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