Another piece of East Bank, London’s newest culture and education district, has fallen into place. Monday saw the formal opening of University College London’s Marshgate building, completing the first phase of the creation the UCL East campus on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
It follows the advent last autumn of UCL East’s One Pool Street development on the other side of the Waterworks River, with its own facilities and accommodation for 500 students. Meanwhile, East Bank’s Stratford Waterfront elements – V&A East Museum, Sadler Wells East, the London College of Fashion and the BBC Music Studios – continue to inch towards completion. Another big piece of London 2012 legacy is taking shape.
The eight-storey Marshgate building, designed by architects Stanton Williams, provides research labs and teaching areas for courses that combine technology, architecture, engineering and computer science as well as a library, a lecture theatre, a refectory and an Institute of Making.
The story of UCL’s presence in the park goes right back to 2012. There were talks during Olympics year between the university and Newham Council, led at that time by the borough’s Mayor, Sir Robin Wales, about building a campus on the site of the Carpenters Estate, which still stands right next to the park in Stratford itself. Wales was keen to see it redeveloped, just as he was keen to improve the borough. However, this was a time of intense political agitation against estate regeneration, and in May 2013 the idea was abandoned.
It was an alumnus of UCL, Dr Paul Brickell, a former Newham councillor and now a long-serving senior executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, who encouraged the university to think about putting a new campus on the park, rather than next to it. Soon, the notion of UCL East was at the heart of what has become East Bank, backed by Wales – the whole of East Bank sits just inside the Newham border – and, crucially, the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
He, with characteristic ostentation, dubbed the hub Olympicopolis, a reference to Albertopolis, the nickname given to the cluster of museums and other cultural institutions in South Kensington championed by Prince Albert in the 19th Century. The name East Bank replaced it as soon as Sadiq Khan replaced Johnson. The coinage is generally attributed to Justine Simons, who has been the lead adviser on cultural strategy to all three London Mayors and has been involved in the Olympics project since the bidding stage.
Simons was among the speakers at yesterday’s event, representing Mayor Khan who is in New York. She described East Bank as “a game-changer for London and for the nation” – a job-creator, good for the economy, an attraction for visitors and a consolidation of London’s reputation as, in her words, “a global powerhouse for ideas and innovation”.
Senior UCL figures highlighted the university’s long history of breaking new ground intellectually, socially, notably by admitting women, and geographically: Bloomsbury, where University College London was founded under its original, short-lived name of London University, was not as salubrious in 1826 as it is now.
Professor Paola Lettieri, a driving force behind UCL East, said she wants the new campus to be “dedicated to solving real world problems” and “fully embedded in the locality of Newham”. Its presence is certainly firmly established within East Bank and also across the park – and across the border with Hackney – at Here East. There is talk of more to come.
Elsewhere on East Bank, public realm in the form of steps of seating has been completed along Stratford Waterfront, students will be entering the London College of Fashion building later this month, Sadler’s Wells East should be up and running in 2024, the V&A East Museum is now due to follow in spring 2025 (along with V&A East Storehouse at Here East), and the BBC premises are planned to open later that year.
East Bank, like the park itself, has its critics and the waterfront buildings have been been slower, more difficult and more expensive to complete than had been hoped. Yet to visit it and watch it grow is to quickly conclude that the wait, the complexities and the money will all be more than justified.
Another speaker at the Marshgate building opening was Christine Ohuruogu, Newham-born Olympic gold medal winner and a former UCL student. “I never thought Stratford would be this cool when I was growing up a mile away from here,” she said. Now 39, she went to school in Romford and Essex. “I never really invited my friends back home.” Back then, Stratford was a place “to escape from”.
But UCL East will, she was sure, “reach and teach people who would never have thought UCL would be for them. It has incredible power to hold our communities together. It has the power to inspire and above all it can be a real, true leader in east London”. And she gave, “really huge welcome to the east London legacy”.
Dave Hill is the author of Olympic Park: When Britain Built Something Big.