Life’s A Beach: The Shifting Sands of Deptford and Convoy’s Wharf Leviathan

Yet Tokyo were not complaining just about the loss of historical essence, but about the reduction of their everyday life’s space to the instrumental logic of the global city. A project symbolised this logic: the celebration of a World City Fair in 1997, a good occasion to build another, major business complex on reclaimed land in Tokyo Harbour. Large construction companies happily obliged, and work was well underway in 1995. Suddenly, in the 1995 municipal election, an independent candidate, Aoshima, a television comedian without backing from political parties or financial circles, campaigned on a one issue program: to cancel the World City Fair. He won the election by a large margin, and became Governor of Tokyo. A few weeks later, he kept his campaign promise and cancelled the World City Fair, to the disbelief of the corporate elite. The local logic of civil society was catching up with, and contradicting, the global logic of international business.

Castells, M. [i]

Where’s our Aoshima? Someone to interrupt the cavalier expectations of an elite? Ten years on since Glenn Mottershead shot his jewel of a film Deptford Beach the forty-acre colossus that is Convoy’s Wharf development adjacent to the beach appears well and truly astir. After years of protest, the odd silent caravan incursion – swiftly followed by evictions and further welding and barricading of entrance gates – ground works now strike as being audibly underway. I say audibly because it’s difficult to see over the 15ft brick wall. And it’s not just that the gates on the corner of Leeway and Grove Street SE8 are welded shut. Metal has been fixed into the gaps so, short of scaling the wall and wrangling with the barbed wire on top, there’s no easy way to see what’s actually happening within this leviathan development.

There have been opportunities to see latest plans, of course. Notices from the various corporate / neighbourhood PR liaison companies have fallen through local letterboxes. No end of these saccharine ‘place making’ screeds, it seems, in recent years but the promise of jobs and amenities for local people appear ever more far-fetched. Especially considering how the rest of the riverside between Deptford and Greenwich and adjacent areas has faired: out with the local, ‘messy’ enterprises (and people), in with the luxury flats, pedestrianised walkways, ‘cathedrals of today’ type architecture.

Foreshore SE8 used to be called Deptford Strand. When the Pepys Estate was built perhaps the word ‘Strand’ was thought to be not in-keeping with the brave new sprawl of social housing. Mottershead’s film recaptures something of the history, charm and delight of a site that can be both humdrum and majestic. But as Prof. Les Back’s narration reminds us, the significance of that liminal strip of land between what’s wet and what’s dry is a fluid one. Right now, despite the financial shivers caused by Brexit, it seems that any claim civil society may have on Deptford Beach and its environs is receding in the face of what the global logic of international business has in mind. Where is our Aoshima?

Deptford Beach by Glenn Mottershead & Prof. Les Back from Glenn Mottershead on Vimeo.

Deptford beach is a place particularly encrusted with very clear referents to three distinct ages: mercantile, industrial and informational. The plaque commemorating Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe and Cutty Sark’s masts in the distance summon the mercantile. Then there are the docks and gigantic wharves that index the industrial age. And, thirdly, across the river loom the sheer edifices of banking and commerce that point to our own informational age.

Standing at the site of Mottershead’s film, looking from left to right, across the water Canary Wharf domineers. It’s an edifice Steve Pile has termed as being a monument to Margaret Thatcher. It also brings to mind what Manuel Castells calls the ‘space of flows’: a form of ‘mobility’ intrinsic to our contemporary informational age. As does, opposite Deptford beach, a helipad in front of the Vanguard self-storage warehouse. A mode of transport cited by Mike Davis in City of Quartz as contributing – along with architecture that enforces a spatial apartheid and privatised policing, etc. – to a surveillance culture compromising the very existence of public space.
Of course, space can’t cease to exist. But it exists according to terms dictated by those who ‘produce’ its appearance, usage, porosity and significance. Castells also notes its often the ‘privileged’ few – managerial elites (rather than classes) – who exist in the ‘space of flows’ instead of being anchored in the ‘space of place’.

The dominant tendency is toward a horizon of networked, ahistorical space of flows, aiming at imposing its logic over scattered, segmented places, increasingly unrelated to each other, less and less able to share cultural codes. Unless cultural and physical bridges are deliberately built between these two forms of space, we may be heading toward life in parallel universes whose times cannot meet because they are warped into different dimensions of a social hyperspace.

Castells, M. [ii]

At Deptford beach there are steps leading down the water’s edge marking the spot where Sir Francis Drake was met by Queen Elizabeth I. It was she who apparently ordered that The Golden Hind be ‘drawn into a creek near here’ so it could be ‘consecrated with great ceremonie, pompe and magnificence eternally to be remembered.’ On April 4th 1581 Elizabeth wined, dined and knighted Drake for having ‘circuited the whole earth’ between 1577 and 1580. Drake’s voyage is said to have fostered the ‘principle’ expressed by the queen “That the vse of the sea as of the ayre is common to all, and that publique neccesitie permits not it should be possessed.” ‘Principle’ or early formulation of the double speak attendant on anything pronounced ‘publique’?

