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