The urban silk route

Guest blogger Emily Parker talks about The Canning Town Caravanserai, a community-focused urban regeneration project located on a demolition site in East London that brings people together to share skills, build relationships and create opportunities


When a team of architects and young volunteers set out to build the Canning Town Caravanserai on a disused brownfield site in early 2012, local residents said that their part of London was drab and unfriendly, and the most exciting place to spend time outside of their homes was McDonald’s. Young people living on the south side of the busy A13 flyover didn’t mix with those living on the north side, and older residents complained the area lacked facilities that bring people of all ages together.

The Canning Town Caravanserai project was conceived in 2011, after Ash Sakula Architects were part of a winning team in that year’s Meanwhile London competition. The three temporary brownfield sites offered up for transformation were situated along an ‘arc of opportunity’, an area between Stratford and the Royal Docks that was earmarked as the forefront of Newham’s major regeneration programme. The competition looked for ideas that would highlight the potential of the local area by attracting visitors and encouraging local entrepreneurship. The aim was to set the stage for local development whilst large construction sites lay dormant, as well as demonstrate how interim or ‘meanwhile’ uses can be an integral part of regeneration.

The inspiration for the Canning Town Caravanserai came from the medieval Silk Route inns that went by this name. These open compounds enabled travelling traders from across Asia, North Africa and southeastern Europe to rest and recover from the day’s journey: to eat, drink, be entertained and make merry. So the Silk Route Caravanserai brought diverse people together and facilitated the exchange of goods, knowledge and culture across great distances.



In Canning Town, the Caravanserai’s aims are similar, if on a slightly smaller scale. The local population is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country, and the Caravanserai’s facilities and on-site events are designed to bring locals together and encourage them to share their great range of skills, knowledge and perspectives with each other. The various different structures, which have sprung up at the meanwhile site over the last two years thanks to hundreds of volunteers’ efforts, combine together to support this aim.

You might meet a steel pan expert over a shared community meal at the Long Table and find out he is your neighbour, cook wild nettle pesto with a fellow gardening enthusiast at the Oasis Café, offer to teach your native language to others under the sari-canopy of the Flying Carpet Theatre, or simply sit on the Mint Terrace with a cup of mint tea and people-watch. The structures themselves are beautifully designed and create a peaceful oasis in the midst of the concrete construction jungle of Canning Town, but for me, the core of the Caravanserai is its focus on building social relationships that cut through the often harsh unfriendliness of city life.

As the Caravanserai nears the end of its current lease, its challenge as a meanwhile project is to enable these social relationships to continue after the original site is lost. ‘Interim’, ‘pop-up’ and ‘meanwhile’ have become popular buzzwords in urban development over the past few years, and it is clear that temporary projects can momentarily inject energy into a disused space, but what of the long-term influence of meanwhile projects on life in the city? What if the people who are brought together by their shared use of the Caravanserai never see each other again after that chance meeting one evening at the Long Table?

Community Dinner at the Long Table

Luckily for the Caravanserai, there were many Silk Route trading inns, all of which followed the same basic idea but varied in shape and size. The answer to the question of long-term sustainability is to find new local sites to which the Caravanserai’s structures can move, or where new Caravanserais can be built. Poplar HARCA, an innovative housing association on the other side of the River Lea, has space to host the Caravanserai after the current lease ends in October 2015. The new site will be just within travelling distance for current participants, and it will also enable a new group of Poplar HARCA residents to engage with the project and forge links with people living on the other side of the River Lea.

So, as is often the case, out of a challenge has come an opportunity. Hopefully this will be the start of a network of Caravanserais that make use of slack space in the city, inspire local collaboration and exchange, and extend people’s social circles along a temporary urban Silk Route.

All Images Copyright Miguel Souto


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