Raising the Bar

Pankaj Patel, of Patel Taylor, is an award-winning architect whose vast portfolio includes projects ranging in size from city planning to private residences and “everything in between”. At Wood Wharf, he has designed two residential blocks, a community sports hall, a primary school and a health centre. For him, it wasn’t just about giving people somewhere affordable to live, it was about building a community.

When we took on this project, we weren’t interested in just building homes. We wanted to build a community. We wanted to create a hub, that everyone could enjoy. And I don’t just mean the affordable housing community. I mean the whole community at Wood Wharf.

But how do you build a community? The simple answer is outdoor space. It must be rich in nature as well as amenities. In other words, it’s about giving people the feeling of being connected to the area.

So, we designed the buildings around a large open space through which people can walk, linger and enjoy. It must be a place where they can read a book or go jogging, walk their dog, do tai chi, play frisbee or lay down jumpers for goalposts. Then they might be able to sit down outside a café or a nice bar and people watch, like you do when you go on holiday. These are the things that turn a space into a community: the good things in life.

But a community is not a community if it isn’t sustainable. It has to last. And I always say there are two things a development must sustain if its community is to last: your spirit and your comfort. It needs to be rich in character, offer views of, say, a lovely square, garden, water frontage, nice trees or of any of the other things that make London brilliant. Then it’s about having a nice entrance, a nice staircase where you can chat to neighbours. It mustn’t have long corridors so you feel like you’re in a hotel. And it must have good insulation so you don’t have to listen to noisy neighbours.

You see, London has long had a problem with affordable housing. London grew up through the Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian eras. Then came the war and the bomb damage. So, in the 1960s, they decided to clear huge sites and build affordable housing schemes.

It started so well. Before, people had been living in tiny streets with toilets outside and so on. So the vision these architects had was to stack them up, add a lift, create a big green space for the kids to run around on and for people to enjoy. For the first time, poor people had cleaner air and fantastic views of London.

The problem, though, was the fact that the rest of London looked completely different. So the estates stuck out like sore thumbs. They became spaces at which Londoners could point and say, “That’s where the poor people live.” They weren’t integrated with the rest of the city. It became a case of “us and them”. And separation breeds social anxiety and division.

The second problem was safety. Inside the estates, the open spaces were not well-lit. And, because there was usually only one road in and out of these housing estates, youngsters would race cars or cause trouble. Everywhere were lockup garages, tunnels and alleys that people could hide in.

In other words, it was all very well going up in the air, but it left little consideration for how people actually live and behave in a city, especially if you put them in a dark space.

That’s why, at Wood Wharf, we’ve lined the development with uses – retail plots, a school, a leisure centre. Crucially, when you walk around, you won’t be able to tell what’s affordable and what’s private. All flats will look the same, with the affordable and private flats enmeshed together.

We want every single resident, be they in private or affordable, to feel part of the wider community. We don’t want micro-communities, with the affordable housing squeezed out to the edge.

In fact, the main block will be the first of its kind in London. There isn’t a building in the capital that has retail, a school, a health centre, a leisure centre and mixed-use residential all in one. That’s never been done before. And I’m very excited to see how people respond.

Affordable and sustainable housing is not the sexiest discipline in architecture. But that’s not why we do it. It’s not about me, my ego or about the form or scale of the building. It is about the vibrant uses that this building will sustain in the community.

You see, once our job is done, we pass the baton on. Then, it’s up to the residents to sustain it, to develop the community and thrive in it.

The best compliment an architect can receive is not an award or a great review. Although those are always nice. No, it’s when someone says, “I want to live here.” It’s when people move into the home you’ve created and flourish in it. I hope Wood Wharf will become a magnet for people from all over the area for generations to come. That, for me, is what’s really exciting about my job.

Interview by Matt Blake

Twitter @mattblakeuk

Connecting the Capital

Crossrail Place – the first building for London’s new east-west railway to open – is a momentous architectural achievement. Designed by Foster+Partners, the enormous, seven storey, ship-like building includes more than 100,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 45,000 square feet of green space. Four storeys are submerged under water. Nestled in between Canary Wharf and Wood Wharf, it will also be the primary transport hub connecting Wood Wharf to the outside world. Ben Scott, partner in-charge, is the brains behind the project.

