Canning Town Caravanserai

The Canning Town Caravanserai was a five-year occupation of a vacant site in east London. Ash Sakula won the project in a competition held by the Mayors of London and Newham in preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games. 

Conceived as a place of succour and exchange, we described the project as a Caravanserai after the inns that lined the ancient silk-trading routes through Asia and Europe. These hostelries were lively meeting places, where travellers sought refreshment, shelter and entertainment, and traded goods, knowledge and ideas.

Behind high blue construction hoardings, Ash Sakula gave life to a wonderland built with waste. On this temporary campground of structures, gardens, field kitchens, market stalls, workshops and performance space, absolutely everybody was welcome to come and make, grow, trade and perform. Tea vans mixed with art workshops, food stalls flourished, allotments blossomed and children played with sand, while students turned wooden pallets into structures and furniture. 

After five years the Caravanserai was dismantled. Its site now forms part of Canning Town's new town centre.

Read more about the concept of modern caravanserais over here.

The various structures and elements of the Caravanserai, ranging from market stalls to covered stage, children's playground to café caravan, palm tree to banqueting table, were built incrementally, using volunteer labour and scavenged material. Over the years, the site transformed from an empty waste ground into a living village, where something was always happening.

The Flying Carpet Theatre was the largest single structure. Its roofing was an innovative material formed from incorporating sari fabric into the rolling process of profiled translucent grp sheeting.

A general view of the Caranvanserai.

Flitched was a covered multi-purpose shed used for making, meeting, events, exhibitions, performances and weddings. We held a competition requiring joint entries from an architect and an engineer who each would make the other stronger, just as in a flitched beam sandwiched from timber and steel, the timber stiffens the steel, the steel strengthens the wood.

The competition rules required entrants to use only a defined list of materials based on those available on site. Particularly challenging was creating long-span structures from small pieces of material.

The competition was won by Tina Patel, architect, and Roberto Mirabella, structural engineer, and built with volunteer labour.

Aerial view of the Caravanserai identifying the components that made up its final state.

North gate of the Caravanserai.

Ash Sakula drawings photos
Ash Sakula drawings photos
Ash Sakula drawings photos
Ash Sakula drawings photos

An Ash Sakula self-initiated project

Competition Team: EXYZT, Space Makers, Community Links, The Kindest Group, Technology Will Save Us, Wayward Plant Registry, Atmos, Building Crafts College

Live Project: 2011-2015

Roof of the Flying Carpet Theatre. Its roof incorporated patterned sari fabrics, rolled into profiled grp.

One of the two gates.

Caravanserai meeting.


Constructing the community garden's raised planters.

A feast at The Longest Table in London - with its own roof.