The pop-up restaurant designed by Carmody Groarke enshrines itself as a glowing angular form in the crepuscular light. Photography by Christian Richters
If Britain’s venerable parliament has been eroded by the emulation of the American presidential model, the late arrival of US-style live debates has certainly proved welcome compensation. Indeed, one of the first televised combats struck a decisive knell: in the 2008 London mayoral campaign, the incumbent Ken Livingstone provoked pantomime boos as he likened his method of winning the 2012 Olympic Games to a card trick. With the initial nominal budget already quadrupling to £9 billion, Londoners unamused by this whopping sleight went on to crown his rival Boris Johnson with 53 per cent of the vote. Magicians, it seems, reveal their methods at their peril.
And yet Livingstone’s remaining 47 per cent suggested a marked citywide ambivalence towards the issue. Almost as many as were angered actually admired the deviousness in generating the funding for the renewal of a huge neglected area around east London. Instead of focusing on the ephemera of the Games, politicians emphasised the rhetoric of regeneration; of amenity and infrastructure; of long-term legacies. Only as people dissented from this narrative did the underlying tensions between connection and isolation become exposed.
Communities voiced their displacement, a sentiment that found its tangible emblem in the monochromatic fence that rose to secure the colossal site’s perimeter. ‘A viscous slither of blue,’ as the London chronicler Iain Sinclair described it, ‘like disinfectant running down the slopes of a silver urinal trough’. As the transition got under way he noted the disjunction between imagery and actuality, the barricade unvisualised in computer-generated versions. ‘The current experience, in reality, is all fence,’ he complained in 2008.
Now with this infamous barrier largely dismantled or replaced with sunnier decorative hoardings, the time has come to attract attention to Stratford’s work in progress. Hailed as the ‘largest building site in Europe’, the interim landscape presents a special state of flux. The high-speed rail link from central London (taking only six minutes) has recently opened, yet many of the sporting venues remain silhouetted structures, mere suggestive shapely shells.
Earlier this summer - roughly midway between Sinclair’s musings and the 2012 opening ceremony - a beautiful pop-up restaurant, Studio East Dining, celebrated the spectacle of this pivotal moment. Designed by young London-based practice Carmody Groarke, the project derived its particular poignancy as a pin-pricking counterpoint to the scale of the Olympic operation; and in its positioning within the polarised opinions surrounding the iteration of this ancient competition and the expansive urban transformation it will entrench.
While the justification for the London Games is a settlement projected decades into the future, the duration of Studio East Dining was three weeks; the gap between the first briefing and the restaurant’s opening night was (what must have been for the architects) a terrifying 10 weeks. Where the budget for the larger region is suffixed with an unfathomable amount of zeroes, this pop-up diner was delivered for the price of a modest London back-extension. The pavilion’s cleverness is in the line it takes between permanence and transience, and its exploration of what constitutes value.
The 800m2 dining room is placed on a 35m-high flat roof which presents fantastic elevated views, the Olympic site in theforeground segueing seamlessly into the established city beyond. The object is sitting on top of a multi-storey car park that belongs to Westfield Stratford City, a mammoth 1.9 million square metre shopping centre that when completed will be the continent’s largest. To generate interest in its forthcoming opening, the retail developer commissioned the project, produced in collaboration with bespoke east London restaurateurs Bistrotheque.
If these two clients were a married couple you’d think Cupid had a lamentably rotten aim or a very wry sense of humour. Launching some years back in a whitewashed warehouse in an abandoned part of Hackney, the original restaurant made itself a destination most notably for its esoteric evening entertainments - I especially admired the Bear Beauty Contest (for hairier, heavier gay men; not a woodland version of Crufts). You might not immediately think the pairing likely to work out, but the resulting creative success proves that opposites can and do attract.
Carmody Groarke’s design was informed by the project’s specific constraints. One of the earliest decisions was to borrow materials already on the site, using workmen seconded from the shopping centre’s construction. The structure was made entirely from scaffolding poles; the wooden floor, panelling, even the tables, from planks. The translucent polyethylene roof membrane was bought especially, but is, the architects are pleased to say, 100 per cent recyclable.
As a live building site, people have to be ferried safely to and from the restaurant, which influenced the idea of a single sitting for 140 people. Instead of making one large marquee-like space, the conversation distance across a dining table has created the scale of the cross-section to series of extruded forms. These volumes intersect at the plan’s centre to provide a cocktail-supping place of the arrival; guests then move to one of the long, linear tables to dine.
With the pavilion fortuitously coinciding with the summer solstice, when you arrive the space is naturally lit, articulating the almost Gothic decorative quality of the structure. As you progress through the courses (and drinks) the lighting provided by standard site lamps offers an increasingly intimate atmosphere. The denouement is a post-prandial stroll to the balconies, to the panoramic views that, glimpsed throughout the evening, can be fully appreciated as the sun descends. Externally, as you leave, the pavilion enshrines itself as a glowing angular form in the crepuscular light.
Across the globe, the once-chasmic distance between the centre and periphery of culture is now quickly traversed, a change certainly catalysed by the speed and abundance of communication. Particularly in London, the distinction between commerce and creativity, money and art, has become muddied over recent years, and yet the blurry threshold is still perceptible and significant. The same comparison is becoming true for the city map itself. It seems incredible that the once-remote Stratford is now reachable from the metropolitan King’s Cross within minutes.
Carmody Groarke’s canniness has been to create a pavilion that accentuates the inherent contradictions in the project’s complexion, while appearing to straddle wider divisions, embracing its status and rejecting it at the same time. It is the Wildean epigram of 21st century temporary architecture, a light little expression that somehow conveys some deeper, more meaningful truth about the city.