Eastern Promise

Exploring the creative hub of East London.

East London has long been a creative hub, but in recent years the world’s biggest cultural institutions have been opening outposts there, shifting the artistic axis of the city.

Words by John Sunyer

Although eastern neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch and Hackney have enjoyed a meteoric rise as creative industry hotspots in the last 20 years, it has traditionally been a badge of honour for the biggest and most fashionable museums and galleries to cluster together in central or west London.

Take ‘Albertopolis,’ for example. In 1851, Prince Albert dreamed up plans that would see the Royal Albert Hall, Natural History Museum, Royal Geographical Society and the V&A all running along Exhibition Road to form a creative community, or London’s first ‘cultural quarter,’ as it later became known.

“…east London has absolutely been a cultural hub for a very long time. It’s a cultural scene that flourishes at all scales…”

“Back then, South Kensington was just another London suburb. There was nothing there,” says Edwin Heathcote, the architecture and design critic at the Financial Times. “The museums and galleries really kick-started the neighbourhood.” The same cultural Big Bang moment is now underway in the east of the city, with the recent arrival of two powerhouses ushering in a new era. After 50 years in Covent Garden, the London Film School will soon open its doors on London City Island, while the English National Ballet’s relocation to the same area is another landmark arrival.

Further east, the continuing development at the Olympic Park also signals the coming shift in the power, wealth and outlook of 21st-century London. Last year, The Mayor of London’s office outlined plans for ‘a new powerhouse for innovation, creativity and learning’ called East Bank. It’s a vision that has inspired key educational and cultural organisations to join, including the V&A, the US-based Smithsonian Institution, Sadler’s Wells dance theatre, University College London, the London College of Fashion and the BBC. When East Bank starts welcoming visitors in 2022, it could rival the theatres and restaurants of the West End, or the South Bank’s massive arts complex.

“Of course, east London has absolutely been a cultural hub for a very long time – home to raves, art fairs and studios for young artists. So you can see the appeal of major cultural institutions wanting to move out there,” says Heathcote. “One side of the coin is that the Olympics provided a once-in- a-lifetime opportunity to use government money to regenerate a part of east London that wouldn’t have been otherwise. Then gradually, like hermit crabs, the cultural infrastructure comes along. Now the same thing is happening further east.”

The attempt to build creative communities from scratch is one of the great challenges of city-building. It requires forging genuine relationships with creative people, not just those corporations who feed off them. A sense of ownership and an emotional connection must be shared between a neighbourhood’s leadership or developer and those who they hope will settle down to live there. London’s City Island is becoming something of a test bed for how this integration of global culture and local community can be achieved.

“…culture and creativity have always shaped London…”

Over the past few years, it has increasingly been nicknamed a ‘mini-Manhattan,’ with the glistening towers of Canary Wharf nearby. The high-profile arrival of English National Ballet and London Film School may be global stamps of approval, but it’s a cultural scene that flourishes at all scales. When the independent Arebyte Gallery outgrew its home in Hackney Wick three years ago, it moved to London City Island to continue supporting the careers of early-stage artists, providing 20 studios across two sites. This focus on grassroots culture as well as global development means that this riverside pocket of London has, in one way or another, grown the kind of atmosphere more typically associated with a small village.

Rarely has east London been the scene of such restless activity on this scale. But we need this mix of new and old, large and small: a sense of discovery paired with reassuring consistency. After all, culture and creativity have always shaped London, and the new developments in the east of the city will help cement its reputation as an international cultural capital – now with the balance increasingly tipped eastwards.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in print in the Mill Harbour magazine, if you’d like to receive a copy of the magazine, get in touch.