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Review - Exhibition - Barking: A Model Town Centre

EXHIBITION
By Joshua Bolchover

Barking: A Model Town Centre.
At Barking Library and Learning Centre, Barking Town Square, from 12-27 September

This exhibition took place in Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’ new mixed-use Barking Central – keystone of Barking’s regeneration programme (AJ 13.09.07). It faces the newly created public space by muf, whose brick folly forms another edge to Barking Town Square.

The folly is all stage set: a half-ruin of reclaimed brick slapped together with broken stone animals, decorative tiles and topped with a proud brass ram. Stone steps lead to a bricked-in doorway, while the entire facade is propped up by a galvanised-steel substructure that sits in the back-of-house area of the local Iceland supermarket’s car park. The thinness of the brick exposes the colourful veneer of ‘new’ Barking as another type of appliqué, albeit as the fresh face of regeneration.

The folly could be more interactive, with opportunities to enter or climb up it – but its strength is its ambiguity. It is amusing: openly fake, contrary, and, in its anti-slickness, quietly provocative.

By contrast the exhibition, held in the learning centre’s ground-floor gallery and curated by muf with AJ editor Kieran Long, opted for a more didactic, information-led approach. It situated the regeneration of Barking within the larger framework of the Thames Gateway and strategies such as the East London Green Grid and the Mayor’s 100 Public Spaces programme. The main focus of the exhibition was a table full of architectural models keyed and linked to a pictorial walking map. Some were of future schemes set to transform Barking, while others showed historical fragments that either are still in existence or have been demolished.

The proposal models were standard client-presentation ones and came directly from the architects. The historical models were specially constructed in laser-cut ply and were ‘a factual and fictional representation of historic buildings and places in Barking as they might appear if they had just been built’. So the idea was really to try and create a sense of continuity between the past and present, to hint at the urban forces that may shape the future character of Barking.

The problem was that you didn’t get the rich textures of everyday experience or the emerging tensions between new and old that are so well articulated in the folly. And although the exhibition’s buildings are linked by the walking-tour map – which is still available – you don’t get a sense of the overall topography of Barking and how the parts may contradict or complement each other. The map is disorientating and hard to follow when you try to trek to the concreted-over lido.

Still, I enjoyed the walk because it showed Barking as it is: messy and fragmented, with an intensely diverse population; a bustling market; and calm, ordered parks. But the model of regeneration here is like many across the UK – it’s clean and colourful and attracts investment, but somehow feels like a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Joshua Bolchover is co-founder of the Newbetter collective (www.newbetter.co.uk)

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