How Greenwich became the capital’s new design epicentre

·6-min read
 ( Taran Wilkhu)
( Taran Wilkhu)

‘London has lost a lot of its studio space to housing developments and rising prices,’ says 32-year-old Ashley Joiner. He is the founder and director of Queercircle, a charity that supports and champions the work of LGBTQ+ artists and creators. ‘Artists are priced further and further out of the city, or into unsafe environments where no one else would work. Which is why somewhere like here is so amazing…’

Here is the Design District. Comprising 16 buildings, designed by eight world-leading architects, it is London’s first purpose-built ‘home for the creative industries’. We are sipping coffee in the lounge at Bureau, the on-site member’s club. Everything in the room, from the carpet and the modular furniture to the curtains is bright red — ‘Very David Lynch,’ quipped the PR, Rupert, as he showed me in. The feel is pleasantly utilitarian rather than plush but it’s a striking room nonetheless.

Situated near the tip of Greenwich Peninsula, minutes from the O2 Arena and North Greenwich Tube station, Design District is an unashamedly kooky co-working neighbourhood with desk, office and studio space for 1,800 people, a glass canteen shaped like a giant caterpillar and ambitions to become the beating heart of creative London. ‘Rent starts at £5/sq ft depending on the size of the company,’ says Helen Arvanitakis, director of the Design District, and hot desks start at £125 per month. ‘We wanted it to be truly accessible,’ she says.

The master plan for the project was first drawn up in 2015. ‘Even then we were aware that the creative industries are made up of small businesses that find it difficult to commit to long and expensive leases,’ says Kerri Sibson, co-founder and board director of Knight Dragon, the urban redevelopment firm that has been running the project. ‘So the brief to the architects was always very specifically “low cost”,’ she says. ‘Putting fancy finishes and loads of air conditioning would have driven up the rents — we didn’t want that.’ Despite that, none of it feels cheap. As with the Lynch-esque lounge, clean lines, concrete, bright block colours and big windows make for simple but inviting spaces. ‘Untenanted studios can be used to host exhibitions,’ says Arvanitakis. ‘The whole site is primed for use.’

Kerri Sibson (Taran Wilkhu)
Kerri Sibson (Taran Wilkhu)

Queercircle is one of its first tenants and will occupy a gallery, library and fleet of project spaces in a building designed by award-winning London-based architect David Kohn. ‘I was excited by the opportunity to contribute to a new piece of the city,’ says Kohn, ‘and to help create a space specifically for creatives.’ Like all of the buildings in the district, his is full of character: red bricks bisected by an acid green grid sitting atop a red colonnade. Each architect was given two plots and close to carte-blanche over what they could create. Alongside keeping costs down, the only stipulations were that the buildings be no more than four storeys high, to preserve views of the nearby O2 Arena, and that they include a variety of spaces — workshops, studios and desks —appropriate for creative workers.

‘You don’t get many clients like that,’ says Meredith Bowles of Mole Architects, whose two buildings were designed with reducing carbon emissions in mind. One is shaped like a ziggurat and is clad in Corten (a copper-hued, corrosion-resistant weathered steel); the other is a rhomboid ‘with a two-tone colour that changes with the direction of the light’, he explains. ‘One of the big issues for buildings of the future will be overheating so internally we used phase change material [which helps to reduce the energy consumption of buildings by storing and releasing heat], as well as external shutters to keep the buildings cool.’

Imaginative buildings bring whimsy to the new Design District on Greenwich Peninsula (Taran Wilkhu)
Imaginative buildings bring whimsy to the new Design District on Greenwich Peninsula (Taran Wilkhu)

The result is something of an architectural jumble sale. A mish-mash of styles, shapes and materials with narrow walkways between the buildings (some only 3m) that open out on to small squares and courtyards ‘where you can imagine hanging out and meeting people’, says Daniel Bailey, the 36-year-old founder of ConceptKicks, an independent footwear design platform with clients including Nike and Timberland. He has just rented office space in a building designed by the London-based firm Architecture 00. It’s a light-filled concrete construction with external stairways that help to maximise the internal floor space, and with an open-air basketball court on the roof offering views across the river. Like Joiner he’s excited about the potential for collaboration with the other creatives who will populate the district.

‘Cross-pollination of ideas and bringing together creatives from different disciplines was very much at the forefront of our minds when we were designing the layout,’ says Sibson. She points out that many of the offices and studios face each other. ‘You can literally peek into other people’s workspaces; we hope it’ll help foster conversation.’ This has already happened for Joiner, despite the fact that Queercircle has yet to move in. ‘We’re talking to Clod Ensemble about how we can use their facilities,’ he says. The multi-award-winning performance company has taken a dance studio in a nearby building. ‘It’ll mean we can extend our arts and well-being programme to include movement, which is really exciting.’

Daniel Bailey, founder of ConceptKicks (Taran Wilkhu)
Daniel Bailey, founder of ConceptKicks (Taran Wilkhu)

Despite the obvious effort that has gone into the ‘by creatives for creatives’ ethos, a question mark remains over whether one can manufacture a creative district, something that traditionally tends to evolve organically (case in point: Shoreditch’s takeover by the Young British Artists in the 1990s). And really, the Design District is just a small part of a wider regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula, a fresh attempt to breathe life into the 150 acre site that, despite some prodigious investment in the past (including the Emirates Airline and ‘Tide’, the now-abandoned version of New York’s High Line), has yet to shed its reputation as a post-industrial wasteland. The redevelopment, including the Design District, is financially backed by Hong Kong billionaire Henry Cheng Kar-shun. Cynics may well question Cheng’s intentions: why would number 66 on Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index commission and build a design enclave for London’s creatives that, according to Arvanitakis, is not expected to generate a profit?

The answer seems to be that creating a ‘cool’ neighbourhood is the best way to sell more flats. Alongside the District, Knight Dragon is overseeing the construction of high-rise apartments, which will house some 40,000 people. ‘If I asked you why you like living where you do, you’d be unlikely to say “because of the bathroom” or “because of the floor”,’ says Sibson. ‘The actual bricks and mortar is a small part of it — you like where you live because of the neighbourhood.’

As Joiner points out though, does that really matter to the creator whose business is given a boost? Or the artist who can finally access a well-appointed and inspiring studio space? There’s a palpable energy and enthusiasm to the development, despite the fact that much of it is still to be let. ‘Artists deserve more than paying extortionate prices for run-down facilities which are cold, damp and unsafe.’ He argues that the spectre of the ‘struggling artist’ still haunts creative industries, keeping expectations low, much to the detriment of the creators themselves. ‘People think [artistic struggle] is romantic, but in practice there isn’t much romance in it. We deserve to feel valued.’

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