What is more telling perhaps, taking us from remembrance of the mercantile age to the dawn of that attendant on the informational age, is that the details presented here were gleaned from a plaque (currently the only official marker conveying any history associated with this spot). And it’s a dedication originating on the other side of the Atlantic:

presented by

the Drake Navigators Guild, California

quadricentennial, 4th April 1981

From the home of Los Angeles and Silicon Valley to the Pepys Estate, Deptford next door to the Convoys Wharf development. We apprehend in multiple ways the multiple cities we inhabit simultaneously. As well as all the places we carry around with us we are constantly in collision with multiple exteriorities.
Deptford beach is between two Thames Clipper catamaran ‘stations’ – ‘Greenland’ (named after the dock/country) and ‘Masthouse Terrace’ piers – and despite the mercantile/industrial heritage alluded to in pier names I think this form of transport relates more to the ‘space of flows’ and the informational age because it is a privileged route.

Yes, everyone is ‘allowed’ to travel on the Tate Gallery, NatWest Bank, KPMG, MBNA… or otherwise liveried catamaran craft but the mooring points suggest elite lives. Rather like the residents of the nearby Aragon Tower who parachute into their riverside luxury apartments, commuters using the Thames Clipper ply a route that zigzags across the river connecting selective points: nodes on an (un)fairly privileged network.

Objections to The Royal Naval Yard development, better known as Convoys Wharf, have been raised since the 1980s. Back then News International owned the site. And it was the Richard Rogers Partnership’s ‘vision’ for its development that was roundly criticised by individual local residents and a committed contra-development group. The reasons for their condemnation of the original plans? It was an exercise in Disneyfication; that the plans for the site, including a RRP ‘signature’ (big, glassy and peculiarly shaped) building in a new Deptford Piazza did not suit the economic or social needs of the community; the aestheticization of landmark industrial structures, in this case Olympia Wharf, stripped of any productive (local) role and co-opted into the service of the archetypal informational age purpose: that is, to be a site of business and consumer services.

These reasons for challenging the development persist. The site now belongs to Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa but their agenda and urban imaginary seems not to have altered that much from the RRP’s proposal. A change of ownership, a tweaking of design and thirty odd years seem not to have much affected the core plan. In fact it seems to be a tactic often adopted by the managerial elites who operate and (more and less) ‘control’ or at least try to direct from the ‘space of flows’ when it comes to pushing through their urban imaginaries. They can afford to wait. Wait for grass roots objection to peter out, for activists and local residents to tire of lodging complaints to a superficially responsive ‘place making PR team’ who act as a front for ultimately belligerent, arrogant and profit driven developers.

These ‘cathedrals of today’, leviathans of development, are built to service the space of flows, they are the material realisation of the space of flows that compliment the information/global economy, organised around:

[C]ommand and control centers able to coordinate, innovate, and manage the intertwined activities of networks of firms. Advanced services, including finance, insurance, real estate, consulting, legal services, advertising, design, marketing, public relations, security, information gathering, and management of information systems, but also R&D and scientific innovation, are at the core of all economic processes, be it in manufacturing, agriculture, energy, or services of different kinds. They can all be reduced to knowledge generation and information flows.

Castells, M. [iii]

Of course, there are pledges to retain part of the original architecture, the Olympia Warehouse, as industrial-age-in-aspic but re-birthed as a cultural service centre. A Convoys Wharf web-puff announces: ‘The site is home to a listed building and important reminder of the site’s industrial heritage, the Olympia Warehouse, which will be restored as part of the proposals to create a new cultural and community hub for the area.’ It is still, as described by Mike Davis in City of Quartz, likely to be an example of:

[U]pscale, pseudo-public spaces – sumptuary malls, office centers, culture acropolises, and so on – [that] are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass ‘Other’. Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless females – read the meaning immediately.

Davis, M. [iv]

It seems that Convoys Wharf development has won its battle against local objection. The beach here will be relegated to scenic asset for those who can afford to buy a flat off plan. The space produced will not proffer opportunity to a broad spectrum of communities. But rather the likely outcome it seems, will be:

[S]ocial control through analysis of the human body, spatial arrangements and architecture […] the relationship of power and space by positing architecture as a political “technology” for working out the concerns of government – that is, control and power over individuals – through the spatial “canalization” of everyday life. The aim of such a technology is to create a “docile body” […] through enclosure and the organization of individuals in space.

Low, Setha M. & Lawrence-Zúñiga, D.


Mottershead’s film, its elegiac imagery and quietly excoriating narrative gives pause for thought: questions dominant neo-liberal agendas. But still, where’s our Aoshima?

Adrian Burnham 2016


[i] Castells, M. (1996 [1997]) The Rise of The Network Society Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford (p.428)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid. (p.378-9)

[iv] Davis, M. (1990) City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles Verso, London (p.226)

Low, Setha M. and Lawrence Zúñiga, D. (1996 [2003]) in The City Reader Routledge, London (p.30)