Is a collection of inventive architects, including 6a and SelgasCano, enough to create a convincing new area in an emerging part of south east London? Greenwich is giving its new Design District its best shot
On paper, the ambitious, soon-to-complete Design District at North Greenwich sounds like a win-win symbiotic relationship. Tenants stand to benefit from the buzz of being part of an 1800-strong creative community, and the chance to rent enticingly priced new studios designed by some of the best architects of the day. Developer Knight Dragon, on the other hand, stands to gain an energetic focal point to shape the identity, and increase the appeal, of its 61ha Greenwich Peninsula development in south east London.
The ambition has been for a relatively low-rise development of 16 new buildings that together encourage chance meetings and human interaction – a sort of creative souk. But how possible is it to create such a Design District from scratch without the benefit of a natural evolution over time, especially one in a still emerging neighbourhood characterised by high-rise residential towers? And what design approach is best to give this instant new design community the best chance of taking root and flourishing?
After a Covid-precipitated delay, the district is due to complete this summer and launch in September. As a south-east Londoner, I’m particularly keen to find out how it is shaping up, and when I visited with photographer Gareth Gardner on a blustery day in May, the first few of the buildings were already completing. Others were still behind scaffolding, but there were enough tantalising glimpses of the buildings emerging within to get an insight into how it might soon turn out.
It’s worth rewinding to consider the history of the site, which is bounded on three sides by the Thames, and faces the Isle of Dogs in all its Docklands redevelopment glory. Originally marshland, it was drained in the 16th century by Dutch engineers and turned into farmland. Then came the late 19th century industrialisation, which included the largest gas works in Europe, and the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel. A century later, government-led decontamination of the area was followed by regeneration, including the Ralph Erskine-masterplanned Greenwich Millennium Village on a neighbouring site further down the peninsula – and of course at its tip, the Millennium Dome (now the O2). The setting for the latter is now rather crowded by the close proximity of buildings including Foreign Office Architects’ Ravensbourne University, built in 2010. In 2012, the Boris Johnson-backed Emirates Air Line cable car folly joined the increasingly eclectic mix of structures on the Peninsula, followed by high-rise residential and The Tide linear park. The Design District is the latest in this long history of reinvention.
Knight Dragon has been involved since 2013, commissioning a new masterplan of the Peninsula by Allies and Morrison. Among other things, this supplied an opportunity to bring in more residential, and change the employment focus away from the originally planned (but subsequently outmoded) back-of-house server support for Canary Wharf towards creative businesses. All this would also address the poor retention of creative industries in the borough. This led to the Design District concept, which was masterplanned by architect HNNA (formerly Assemblage). The 1ha site is in a prime position at the top of the Millennium Park, and is kept to a maximum parameter height of 25m to protect views of the O2.
It’s certainly easy to find, helped by both the large Design District sign atop one of the buildings and its location close to North Greenwich station at the opposite side of Peninsula Square to the O2. There, beyond the Marks Barfield-designed NOW Gallery, is the Design District, where eight architects – HNNA, SelgasCano, 6a, Mole Architects, Adam Khan Architects, David Kohn Architects, Architecture 00, and Barozzi Veiga – are each designing two buildings from different groups. Flowing around the buildings will be public realm by Schulze + Grassov.
Aiming for a complex piece of city, HNNA avoided the simplicity of just one or a few large buildings and instead identified 16 small sites. These are densely arranged in groups of four around a central square, and with each quartet arranged around its own courtyard. There were no tight design codes – to the contrary and rather remarkably, the designers weren’t told what others were doing, even on adjacent sites, until they had completed the schematic design. Knight Dragon head of design Matt Dearlove says he hopes this will ‘create the moments of serendipity and surprise that you might get over time’. He is comfortable that some buildings might get a ‘Marmite’ reaction.
Rather than responding to context, the architects had complete freedom, beyond the requirement for natural ventilation and a single core, and the idea that the ground floor could be messy and productive perhaps with workshops and heavy machinery, with flexible studio space provided on the upper floors. These are overtly low cost buildings in order to keep rents low enough for creative industry tenants. The hope, according to Dearlove, is for a ground floor that is ‘buzzy, noisy, creative and productive’. Along with Design District director Helen Arvanitakis, he is rather looking forward to when the buildings will be nicely scuffed-up and patinated, rather than pristine.
While the strategy of designing blind seems high risk, avoiding the bland and generic was a priority, and in that respect it has certainly succeeded. Walking down the pedestrianised thoroughfares that thread through the site, the resulting variety of facades is already evident – polished aluminium, corten, brick, concrete, mesh, ETFE, terrazzo. There is a lot going on, to say the least. It could be seen as a cacophonous architectural zoo or a delightful and engaging medley, depending on your tastes. I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt, and putting it nearer to the latter end of the scale.
Entering from Peninsula Square, the eye is immediately drawn to the appealing bulbous form of SelgasCano’s Design District Canteen, with its stretched ETFE skin and steel structure painted a similar yellow to the pylons of the O2. Classified as an external space, and served by commercial kitchens in an adjacent building, this largely opens up at the lower levels to create a well-ventilated food hall that I’m told will be full of foliage.