Crossrail Place is a very striking structure, what was your inspiration?
Providing a warm, natural counterpoint to the existing architecture of Canary Wharf, the wooden structure evokes the ships that once sailed into West India Dock. And the enclosed garden is a nod to the Wardian case – a type of timber and glass container used to transport plants to the UK in the 19th century. The ETFE ‘air cushions’ form a canopy to create a comfortable environment, as well as providing a favourable microclimate for some of the plants, which include some of the species that first entered Britain through the historic docks.

What are the challenges of building in or by water?
The building is situated on an incredibly tight site within the waters of the North Dock in Canary Wharf. The construction process was a considerable challenge. The flood capacity of the dock that would have ordinarily been reduced by locating the building within the waters, was kept constant by creating a stepped water feature alongside the building to absorb the displaced volume of water. Another innovative design feature was to use the dredged soil from the excavation in the docks to help protect the structure against the impact of a vessel – a submerged sloped surface was created that means a boat or ship will run aground before it hits the structure.

What do you have to consider when designing green space within a structure?
The immersive rooftop garden at its heart offers London a new vision of urbanscape where nature and urban context complement each other – the organic, natural forms of the planting are juxtaposed against the geometric canopy of engineered timber. Integrating the lush garden into the structure required careful technical design as the weight of the soil and plants, the irrigation, waterproofing and drainage all had to be carefully considered and integrated into the overall design. The partially open roof enables some natural irrigation and ventilation, while also providing sheltered spaces for local workers and residents to enjoy year-round.

Norman Foster has said we are “not as good at big thinking and infrastructure as our Asian counterparts now [but] the Elizabeth Line is one of those magnificent exceptions.” What did he mean by that?
When we were working on the Beijing International Airport – the world’s largest terminal at the time – we delivered the entire building from scratch in just four years. In Hong Kong, a mountainous island was razed completely to create the site for the International Airport. The Elizabeth Line echoes this kind of bold infrastructural vision, connecting London from west to east with a series of high-quality stations that will become magnets for people. The arrival of the Elizabeth Line will support the expansion programme of the Canary Wharf estate and the surrounding area, drawing visitors to use the public facilities and garden and creating a welcoming civic gateway to London’s growing district at Wood Wharf and its surrounding area.

Interview by Matt Blake

Twitter @mattblakeuk

Innovation at the core – Why location is everything when growing a business

Head of Level39 Ben Brabyn is an enthusiastic student of network science; the study of complex networks and the connections among them. Ben’s passion serves him well in his role leading Level39 in supporting more than 200 tech companies in achieving fast growth and scale. Network science, Ben believes, is crucial to the process, with success dependent on access to customers, talent and infrastructure, expert mentors, and a dynamic workspace. Five years after launching the organisation, wholly owned by Canary Wharf Group, Level39 has expanded to occupy 80,000 square feet.

Location, Brabyn believes, is everything, especially when it comes to growing young businesses.

“For us, it’s about creating conditions in which everyone has the shortest critical path to the resources they need. That means access to customers, investors, technological expertise, leadership expertise and all of this wrapped in the most flexible, the most agile, real estate proposition. We measure success by the productivity gains for our tenants or members. The way we do that is by bringing them as close as possible to the best of all those things and providing them with the physical space to grow from startup to scaleup business to global enterprise.”

Members require state-of-the-art infrastructure, and flexibility, but Brabyn says Level39’s tenants have come to expect far more than the usual bells and whistles startup offices provide, with software bringing as much value as hardware.

“What we’re all about is creating an environment where highly ambitious people from all over the world come together to solve economically significant problems because you’re surrounded by people and organisations with global access, big budgets and big challenges. Those things go much deeper than a great coffee machine or canteen.”

The mixed residential community at Wood Wharf will also play a role, as a number of Level39’s companies are focused on financial inclusion, which means that a population made up of different socio-economic levels is like having a test market in your back garden. But Brabyn envisions community integration reaching beyond that of a customer base.

