Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Dalston Conservation Tour: a tour with two guides

This was a free guided-tour that was offered as part of Dalston People's Festival. It was advertised in this way: 

Respecting our heritage. Guided walk and discussion. Ray Blackburn of Dalston Conservation Area Advisory Committee will talk us through the history and merit of buildings we take for granted, the recent Design for London, Dalston Heritage Scoping Report and the work of the CAAC to protect that heritage and implement the report’s recommendations. How can we protect our history and keep Dalston unique?

About 15 of us assembled outside the new library at 6.30PM and while waiting for latecomers some of the characters of the walk became more evident. Ray our tall, knowledgable guide took a supporting position while the man on the right outlined some of the other tours that would feature in the festival and the objective of using the event to make proposals to the council. Another man identified himself as being part of the council but attending in an unofficial capacity, while Vincent from the planning department seemed to be mentioned in his absence more than once. I realised that this was not only an architectural tour but also one deeply involved in local politics. 

Our guide Ray got going by introducing the tour which worked on the (largely correct) assumption that  we were interested and even engaged citizens and definitely not tourists. He then explained that the tour would focus on what could be seen rather than telling us about what used to be there, as many historical tours do. He did however make one exception, mentioning the demolished station and how architectural features from it that could have been preserved were lost. He did this in order to introduce the question, "what should be done with architectural fragments?"  

We moved on to the old library, a rather undistinguished construction where we were told about its history and present use and about its architectural features. This was to set the tone for much of what followed: description of the building with particular attention to architecture followed by a question about conservation principles. The somewhat dull and unloved ex-library was described as a 'good example' of post-war modernist public architecture and important to preserve in order to be able to tell the story of Dalston from an architectural point of view. This is an interesting argument and one that appeals more to professionals in the architectural field; that things can be mundane even ugly yet of value to the narrative of the space.

Here we came to Kinetica the new 14-floor tower block that can be seen in the background. The question that he got to was how do these significantly taller buildings effect the appearance of the area that was previously built to just 3 or 4 floors. This format of beginning with an architectural description and using it as a lead in for a question of principal was his way to connect his expertise in architetural history and guiding with the political objectives of the tour's organisers. Although it was generally very clear what the answer should be, such as this tower is too tall, it was a soft sell that allowed the listeners space to consider it as a question. On balance this was quite a good approach as an overtly partisan tour would have probably turned some people off. Still, it was not difficult to read between the lines, what was offered were not genuine planning dilemmas, this was quietly working at convincing you of the value of increased conservation.  

Speaking of quiet, Dalston Lane was anything but. There was a continual stream of buses passing back and forth which proved a problem for our quietly spoken guide. We had to crowd close to hear him but inevitably things got lost in the hectic hum of engines, steel and rubber on asphalt.   

With our discussion of architecture it was inevitable we'd take in Dalston House, though greater attention was given to the Pentecostal church behind it and the issue of architectural continuity in street regeneration.

Dalston being Dalston there was a bit of action with the police so we had to find a quiet spot and here we learnt about the past of the Chinese restaurant Shanghai. Here the Dalston Heritage Scoping Report was circulated, a thick, well researched document on local architectural history. It was roundly praised and we admired the restaurant's former pie and mash exterior. 

Throughout the tour there had been a gentle tension between Ray, our guide, and the man who had organised the events on a wider level. He often added details to the commentary and particularly talked about the processes and politics of conservation. He wore his activist colours very overtly and was looking to come away with an action plan and recommendations while our guide (who really is a professional guide in his daily life) was more focussed on the architecture itself and on conservation principles. It is this double interest that gave the tour its unique flavour, a split focus that was quite literally personified. 

At the end of tour we were invited to the pub where a room was reserved for us and where the political side of the tour now took the dominant role. Most of those taking the took attended and gave their thoughts and suggestions on how to improve the conservation of Dalston. We got into the local politics more directly yet at the same time there was also a chance to meet some of the others taking the tours who included Hackney Tours guide Simon, who told me about the book, The Tour Guide a study of New York City tour guides that sounds very interesting and about his own tours that will, I hope, find their way onto this blog in the not too distant future.  

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