There had been a gathering momentum, a bristling anticipation- the Ecobuild 2015 show was in town! Bigger, better, slicker than ever before! This well publicised event boasted enough dignitaries, polemists, big name collaborators and ‘green’ products to sink the Maldives. The Excel Centre, host to this worthy event, would reverberate with meaningful discussions on the future of construction.

In contrast, to this apparent paradigm shift, the Guardian had launched a campaign to save the planet in which it lamented our collective inertia. This main stream newspaper felt that it could no longer stand by as we sleepwalked into a global catastrophe. It was suggested, in the headline piece, that one of the fundamental reasons for our collective indifference was that we would have to radically change our life styles to stop the disaster happening and hardly anyone was willing to do that.

This dilemma was in the back of my mind as I cycled in the sharp morning air down the Lea Navigation tow path towards the Docklands. The slender and simple efficiency of the bike gently propelled me as I kept a steady rhythm passed the wooded edges of Hackney Marshes. The intermittent appearance of other walkers and cyclists hardly troubled my measured flow. And so it was for the majority of my journey until I reached a fork in the road near to the Thames. I asked a well dressed women with a buggy if she knew where the Excel was. My flushed enthusiasm received a ‘No’ as definitive as a pit closure. Her look conveying a certainty that I was an imbecile for demanding such a thing of a stranger at this time of the morning.

It was just a precaution, I knew the way, Eco build would soon appear like a temple before me. I continued to follow cycle lanes that seemed to be going in the right direction but they became increasingly intermittent then petered out. Taking to the road I weaved a path through traffic for a while until it started to get seriously ugly. After experiencing several dead ends or encountering roads inaccessible to the push bike my enquiries for direction began to tremor with complaint. No one I asked had a clear idea of how you get to the Excel by bike. I stopped to take stock at the junction of the A13 and Leamouth road. Cars rolled passed me down the turn off in a steady arc pulling at the tarmac. I reluctantly returned to the satellite map on my phone. Did I trust the direction of the blue arrow quivering above a complexity of roads, meandering rivers and dark dock rectangles? Unable to discern a credible route I decided to join the cars, quickening my pace in an effort to reach their tempo and be recognised. As lanes converged I soon found that I was a lone rider within a stampede of vehicles, if I made one wrong move I could be crushed. I searched for direction as we descended into a swirl of traffic within a vast urban plain.

I’d entered into a landscape that would have defeated the most ardent of pioneering cartographers. It was a vortex of enormous conduits and noisy capsules, an infrastructure junction box that carried every conceivable resource: human, energy, communication, refuse. Everywhere I looked I could see the cities exposed arteries and fibres, the anatomic layers of progress that had probably evolved through an accretion of bold master plans: some were still in use, others strangled in time. The most dominant was, of course, the modern road. These broad uncompromising tracks spread in several directions and seemed indifferent to the venerable presence of their tortured predecessor, a slow meandering river. Below its jet and emerald surface I imagined effluence still continuing to seep deep into its pre historic silt.

My most likely route out was up the multi-lane concrete flyover to my left but I spotted at its side a wide carless path appearing to follow underneath its hefty stanchions. It ran by the edge of the river, the original direction to the Thames and looked promising until I saw an out of scale figure, the outline of a runner turning round in front of me. There was a deep red hording blocking the path. We breathlessly exchanged our exasperation of dead ends, but this alienating theatre of movement was not the landscape to dwell in, we had to continue our separate ways. I attempted to go over the flyover but another cyclist appeared and advised against it suggesting I turned back towards the A13 and go around that way.

I sucked in the nitrogen as my peeling optimism pushed me towards an old triangulated metal bridge that crossed the river parallel to the A13. Its narrow rusting deck was carpeted in fine unidentifiable debris embedded in moss that crunched under my narrow tyres. My instinct was to turn left but I looked down to my right where there was a narrow jetty of land, a picturesque rural landscape formed by the meandering river. It was inviting me in but it reminded me of a Star Trek utopian scenario where there was always something wrong with the picture. There beyond its verdant threshold I saw a sign for a pollutant release valve.