“One of the things we’re looking at is distributing the value our members create to a wider group of people. In other words, Level39 seeks to be a beacon, not only of ambition but also accessibility and inclusion. Innovation represents the great golden thread of our history as well as opportunities for the future. Just as Canary Wharf has reinvented itself from one of the great trading centres of London, to one of the most international commercial centres, it is transforming Wood Wharf into an environment set to foster innovation and growth on a large, inclusive scale.”

Interview by Amy Guttman

Twitter @AmyGuttman1


Shaping the Future

What was your approach to the masterplan of Wood Wharf?
We set out to understand the context – the levels and the amazing waterscape, the old docks and water systems. Wood Wharf is unlike two other projects we masterplanned: the 2012 Olympic park and King’s Cross. Both of those projects had a job to do that was to integrate into an existing urban fabric and make repairs to the city. Wood Wharf is very different because it’s effectively an island connected to Canary Wharf by an isthmus or bridge. So because integration into an existing city structure was not a necessary aim, it allowed a series of freedoms. Here, the context is the urban scale of Canary Wharf and the sheer drama of the waterways surrounding Wood Wharf.

In particular, we wanted to avoid a pompous gesture as a sort of diagrammatic answer to the site’s context, economy and masterplan. The best cities are not made of gestures, but buildings that work together and are workable in themselves.

What are the anchors of the masterplan?
There are three parts: a connector, a perimeter or edge adjacent to the water and then the body of the masterplan itself. The connector is straightforward – that is to join Wood Wharf with Canary Wharf. The first buildings act as a prelude or overture, announcing the kind of place you’re coming to. They reveal something of what is to happen – both in terms of scale and street pattern and structure.

How similar was the process to designing a small city?
It’s similar in that the body of the masterplan is built around the notion of placemaking but not in a picturesque sense – in a way that achieves an understandable legibility that once you’re in the place you know what the most important streets are, what the destinations are and how the place works – exactly as you would within an existing city. So it’s very important that the street patterns and the buildings signal, talk, and reveal the sense of place that you’re expecting to come next, just like walking around other parts of London.

How did you design for the future?
There needs to be certainty in terms of a street layout, but with the buildings, flexibility to change your mind in order to respond to the market with the kinds of buildings they may choose to build. For example, if you can produce a building that is say 45–50m wide by 36–40m deep, it will accommodate most uses. We might do a design for an office and a design for residential to test that and ensure the space is appropriate for both. We tend to produce buildings with spaces that are easy to use – lots of rectangles. You make those rectangles special with the surfacing, depths, layers and elevational hierarchies. Old warehouses, in particular, are incredibly flexible buildings – you can use them for schools, hospitals, homes… they’re very simple, but versatile.

We then looked for common denominators that could accommodate easily developable buildings without compromising the street pattern and indeed, the thing we value highly – the space between buildings – which is, in the end, what makes a city. Those spaces are the parks, squares, recreational areas, gathering places, promenades, the walks, the shortcuts – all the things that make a city, but are invisible in a grand plan.

How did you maximise the surrounding waterways?
Wood Wharf is made up of a series of major buildings – the main generators of activity. Unusually the buildings get taller towards the edge, because they’re near the water. Often, masterplans are more of a pie shape, with the taller buildings in the centre. In this case, it’s almost the reverse: lower in the middle and higher at the edge, to deliberately exploit the views seen from a long distance because of the wide horizon of the waterscape. This produces a composition of buildings along the water’s edge that will be beautiful in itself.


Allies and Morrison

Interview by Amy Guttman

Twitter @AmyGuttman1


The Life of an “Islander”

George Pye, 83, has lived on the Isle of Dogs his entire life. He is, in fact, a fifth generation “islander” and third generation stevedore, or dockworker, having worked at the Millwall & West India Docks since 1960. In short, few people alive know the area and its community better than he does.

The London Docklands run through my blood. Though us locals call it “The Island”. I was born there in 1935, and basically haven’t left since, apart from two enforced absences. One during the Blitz, when I was evacuated to Bristol, and then for two years of national service in 1954.

