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