Just as I was getting into my pace again I realised I was heading for another concrete cul de sac. I came to an abrupt halt and quickly assessed the scene. Across the cracked terrain, below the steel blue sky, I noticed some men all sat leaning forward within the recess of a disused underpass. They looked back at me. I thought better of asking them directions, it was difficult to gauge how they would view me. Was it the landscape that made me feel that they were desperate, lawless men, living in an apocalyptic seam of the city? For a moment I felt a frisson of excitement, a desire to join them and jettison all my worldly pretensions, my unresolved endeavours and trivial demands, to denounce society and live under its forgotten, dripping carapace!

I rode back towards the bridge as another lone traveller walked towards me. He was an everyday James Dean that had survived his youth his features now looking stretched by the passing years of discontent. I guessed he was making his way to the meeting under the concrete flyover.

ECO BUILD
I sat for a while outside Costa Coffee getting my bearings and reading the weighty Ecobuild brochure. I was amused by instructions on how to find the event by rail, bus, boat and car but under cycle it didn’t attempt to give guidance merely a sentence saying we welcome cyclists. A map showed the events layout in a grid form. It was orientated around a main concourse running North to South. This walkway was flanked by temporary food sellers and coffee shop chains. All the main Eco stalls and venues were to the East or West of the main concourse. The debris from all this consumption was eagerly hoovered up by an industrious team of cleaners.

There were countless delegations milling around and gathering by the food stalls, some had flown all the way from China. I thought about the bygone promoters of the green philosophy- back then it was spurred by a quirky idealism indulged in by hippies and dreamers. They seemed to have evaporated, fallen into the cracks. Now and again I’d spot a reconstructed hippy or maybe a reformed new age traveller but they were in short supply. This was undeniably mainstream and judging by the way most people were dressed it could just as well have been an Arms fare.

My first intention was to find TRADA, the main organisation in the UK that researches into the development of timber in construction.

It was difficult not to get distracted on route. I had casual conversations with various promoters, one about steel frames as a platform to hold photovoltaic panels on flat roofs another about the efficiency of seriously powerful wood burning stoves. The wood burners were particularly progressive but the energy calculations I’d been given whirled around my head. I was already starting to worry, like Homer Simpson, that if I took on too much knowledge existing knowledge might get squeezed out.

I approached a man stood at the TRADA counter, I saw from his name tag that it was Jim, a guy I’d spoken to the day before.

‘Hi I’m Jon..I spoke to you on the phone yesterday about teaching resources’

There was a microphone in his hand. He lifted it up to speak to me.

‘That may well be the case,’ he said mysteriously.

I looked at the desk in front of him, it was littered with different types of steel fixings for timber. Unsolicited he began talking about the properties of the joist hanger. I interrupted his flow to tell him my story about the dangers of joist hangers during construction when they were held on masonry walls. I sensed that I should cut short my gory story of a fellow bricklayer disappearing through an unsupported floor but continued anyway. When I’d finished he said into his microphone:

‘I don’t think that’s the fault of the joist hanger.”

He then went on talking about the new standards, categorises and strength of the products in front of him. I occasional asked some questions, mainly out of politeness, I didn’t want him to feel his esoteric knowledge of screws, for example, had gone unheard. Somebody had appeared behind me and started asking very specific questions, he wanted to know the exact thickness of the coatings on the screws. This set Jim off into the seemingly endless realm of screw coatings: their types; methods of application; performance; durability, different coding… Once again I felt the need to contribute congratulating the level of diligence that made all this possible. When he started on bolts I thought I better interrupt again:

‘Jim, this is all very well, you have given me an in depth education on fixings but I came to ask you about TRADA’s teaching resources.’

‘This seminar is about fixings you need the desk around the corner.’

‘Seminar?’ I looked around and saw an earnest, note-taking crowd behind me.

