Greenwich Design District review – a lesson in how to make somewhere out of nowhere

·5-min read

There once was an area in Singapore – Bugis – which, its trans nightlife being disturbing to the orderly minds of Singapore’s powers that be, was (in the 1980s) swept away. Belatedly realising that they had removed a major tourist attraction, they then constructed a faint and not-trans simulacrum of its bygone vibrancy, with an array of small restaurants offering a varied range of cuisines. The only thing was, those apparently individual and diverse outlets were served by a single giant kitchen that delivered their orders by conveyor belt.

The Design District at Greenwich Peninsula, east London, which opened to the public last week, is trying to do something similar with architecture. Here, a single developer, Knight Dragon, and a single contractor, Ardmore, are delivering a managed jumble of 16 buildings by eight different architects with a contract value of £56m. The idea, says the Design District’s director, Helen Arvanitakis, is “to build a community who can connect with each other … a totally fantastic ecosystem” where 1,800 “creatives” will work. They want to make a “piece of city”, based on examples in Tokyo, London’s Clerkenwell and “Moroccan souks”, that is intimate and intriguing. They want to make the kind of place that is usually the work of many hands over decades and centuries, all in one go. Amazingly, it shows every sign of working.

Certain views of the O2’s structure must, like the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, be preserved

The peninsula is the site of a former giant gasworks whose decontaminated soil has been drenched, this past quarter-century, with public money. There is the Millennium Dome, now the O2, and the handsome North Greenwich Jubilee Line station. There is Boris Johnson’s fatuous cable-car-cum-petrostate-promotion, the Emirates Air Line. The stated aim of all this investment has always been regeneration of the 150-acre site. Which, much of it in the form of serried ranks of apartment blocks that will eventually house 40,000 people, is gradually taking shape.

The Design District sits close to the O2 and the tube station, a prime spot where you might expect to see a forest of lucrative towers. But the current masterplan for the peninsula requires that certain views of the O2’s structure must, like the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, be preserved. This means that the district’s buildings cannot rise above four storeys. So Knight Dragon made an opportunity out of their problem: by making a cluster of small buildings, they hoped to attract the sort of creative businesses that, while not paying high rents, bring energy and kudos to a neighbourhood. “Creative”, here, has a broad meaning: the activities of signed-up tenants run from leather-working to music management to website design.

The urban design practice HNNA produced a masterplan, in which the straight lines that characterise much of the peninsula’s layout are interrupted by quirky angles. Blocks are close together – sometimes as little as three metres apart, which regulations permit in commercial buildings but not with residential projects. Courts and yards were created, in which it might be possible for designers to bring their work outside, to vape, to hang around and share ideas.

Knight Dragon gave each of their architects two plots to play with, of similar sizes and briefs, and asked them to draw up designs without knowing much of their neighbours’ projects. Their choice of practices was judicious, from the serious-playful end of the profession: people who think scrupulously about the job in hand, but then try to generate joy and surprise from the facts of construction. Thus David Kohn Architects designed “miniature glowing palazzi”, inspired by both Venice and American roadside structures, in which green-framed glass boxes sit on top of rows of oversized red columns. Mole Architects refer to the area’s gas-working history: one of their buildings is clad in rusty metal reminiscent of an old gasholder; the other has a dichroic skin – which means it changes colour with the direction of the light – that evokes the blue-orange shimmer of a gas flame.

6a architects drew inspiration from the artist Richard Artschwager, who made beautifully crafted objects out of the supposedly trashy material of Formica, patterned with wood grain, or piano keys, or moustache motifs. Here, 6a’s designs make giant harlequin patterns out of the thin cladding materials of typical commercial construction, and make oversized gutters – their equivalent of Artschwager’s moustaches – into near-comical features. Architecture 00 wangled a basketball court out of their budget and brief, on the roof of one of their concrete structures.

There’s variety in spaces – high attic studios beneath sloping roofs; a serene and airy cafe interior by Roz Barr Architects; external stairs on Architecture 00’s blocks that enable users to see and be seen. There are the promised courtyards. There are oblique views and striking juxtapositions, both by accident and design. In the middle of it all is the Canteen, a bulgy, translucent walk-in caterpillar, its interior all sunshine and greenery and yellow metal, by the Madrid-based architects of the 2015 Serpentine pavilion, SelgasCano.

It could all amount to confected spontaneity, a Potemkin bohemia, a “petting zoo”, as one of the architects involved puts it. It should also be noted that, compared with the colossal size of the peninsula as a whole, the Design District is modest. Its scale is equivalent, relatively speaking, to the abstract sculptures in the plazas of 1960s office blocks. It is a clever version of the big baubles that go with modern mega-developments, such as Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel structure at Hudson Yards in New York.

But the Design District has wit and spirit and intelligence. It has charm and energy and intrigue. There are some straightforwardly good decisions, about the scale and lighting and relationships of spaces. And Knight Dragon have been smart enough not to dumb down their architects’ intentions. Collectively, the developers and architects pull off the difficult task of making somewhere out of nowhere. What would now be really fabulous would be to apply similar qualities to redevelopment of the peninsula as a whole.

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