My father was a stevedore, as was his father before him. So I couldn’t wait to go into the “family business” from the moment I understood what it was. I guess I bought into the hype in the papers at the time that you could make a fortune. This, it turned out, was not the case. But though it may not have made me rich in pocket, I feel very rich in experience.

“We can handle anything at the London dock… including elephants.” That was the Millwall & West India Docks’ slogan. Though, as far as I know, we only ever unloaded one elephant, back in the 1930s. She was hoisted off the boat by crane in a canvas hammock before being trucked off to London Zoo. That was a famous day – even the local paper covered it.

The days would start early. All the stevedores would congregate outside the George Pub for the “call on”. That’s when the foremen would call out the names of the men they wanted to work for them that day. I can remember a lot of pushing and shoving when the good jobs came up. Fights were not uncommon. The rest of the day was then spent loading and unloading whatever the boats were bringing in or taking out that day.

It was a very dirty, messy job most of the time. It was backbreaking, too. Depending on the day, you might be loading sugar, cement, paint, dye, beer, hemp, tea or any other commodity you can think of. Once, I even loaded a military-grade tank onto a boat. That was weird – I don’t remember Britain being at war with anyone in the 70s. But we did it.

But nothing was dirtier, or messier than when the ships carrying seagull poo came in. I never understood why they collected so much of it. I later learned it was for fertiliser, from the islands of the Indian Ocean. And apparently, it was very expensive. They called it Guano. Though to us is was just muck. The worst thing about it: after a long day of bagging and loading bird poo, there was no way you could take the bus home. You had to walk, no matter how far that was. The stink was too embarrassing.

If I could describe island life in one word, it would be “family”. Everyone knew everyone. And we looked after each other. That’s not to say there weren’t arguments. Once, I remember one of the crews got into a row with the governor about overtime. They wanted it, and he said the boat was leaving at 5pm whether it was finished or not. So, to get their own back, they found his Mercedes in the car park, picked it up with a forklift, and loaded it on the boat. By the time the boss came out at 5.45pm, the car was well on its way to Norway. He was not happy. It took him three weeks to get it back.

I used to say that to survive on the Island, you had to be either an athlete or a boxer. I mean, if you started gossiping about someone or their family, you can bet your life that someone in the queue knew the person you were talking about. And it always got back to them. The world isn’t like that now.

You can’t talk about the Island’s community without mentioning the annual Agricultural Festival. It was a celebration of the unique culture of island life. It was organised by the people and for the people. And like many good things, it was never without a few beers.

Its highlight was the “Pram Race”. Don’t be fooled: it was more of a pub crawl than a race. The rules were simple: one person pushes a friend or spouse in a pram from the City Pride to The George, via roughly 24 pubs on the route. In each, the men had to drink half a pint and the women a soft drink. As you can imagine, a lot of pairs never finished. In the early 80s, I even won. But that was mainly because my wife’s friend was the “driver”, so to speak, and I was the “baby”.

This year (2018) will be my 65th year doing youth and community on the island. We might not be planners, but we know what works and we know what the community wants. Fortunately, I think we are being heard. And I hope anyone who moves to the island has as good a time in future as I’ve had in the past… and am having right now for that matter.

Interview by Matt Blake

Twitter @mattblakeuk

Can a building help you live longer?

The working environment has, over recent years, become more important and relevant. Having evolved rapidly, it has become part of the job hunt process – the conditions people work in play a key part in their everyday lives and it must reflect their needs to not only retain talent, but to provide a healthier working life.

It is about creating somewhere where people enjoy going to work, leading to higher productivity levels and in turn making us happier and healthier. In a world that is increasingly health conscious, it makes sense that this is a number one priority for property developers, designers and business owners to dedicate their resources to creating the right spaces for their audience.

A vibrant, open and naturally lit building that encapsulates the needs of its tenants, will most certainly create an atmosphere that will positively affect our wellbeing and help us live longer.

Charlie Green is Co-CEO of The Office Group, a provider of offices, meeting rooms and co-working spaces.

TOG have leased 3 floors of 15 Water Street, designed by Allies and Morrison.