, who have reconnoitred and interpreted those very places that Barrett and Bellway, etc, now have in view. Such, anyway, is the pretext for the exhibition.

AF director Rowan Moore introduces both the show and the A13 in a video shot on what he calls 'monument mile': that early East End stretch of the road that is bordered by such buildings as Hawksmoor's St Anne's Limehouse, the Smithsons' Robin Hood Gardens, and Goldfinger's Balfron Tower - a pretty tough trio. Moore finds the A13 'ugly and beautiful at the same time', profiting from a lack of overall planning that permits 'the unexpected'. If there are lessons there for the Thames Gateway, he does not spell them out.

After 'monument mile' the architectural character of the A13 changes, its buildings becoming more like those that feature in Jock McFadyen's paintings hung in the Wapping Project's main hall: 'Goodfellas', a redundant nightclub in Dagenham, for instance, or the bowling alley in Ghost - the latter painted in such a way that, as the title implies, it is on the edge of erasure. 'Ninety per cent of the buildings I've painted have been demolished, or burnt out, or turned into luxury apartments, ' says McFadyen.

But architecture is usually more incidental to his works: a finicky episode in an otherwise broad-brushed landscape, like distant Canary Wharf beneath a lurid sunset, or a jetty protruding into the wide grey river. However much detritus they accumulate, estuarine landscapes have an intrinsic magic, being so responsive to the vagaries of light and weather as land gives way to sea and sky; and McFadyen captures something of that.

The other painter in the show - Helena Ben-Zenou - is less ingratiating, referring to Piranesi's Carceri in a couple of her works, and employing a restricted palette of white, grey, black and russet to quite stark ends. Marble dust and cement add surface texture to her scenes of stacked containers, construction and creekside industry.

Photographs supplant painting in the space occupied by Sinclair and film-maker Chris Petit. The A13 is a generator for Sinclair's latest book, Dining On Stones (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), which is a disappointment after the insights and evocations of London Orbital, his account of a walk within earshot of the M25. In a video at Wapping, Sinclair says that 'the field that interests me is the liminal one between fiction and documentary'; but whereas in London Orbital the latter won out, in Dining On Stones there is too much fictional contrivance, and tired Post-Modern devices undermine Sinclair's take on the Thames Gateway.

Sinclair has filled a large vitrine in the show with photos taken on an A13 walk east from Beckton Alp to Shoeburyness, in which his accompanying captions talk of abrupt 'shifts' in the landscape: 'wasteland to retail park to apocalyptic highway'. Leaving aside the 'apocalyptic' bit (another of the overstatements), this does define the current Thames Gateway character. 'When you walk, everything connects to everything, ' says Sinclair; so planners and developers should do some alert walking?

Petit's parallel 'film' - a succession of stills - reveals a landscape rich intermittently in visual stimuli, at least for certain sensibilities.

All this is 'art' derived from the A13 and its hinterland. Ironically, given the new development scenario, art is now made for the A13 as well; so de Paor Architects' Artscape project features in the exhibition, as do some proposals by Antony Gormley (mercifully less banal than his Gateshead Angel). 'Tautologous. The road and its satellite territory is art. No intervention required, ' says Sinclair in one of his vitrine captions.

Sinclair also presents a 'Library of the Road': Pepys, Defoe, Conrad, thrillers, guidebooks - all with this area at their heart. But how, returning to the AF's handout, does this show become 'a timely intervention in Britain's planning debate'? Simply in making people scrutinise the Thames Gateway now, to recognise qualities that Prescott's bulldozers and builders might obscure.

There's a line in Sinclair's Dining On Stones that could well refer to his own talent and mission: 'the recording and interrogation of unloved territory'. The Thames Gateway has been truly unloved but this show - neither sentimental nor overly romantic - suggests reasons to think otherwise.We should heed them.

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