The dogs bark, and the Caravanserai moves on …. to London’s Docklands

The word “Caravanserai” makes me want to tell a story.

About brightly painted Asian lorries, dusty air, shouting and the everlasting brewing of chai. About camel trains heading along the Silk Road, in a mysterious land somewhere north of Samarkand.

Many years ago, I stayed in a couple of such untidy places in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. They smelled of engine oil and dusty blankets, from which I collected some impressive fleabites.

Now scrap all that travel writer baggage, and let’s reinvent the Caravanserai for here and now.

Most Asian Caravanserais are set at the crossroads of ancient trade routes and have been there for centuries. Yet they still they have a temporary look about them, as if they’ll soon be blown away by a sudden sandstorm or a drone attack. They’re improvised, as if waiting for something more permanent to take their place while the landscape shifts around them.

Stripped down, they’re just places where people meet to eat, drink, swap traveller’s tales, and sample the local culture as they pause on their way from here to somewhere else. Before they were homogenized by global chains, every local coffee shop had its own Caravanserai characteristics.

And all this pretty much describes the Canning Town Caravanserai – minus the camels and painted trucks. And you’ll have to relocate your imagination all the way from Samarkand to the Royal Docks of London’s still-a-bit gritty east end.

For a brown plateau in central Asia, take a brownfield site in east London. For an improvised look and feel, take the architectural concept of “meanwhile” – a legal status allowing short-term public use of land earmarked for later commercial development. And for a crossroads, how about one of London’s (temporarily) busiest “trade routes” – which this summer will carry hundreds of thousands of visitors between the Olympic Games sites?

Put together, these ideas underpin the Caravanserai concept developed by UK architects Ash Sakula, and friends. Lying on the route between the main Olympic site at Stratford and the ExCel Centre, (which will host several events for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games) is a piece of “dead” land undergoing transformation into a community project with a five-year lifespan. It’s not far from the Canning Town bus, metro and light rail station and is one of three interesting transformation projects with a storytelling twist.

London’s mayor Boris Johnson and the mayor of Newham borough awarded one of three “meanwhile” sites to the Ash Sakula consortium of architects and social entrepreneurs, to show what they could do to create a vibrant public space. There’s to be an adaptable, open courtyard, surrounded on all sides by busy shops and production spaces where innovative and sustainable business ventures are invented or re-imagined. The space will have multi-coloured funky corrugated covering, thanks to a manufacturer trying out new vinyl stuff.

The Caravanserai will consist of protected public squares enclosed by “pods” used by local community groups, artists and entrepreneurs: artisan and craft workshops, repair and up-cycling workshops, beauty kiosks, food stalls and cafes. The Caravanserai will host a rich program: neighbourhood feasts, “nurturing nature” gardens, performances, workshops, skills exchanges and apprenticeships for local young people.

The Children’s City will be built together with children and school groups, giving children an opportunity for exploratory, adventurous and open-ended play. Out of school hours it will allow parents to socialise whilst their children play.

This welcoming oasis will be hosted by locals, yet open to all visitors. For five years it will explore and prototype new local employment opportunities, cultivating vital cultural and economic legacies for Newham. There’s an enthusiastic army of construction students, architecture graduates, multi-skilled volunteers and sustainability types all doing their thing and ready to build  the temporary structures.

One of the key building blocks in all this, is story.

Just as truck drivers nightly squat around the fire in “authentic” central Asian Caravanserais to trade stories of risk, rumour or opportunity, so stories are going to play a vital role both in the genesis and the operating success of the Canning Town project.

The project has hosted community events to harvest stories and aspirations from Canning Town residents, asking them to doodle, sketch and or simply tell the story they want to build at the Caravanserai.

Trading stories is how we build communities. It’s how we harvest authentic information that leads us to recognize values and culture. So the locals will need to tell their stories to the passing Olympic tourists. Those running the cafes and shops and open spaces will need to have their Caravanserai stories ready.

And – very possibly, there’s a “success story” in the making for local authorities wanting to reconcile the needs of community and the relentless march of the urban planners.

Thinking about it, “meanwhile” could even become the main event in Canning Town. Well, at least for a few precious years after the dogs have barked again,  as the Olympic caravan moves from London onwards to 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

©2012 Richard House