Eric Reynolds, Creative Regenerator
Eric Reynolds has statuesque presence – a tall man with strong features and beady eyes – he is someone who is transfixing when he walks into a room, though I doubt if he is aware of it because he is so wrapped up in his chosen purpose. You must understand that Eric is a man who has got schemes, they are his mission and his life, as I quickly discovered when I paid him a visit recently. Alive with thoughts,while striding up and down his office in a steel container at Trinity Buoy Wharf, overlooking the Thames and the Millennium Dome opposite, he demonstrated a restless intelligence, a caustic humour and a natural authority which led me to conclude that if I were ever to contemplate going into battle, I should want Eric Reynolds to lead the charge.
Trinity Buoy Wharf with its sympathetic mixture of old buildings put to new uses and inspirational contemporary architecture constructed of recycled sea containers is the most recent of Eric’s urban regeneration projects that have changed the face of London over the past thirty years. Others include originating the markets at Camden Lock and on the South Bank at Gabriel’s Wharf, while in the East End he is remembered as the man who created the new market in Spitalfields when the fruit & vegetable market moved out. The dog shows, the model train and the opera house which Eric brought in are all recalled today in Spitalfields as fond examples of the exuberant idiosyncrasy and imagination that he brought to the rebirth of the market.
Eric told me that the new owners, the Spitalfields Development Group, hoped they could simply demolish the nineteenth century market when the fruit & vegetable traders left in 1991, but once they discovered this was not an immediate option, he was approached to create a proposal for the vacant four and a half acre site. “It was absolutely clear, when they moved out, that the City Corporation did a great job because they left the market clean, and just one person overlapped the two managements, Bill the security guard, who lived in the market in one of the flats. I remember the first day I went to pick up the keys and make a survey, it was a Saturday, and Bill and his wife took pity on me, inviting me into their flat for a cup of tea because nothing opened around there on a Saturday, everything was closed.”
“The first thing I did was to draw a one mile circle around the Spitalfields Market on a map and make sure we had ways to reach all the people within the circle. My policy was to tread lightly upon the ground, not break anything I didn’t have to break, leave room for other people to be involved creatively, and recycle hard – try to create a place that related to its location. We had to make it so that people of all ages would want to go. We launched things like the Alternative Fashion Market and the Organic Market, a long time before they did it at the Borough. Over four years of steady refurbishment, we got most of the shops open, as well as creating the sports pitches, the opera house and the swimming pool. We got artists to paint all the dark shutters with flowers and fruits. Eventually two thousand people worked there and we ended up with a successful living market.”
Eric sees 1994 as the apogee of this period of the market, when the place flourished with an authentic vigorous life that had a momentum all of its own. And many have affectionate memories of this time in Spitalfields, when community events co-existed alongside sporting contests and concerts, when the place was full of artists’ studios, when a model train ran round the perimeter, when hot food of all kinds could be bought from scruffy wooden huts and Roland Emett’s glorious fountain was the centre of this crowded hubbub, which became a meeting place where everyone enjoyed an equal sense of ownership.
Yet Eric’s regime was always contingent and his contract ended when the redevelopment and partial demolition of the old market commenced. There is quite a difference of style nowadays and I asked Eric if would characterise it for me. With his tongue in his cheek, “The difference is between corporate management as opposed to fairly hippyish management,” was one way he put it. Another was to say, “It is the difference between property development in a structured way, as opposed to property development as husbandry – more akin to market gardening than bricks and mortar.”
“I was very sad that it was decided to knock half the place down because these temples to food will never be built again,” confided Eric with a grimace of regret. Today he is evangelical for what he terms “human scale less-capital-intensive development” which means adapting buildings to suit new purposes rather than scrapping them. He explained to me that the immense increase in the capital value of the Spitalfields Market site since it was rebuilt has now created an imperative to earn a high return on the investment, which means that rents have become expensive, resulting in more chain stores and less independent traders.
When I asked Eric about the legacy of his time in Spitalfields, he proudly cited the pedestrian crossing in Commercial St outside the Ten Bells, because he was responsible for putting it there. One day he saw a wedding party struggling to negotiate the traffic, crossing the road from Christ Church to the Spitalfields Market where the reception was to be held and realised that a crossing was needed. Yet beyond the Eric Reynolds Memorial Crossing, the spirit of his work lives on in all the diverse businesses and markets that have colonised the Truman Brewery and hidden corners of Brick Lane today.
I was both delighted and inspired to meet Eric, looking every inch the pillar of the establishment in a conservative suit, and yet talking the language of liberal subversion and possibility, seeing neglected spaces as opportunities for new manifestations of culture in all its chaotic creative variety. Eric told me about a shopping centre in Manchester that shut down recently, which he is being asked to regenerate. “I’m taking a shopping shed and recycling it into football pitches!” he announced – his eyes gleaming with anarchic glee – proposing an appealing vision of what could happen one day everywhere when all the shopping malls die.
Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas- Menzies