After find out about how to access TRADA’s teaching stuff, that took about 2 minutes, I wandered off in search of zinc roof and green drainage solutions for one of my own projects.

Along the way leaflets, samples, magazines, case studies and other reams of green sell were bestowed upon me. Sales staff would launch into the value of their products, it seemed that every product had now been rebranded ‘green’ for one reason or another.

Although I had an itinerary and hoped to listen to at least 3 debates I had lost track of time. The grid system that seemed very clear at first started to confuse me. Quite often I wasn’t sure whether I was in the East or West section or if I was travelling North or South down the main causeway.

I wandered into a debate about the merits and demerits of tower blocks. Ian Simpson, Architect, was outlining its green credentials. Like a berry wearing artist living in a garret he had succumbed to the twentieth century cliché of a successful Architect, he lived on the top floor of the tower block he designed. Although he articulated his position very well his arguments were too embroiled in self- interest to stir me. His insistence that a high rise displaces less amount of land compared to its alternatives therefore allowing for more green spaces was dubious. Where he built his celebrated Beetham Towers in Manchester there are no green spaces or parks near its base or for that matter anywhere in the city centre. Tower blocks hold deep significance in the human imagination. They can become metaphors for deadly sins: avarice; vanity; a false idolatry or they can be part of a futuristic utopian vision but I don’t think consumer lead apartments in the sky are going to help save the planet. I walked on.

‘Details! Details! Get your Detail magazine here! Free copy of the world’s best architecture with every subscription.’

A sharply suited young woman brandishing a neat looking magazine drew me into her stall:

This magazine wasn’t new to me but I soon found myself pouring over the exquisite depictions of the latest architectural projects. I wanted to possess the delicately portrayed schemes that decorated the magazine’s pages. If I focused long enough on their composition and execution I was convinced the Architect’s expertise would seep, by osmoses, into my being. Guilty that I was spending far too much time there I greedily swooped up any free literature and set off to look for zinc roofs.

In contrast to the lively saleswoman I noticed a bespectacled young man with a much less confident demeanour, awkwardly waiting at his stand. He was there to represent the student’s work of the Bartlett, the world famous architecture school. Modestly presented were four presentation A1s of the students work, in portrait, mounted on separate pillars.

He explained the reasoning behind the exhibition and how they had allowed their untethered imaginations to follow ‘eco’ ideas to see where ever they might lead. In my opinion these ideas were masterfully realised on the presentation boards. One of the schemes was his, he talked engagingly about its concept- some kind of city under the melting snow of the Alps. I was hoping the practice of Architecture- the mundane, orthodox force of consumer need- wouldn’t smooth the edges of his invention.

Somewhere, North, South, East or West I sat down to listen to a debate on Well-being. It was an idea that was trying to become a movement and had the eloquence of a seriously developing political party. The all-encompassing aim was to make Well Being a policy, a strategy that had to be considered at the outset of any project. It managed to align itself with the predominant neo liberal thinking of our age by selling its way of life as a means to be more productive. I felt they weren’t concerned about the direction production was taking us more the manner in which we engage with it.

By this stage I’d been there for 9 hours but felt I’d only scratched the Eco build surface. It was time to get back on my bike and see where the infrastructure would take me.

On leaving what must be one of the largest tents in Britain I was reminded of a documentary about the Vietnam War.  According to the film the Americans were defeated by logistics. They landed with an enormous war machine, the very latest equipment, they even brought with them massive pre- fabricated buildings with Cold Rooms containing tons of shipped in meats. The victors, the Viet Cong, on the other hand moved their weapons and resources around the hilly, wooded terrain by bicycle and lived off the land.

There are some fantastic changes going on in the building trade and many committed experts searching for green solutions but when it comes to lifestyle changes it looks like we’re stuck on a road to nowhere.

Some descriptions of the urban landscape were inspired by Rupert Griffith’s ‘Re-imagining the margins: the art of the urban fringe’. Images were also taken by Rupert Griffith.