Even with much still underwraps, the distinctiveness of the buildings is clear and already there is much to engage. A row of fat, round, brick-clad columns inspired, says Dearlove, by Liverpool port buildings, catches the eye – these form the robust base of one of DKA’s buildings, both of which combine heavy masonry plinths with a bright green framed grid of screen-printed glass – a reference to the glass blocks of the Maison de Verre in Paris. Corner niches offer spaces for yet-to-be commissioned art. Like the DKA buildings, 6a’s two buildings have been designed with obvious affinities to each other. Although still under construction when I visited, it was possible to get a good idea of the huge, diamond-patterned sloping façades, and these studios promise to be two of the more memorable of an already memorable bunch. Inside each, the top floor studio space soars to 7.5m high.
In contrast, Mole’s buildings couldn’t be more different to each other in façade treatment. One, a ziggurat form close to the food hall, is clad in Corten weathering steel. Down the other end of the site, Dearlove points out the still mainly swathed iridescent painted facade on Mole’s other building, a reference to the varied flame colours of the gas that once burned on the site.
While just tantalising glimpses of Adam Khan’s monolithic, in-situ concrete were possible, the steel mesh-encased basket ball court/events space on the top of Architecture 00’s gateway building is clearly visible – an additional public function enabled by putting the circulation on the outside of the building.
‘All the studios have amazing views down through the district,’ comments Matt Dearlove, as we walk through the building site. The many distinctive buildings and clear views of the O2 will help navigation throughout the District, although in truth, its small scale means you are never far from its edge, or in any real danger of getting lost. The network of alleyways and courtyards give a porous quality reminiscent of more historic districts of London. With this fine grain of low level buildings and inward-orientation, it presents a sharp contrast to the many high rises lining the riverside of the Peninsula site, and it will be interesting to see whether – and how - the new district may be stitched into the wider context over time.
Much depends on the ability of the public realm to give visual cohesion and a sense of place to this appealing concoction of buildings. This is where Denmark-based urban designer Schulze + Grassov came in, not just designing the public realm itself but writing the brief for how individual buildings should address public areas in terms of their facade design. This includes consideration of the ground floor programming and how views in can be encouraged to give a sense of the creative spirit of the place, as well as greening the facade, and integration of public lighting into the building to avoid the clutter of lighting masts.
Speaking from his Copenhagen studio, Oliver Schulze is clear about his practice’s role. Rather than attempting to be heard as a ninth voice in the already diverse team of architects, he prefers it to be ‘the glue that connects these disparate voices’. To do so, he wants to reinvent the London working yard as courtyards that can be used for messy work, as well as being pleasant spaces to enjoy.
He’s providing the infrastructure for this in the form of large concrete pads that he hopes will soon bear traces of activity. Otherwise, the public realm is characterised by the use of monochrome granite with varied surface textures – smoother in the areas for walking, and coarser closer to the buildings. Generous granite seating is incorporated in ledges, around tree pits, and as individual seating, offset by planting tailored to different seasons.
‘There will be plenty of opportunities to come here and linger,’ he says.
With construction work continuing apace, effort is still required to imagine Schulze’s vision of working courtyards populated by trees, fountains and public benches, cycle parking, and full of busy activity. But he’s so optimistic that the Design District will live up to expectations that he’s exploring it as a location for the practice’s proposed new office in London.
Ultimately, the proof will be in the take-up of space. It is of course a tricky time to be letting space in the wake of Covid-19 and the changes to ways of working that this has entailed. Knight Dragon has sensibly adjusted its leasing to accommodate flexibility – for example those who may want space only for a few days a week. Two buildings are given over to co-working in the form of the Bureau, with interiors designed by Roz Barr Architects. There is also an enticing £5/ft2 rent offer for the first 12 months, and available space ranges from a desk in a serviced office to an entire building. Rents then average out at around £25/ft2, with bigger businesses asked to pay more. Despite the district’s name in large letters, the developer has spread the net to all creative industries – designers and architects may be rubbing shoulders in the lunch queue with dancers, 3D printing specialists, health and wellbeing professionals, lighting, PR, music and many others involved in the support industries around creative businesses.
The district is already 60% let – the adjacent Ravensbourne University has taken the polished aluminium-clad building at the corner closest to the underground station for its new Institute for Creativity and Technology. Designed by Barozzi Veiga, it is one of the first buildings on the site to complete, and is the Barcelona practice’s first in the UK. Other confirmed tenants include independent music brand Brace Yourself and LGBTQ+ art space QUEERCIRCLE.
‘The Design District is hitting a need right now that we see very strongly in all parts of London… Not enough people design specifically for the creative industries.’ says Helen Arvanitakis, director of Design District, adding that a lot of people working in the creative industries already live in the relatively more affordable south east London.
I’m looking forward to coming back when the Design District is complete and up and running, to see how it’s faring. It potentially has a lot going for it in terms of identity, scale, variety and critical mass of creativity. And it’s not too much of a leap of faith to imagine it – occupied and animated as the buzzy creative oasis Knight Dragon is hoping for – helping to fire further regeneration of the surrounding area. The more pertinent question is whether the undoubted merits of this ready made district will be enough to overcome any lingering misgivings about the peninsula location, which still, even after several decades of regeneration efforts, feels a little like pioneer territory.