Greenwich Design District Review – A Lesson On How To Create A Place From Nowhere | Architecture
Tthere was once an area of Singapore – Bugis – which, its trans nightlife disturbing the orderly minds of the Singapore powers that be, was (in the 1980s) wiped out. Belatedly realizing that they had done away with a major tourist attraction, they then built a weak, non-trans mockery of its yesteryear vibrancy, with a range of small eateries offering a diverse range of cuisines. The only thing was that these seemingly individual and diverse outlets were served by a single giant kitchen that delivered their orders by conveyor belt.
The Design District of Greenwich Peninsula in 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, deliver a managed jumble of 16 buildings by eight different architects for a contract value of £ 56million. The idea, explains Design District Director Helen Arvanitakis, is to “build a community that can connect to each other… a totally fantastic ecosystem” where 1,800 “creatives” will work. They want to make a “piece of town”, based on examples in Tokyo, Clerkenwell in London and the “Moroccan souks”, that is intimate and intriguing. They want to create the kind of place that is typically the work of several hands for decades and centuries, all at once. Surprisingly, it shows all the signs of functioning.
The peninsula is the site of a former giant gas factory whose decontaminated soil has been sprayed with public money over the last quarter of a century. There’s the Millennium Dome, now the O2, and the beautiful North Greenwich Jubilee Line station. There is the crazy promotion of Boris Johnson’s cable car and oil, the Emirates Air Line. The stated objective of all these investments has always been the regeneration of the 150-acre site. Which, largely in the form of tight rows of buildings that will eventually house 40,000 people, is gradually taking shape.
The Design District is close to the O2 and the metro station, a prime location where you might expect to see a forest of lucrative towers. But the current masterplan of the peninsula requires that certain views of the O2 structure, such as the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, be preserved. This means that buildings in the neighborhood cannot exceed four stories. So Knight Dragon took advantage of their problem: By creating a group of small buildings, they hoped to attract the kind of creative businesses that, without paying high rents, bring energy and congratulations to a neighborhood. “Creative” has a broad meaning here: the activities of registered tenants range from leatherworking to music management to website design.
Urban design practice HNNA has produced a master plan, in which the straight lines that characterize much of the peninsula’s layout are interrupted by original angles. The blocks are close to each other – sometimes as small as three meters from each other, which regulations allow in commercial buildings but not in residential projects. Classes and classes have been created, where it might be possible for designers to take their work outdoors, vape, hang out and share ideas.
Knight Dragon gave each of his architects two plots to play with, of similar sizes and memories, and asked them to draw plans without knowing too much about their neighbors’ plans. Their choice of practices was judicious, on the serious-playful side of the profession: people who think scrupulously about the job to be accomplished, but then try to generate joy and surprise from the facts of construction. So David Kohn Architects designed “shiny miniature palazzi”, inspired by both Venice and US roadside structures, in which green-framed glass boxes rest on rows of oversized red columns. The architects of Mole refer to the history of gas in the region: one of their buildings is clad in rusty metal reminiscent of an old gasometer; the other has dichroic skin – meaning it changes color with the direction of the light – which evokes the blue-orange shimmer of a gas flame.
The architects of 6a were inspired by artist Richard Artschwager, who made beautifully crafted objects from the supposedly trashy material of Formica, in patterns of wood grain, piano keys or mustache patterns. Here, 6a’s designs create giant harlequin patterns from the thin siding materials of typical commercial construction and transform oversized gutters – their equivalent of Artschwager’s mustaches – into almost comical elements. Architecture 00 has pulled a basketball court out of its budget and out of its portfolio, on the roof of one of its concrete structures.
There is variety in the spaces – from high sloping studios under sloping roofs; a serene and airy cafe interior by Roz Barr Architects; exterior stairs on Architecture 00 blocks that allow users to see and be seen. There are the promised courses. There are oblique views and striking juxtapositions, both by accident and by design. In the middle of it all is the Cantine, a voluminous and translucent single-storey caterpillar, its interior all in sun and greenery and yellow metal, by the Madrid architects of the Serpentine 2015 pavilion, SelgasCano.
It could all be made-up spontaneity, a bohemian Potemkin, a “petting zoo,” as one of the architects involved puts it. It should also be noted that, compared to the colossal size of the peninsula as a whole, the Design District is modest. Its scale equates, relatively speaking, to the abstract sculptures of squares in 1960s office buildings. It’s a clever take on the big balls that accompany modern mega-developments, like Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel Structure at Hudson Yards in New York City. .
But the Design District has wit, wit and intelligence. He has charm, energy and intrigue. There are downright good decisions about scale, lighting and relationships between spaces. And Knight Dragon was smart enough not to belittle the intentions of its architects. Collectively, developers and architects are tackling the difficult task of creating a place from nowhere. What would now be truly fabulous would be to apply similar qualities to the redevelopment of the peninsula as a whole.