Pleasure and Humanity in Canary Wharf, by Jane McChrystal.

Canary Wharf, London’s second financial district, was founded in the early 1980’s in the face of vigorous opposition from the local population which had been devastated by the loss of the docks and industries, where earlier generations had made a living for nearly two hundred years.

Since its inception some of the local people have found work there. Others followed the traditional cockney route out to the suburbs and counties like Essex and have been succeeded by new generations of Bangladeshi and Somali immigrants.

Along with the development of Canary Wharf came the Docklands Light Railway, the Jubilee Underground Line and new bus routes, releasing the Isle of Dogs from its position of most cut-off area of inner London.

It has frequently provided an easy target for journalists whose distaste for Canary Wharf’s latest employers, mainly banks, law firms and tech accelerators, has coloured their view of the area.

So, Canary wharf is a soulless canyon of concrete, steel and glass, with no greenery or open spaces, where the tumbleweed rolls around its empty, windswept streets at the weekend when all the workers have gone home.

It is true that the heart of the estate is made up of a cluster of towers. The best-known, One Canada Square, is clad in stainless steel and visible from high spots all around London, which might reinforce the idea that the entire district is tall, hard and shiny.

The view from the ground offers a different perspective. Anyone walking from Westferry Circus, along West India Avenue towards Cabot Square will see variations in the scale of buildings which are clad in exotic varieties of marble, limestone, slate, granite and sandstone, imported from all over the world, bringing colour and texture to the surroundings. As Ruth Siddall observed in her geological guide1 this is the only area of London she has surveyed notable for the absence of Portland stone.

The estate is managed by a private company, the Canary Wharf Group, which has established one of London’s largest collections of public, modern art including the work of Ron Arad, Lyn Chadwick and Helaine Blumenfeld, as part of its commitment to creating a “more humane and pleasurable built environment”2. In 2007 it chose Phyllida Barlow’s work for its programme of temporary exhibitions, ten years before she was selected as Britain’s entry for the Venice Biennale.

Canary Wharf is not a cosy place. It was built on tax-breaks and speculation and has been subject to the booms and busts which have chequered London’s financial history over the past thirty years or so, including the crash of 2008. Unlike its City counterpart it, which grew up piecemeal over centuries, it sprang up within ten years and there is nothing organic about its development.

The estate is carefully regulated and controlled. Any vehicle, including TFL buses, passing through the barriers which guard every point of entry, can be stopped and searched. Any individual who acts strangely, or looks as if they might do, will quickly come to the attention of the Group’s private security force. An army of cleaners keeps the environment in pristine condition.

During the week the streets and malls stream with hordes of men and women in office uniform rushing to work, hurrying to lunch or heading eagerly for home. Crowds of smokers and vapers gather in their designated spots to relieve their stress at all times of the day.

But when the work of the week is done, people from East London like to spend time there. Kids of various ages go there to skate on the ice-rink covering Canada Square Park during winter. People go to shop in its spotless malls all year round and, in summer, they gather by the waterfronts and in the parks and squares to talk, eat and drink.

Late Friday morning last week I watched builders, office workers and idlers strolling, sitting, snacking and lying in the sun in between the water steps and the fountains of Cabot Square. The terazza bar was about to open under a canopy of trees trained into cube shapes, which shade tables and chairs arranged on the dusty, white gravelled ground.

In contrast to Canary Wharf’s glitzy, Manhattan-style towers, its crescents, axial drives and carefully planted squares evoke a distinctly European feel.

From the Renaissance onwards bankers have acted as patrons of artists and architects and we still appreciate the work they cultivated without too many qualms. When many of today’s plutocrats in London put their wealth into the private delectation of car elevators and home cinemas behind high walls, we might as well enjoy Canary Wharf’s investment in an environment which is open to (almost) anyone who cares to visit.

  1. Siddall, R, 2015, A world of geology on the Isle of Dogs: Building Stones at Canary Wharf.*, Urban Geology in London No. 31,        
  2. Art Map: Public Art at Canary Wharf.

The paper copy can be picked up anywhere on the estate

*Not only does Ruth Siddall document the amazing variety of stones to found on Canary Wharf, she also provides the reader with a rather good guide to walking the estate.

Jane McChrystal © 2017.