7. Is there any trace of culture in Canary Wharf – and does that matter?

When he heard that the company was moving to Canary Wharf (or thereabouts), an occasional colleague of mine declared it ‘a cultural wasteland.’

To which there are a couple of possible sceptical responses:

1) Is it really?

2) If it is, so what?

Let’s deal with the second one first. Places like Canary Wharf – business districts, financial zones – aren’t traditionally strong on the arts, it’s not what they are there for. I could be wrong, but I doubt if you go to parts of most big cities that house up-to-date bank headquarters, there will be much around them of a cultural nature.

The City of London is an exception, in a large part due to its history – the City was most of London once, and has the legacy of being a place where people lived rather than traded currencies or bonds. (Although fun stuff – what we might call pop culture – was largely exiled to outside the walls or over the river). The legacy is mostly in the form of buildings, not least the dozens and dozens of small, elegant Wren-masterminded churches that are so much better than St Paul’s. Then there are specifically cultural institutions – the Guildhall Art Gallery and the Museum Of London, which is moving but staying in the City and whose site will probably be taken by a new concert hall. And the Barbican, the City’s hugely ambitious, architecturally radical response to the Greater London Council’s own arts complex on the South Bank. It’s a wonderful thing.

So, yes, Canary Wharf is unlikely to match up to the City. But some of London’s other redeveloping quarters are striving to show they have more than offices, chain stores and overpriced flats to offer. The new King’s Cross has the Central Saint Martins almost as a entry point, hopefully setting a tone, plus concert and gallery space sharing a building with The Guardian at Kings Place. Stratford, too, is busy luring higher education to go with what’s left over from the Olympics.

But my colleague probably wasn’t thinking about cultural institutions. I think he meant record shops, book shops, cinemas and  commercial art galleries, plus the backrooms and top rooms of pubs that you can hire to put on a band or for a comedy night or to play some records. And those kind of spaces don’t tend be found amid expensive, new, real estate.

So getting back to question one, what does Canary Wharf have? It has a bookshop, just a branch of Waterstones, but it comes as a relief to find even that alongside the regiments of chain clothes shops down in the Wharf’s retail catacombs. And now there’s a cinema, an Everyman, one of those new art-house cinemas with big comfortable seats and high prices that don’t seem to translate into decent wages for the staff. (I haven’t been there yet – I hear it’s nice). For a less upmarket movie-going experience, there’s a Cineworld five minutes away at West India Quay.

In more formal terms, there’s a lot of sculpture in Canary Wharf’s ‘public’ outdoor spaces. Most of it is, I think, fairly forgettable, but it’s definitely there.


There are also (permanent) works of art in building lobbies you are allowed to walk into, while the lobby of One Canada Square is used to host small exhibitions. Again, the ones I’ve seen aren’t great., but yes, it’s culture. And the Canary Wharf Estate seems quite proud of the fact that it gives local-ish artists a chance to have their pictures on display in the subterranean shopping spaces, like this. I’m not sure how many people notice them.

Shop window gallery

And they put up temporary sculptures for sale, too – this one is called Boardroom Sacrifice:

Boardroom Sacrifice

Each winter, light installations appear all over the Wharf for a couple of weeks. 2017’s had a lot of mediocre stuff in it, but there were a couple of good things – such as the one below – and that’s not a bad hit rate.

Light poppies

There are also these light benches – as far as I have seen, people using the square almost never sit on them, opting for the conventional wooden ones in between.


The Canary Wharf Estate puts on – or, I guess, commissions – other events throughout the year, mostly in outdoor or pop-up spaces or the Winter Garden. I’ve never been to any of these, so I can’t judge them either way, but I have heard decent things about the stuff for kids.

My provisional conclusion, then, is that Canary Wharf isn’t a culture wasteland… but that the CWE mistake chucking money (and maybe effort) at art for achievement. It’s surprisingly plentiful, but not particularly good.  And much like with restaurants and street food, Canary Wharf will inevitably only be importing stuff that has made its reputation in lower-rent, more spontaneous parts of London (fast diminishing as those are) and elsewhere – the nature of Canary Wharf is that little or nothing can be born there. (Mediocre paintings of that stretch of the river notwithstanding).

One of the things that Canary Wharf doesn’t seem to do – apart from the controversial reproduction arch (see post 6) – is heritage. From the photos I have seen, the warehouses on what became the Canary Wharf estate weren’t that interesting, but in any case, the developers went for a tabula rasa.  You could argue you that by doing this they avoided a patronising, waterside kitsch, but it also contributes to the pervasive anywhereness of the Wharf.

Dotted along the rest of docksides (West India Quay, Poplar Marina, the Millwall Docks) are reminders of the days when the main business of this place was the importing and exporting of goods and shipbuilding rather than dealing in currency and derivatives – but there are none at Canary Wharf itself.


And much, much more about the history of living and working around here can be found at what is definitely the cultural strongpoint of the area, the Museum Of London Docklands. Again, it’s not in Canary Wharf, but over a pedestrian bridge on West India Quay, in one of the original 1802 warehouses. The Museum (I keep feeling there should be brackets around the Docklands bit, to make clear this is a branch of the MOL) takes what I would describe as non-Govian view of history, with an unflinching account of how the West India Docks were built with the profits from the slave trade.

It’s a great mix of the stuff people expect from museums that have to educate and entertain schoolkids – interactive displays (I know now for sure I would have a rotten captain of an 18th trading ship) and recreations of the areas by the wharves – with lots of hard facts. From a quick scan – I’m still working my way through the museum – it presents a fairly balanced view of the era of the London Docklands Development Corporation (1981-98), not shying away from local opposition, alternative plans, the (openly) anti-democratic, anti-localist nature of the LDCC… but also (and this is undeniable) the arrival* of over 100,000 jobs in Canary Wharf alone into an area that was struggling after container ships made these docks obsolete.


*Boosters like to say ‘creation’, but many of these jobs existed elsewhere in London before they were shifted to the Isle Of Dogs.


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