A mirror-polished silver box stands proudly on a corner of the Greenwich Peninsula, reflecting a curious new world of architectural experiments. To one side wriggles a transparent caterpillar of a building, with clear plastic stretched around a bright yellow frame, forming a space-age chrysalis. Next door stands a veiled stack of raw concrete floors, the bare bones of a building draped with a ghostly shroud of steel netting, giving it the look of a multistorey aviary. Nearby there is a sturdy, low-slung box covered in rusty panels of Cor-ten steel, and a little tower-like block wrapped in a corduroy cloak of slender white tubes. Elsewhere in the menagerie we find a pair of triangular wedges dressed in harlequin costumes of pink and green terrazzo diamonds, and several other creatures whose exotic plumage has yet to emerge from behind the scaffolding.
Souk … a CGI impression of the Design District. Photograph: Design District
This gaudy eyeful is the new Design District, a planned “creative quarter” at the heart of the Greenwich Peninsula in London. Opening in phases over the coming months, it is intended to provide affordable workspace for around 1,800 people across the fields of fashion, food, tech, craft and more. With eight architects each charged with designing a pair of buildings, it is an eclectic zoo of structures, the self-consciously funky vibe intended to lure creative types across the river from Shoreditch – along with the £5/sq ft rents for the first year.
The Design District is the brainchild of image-conscious developer Knight Dragon, a company backed by Hong Kong billionaire Henry Cheng Kar-shun, which has been leading the £8.4bn development of the peninsula since 2012. It is touted as one of the biggest regeneration projects in Europe, with 17,500 homes and 70,000 square metres of office space across the 80-hectare site, and towers of up to 36 storeys, realising the Millennium project around the former Dome, more than 20 years on.
So far, a history of different masterplans has created a disjointed place where grim glass cliffs of investment flats march down one edge of the peninsula, forming a defensive battery alongside the dome – now the O2 – separated by a gulf of car parks from the more affordable housing at the other end of the site. Spanish superstar Santiago Calatrava was shipped in to add a sprinkle of fairy dust in 2017, but his £1bn cavorting trio of towers has since been scrapped, deemed to be one costly step too far. A sorry imitation of New York’s High Line opened here in 2019 in a vain attempt to bring some more footfall, but so far it seems like another piece of redundant novelty infrastructure, joining the empty cable car nearby.
Given this chequered history, what are we to make of the Design District? Is it a cynical exercise to inject some cultural cachet to this commercial wasteland, and pump up surrounding property values? Or is it a genuine attempt to provide low-cost workspace in a city where the creative industries are being relentlessly priced out? The answer is a bit of both.
For all the apparent whimsy, the masterplan itself is surprisingly sensible. It eschews the model of towers on podiums found elsewhere on the site, and instead tries to create a place of alleyways and yards, with smaller buildings at odd angles forming the sense of a piece of city that has evolved over time. At some points the passages between buildings are just three metres wide, intended to give a souk-like air.
“Places that people like are generally messy and designed by lots of different hands,” says Matt Dearlove, head of design for the peninsula at Knight Dragon. “We wanted this to be a place with Marmite moments, where you turn a corner and see something you think is amazing” – he looks out at the chaotic jumble of forms – “or you might have the opposite reaction.”
Mirror-polish … Barozzi Veiga’s completed building, with 6a’s chequerboard design alongside, and the ‘caterpillar’ food hall by SelgasCano taking shape left. Photograph: Taran Wilkhu
In a game of architectural consequences, the designers were each given the same brief and asked to work blind, without knowing what their neighbours were plotting. The buildings had a fixed footprint, a maximum overall size, and a three-part structure: a ground floor for workshops and cafes; a first floor for “desk-based creatives”; and a light-flooded top floor suitable for artists or photographers.
We wanted this to be a place full of Marmite moments
“It was an odd way of designing,” says Tom Emerson of 6a, architects of the harlequin wedges. “We had no context to work with. It was quite refreshing, because the buildings became about their own internal logic, rather than being endlessly responsive to other things.”
The result is 16 mini manifestos, a place that feels like flicking through an architectural magazine of the latest trends, a tiny expo of ideas. While the combined effect might result in indigestion, even the most hard to please should find at least one building they like.
The first to open this month is the mirror-polished box, by exacting Spanish-Italian duo Barozzi Veiga. Home to the new Institute for Creativity and Technology of Ravensbourne University, it stands as an abstract idea of a warehouse, a shimmering chimera of a factory, with supersized industrial windows distorting the sense of scale. Finished in highly reflective aluminium as changeable as London’s skies, it has the air of a piece of precision computer hardware, making a fitting place for Ravensbourne’s experiments in the future of tech. The architects’ other building will be a black-clad doppelgänger, forming an enigmatic counterpoint at the far end of the site.
‘Raw and open’ … a CGI impression showing Architecture 00’s rooftop basketball court. Photograph: Design District
Across the way stands the veiled stack by Architecture 00. Their diaphanous shroud rises to enclose a rooftop basketball court, with views of Canary Wharf providing an exhilarating backdrop – along with the feeling of playing on a roof with no discernible balustrade. It is the clever result of maximising the net internal area down below, by pushing all the staircases and landings to the outside of the building, winding their way up the facade in a theatrical route behind the mesh. The spare cash from this efficient configuration paid for the rooftop court – which will be open to the public.
“Buildings show their potential when they’re not complete,” says 00’s Lynton Pepper. “So we’ve tried to keep it as raw and open as possible. You can come out at any point and walk around the deck, with no balustrade because of the mesh.” Their second building follows a similar logic, with external decks that expand at different points to allow space for outdoor working. They imagined these as messy places for cutting, painting and drilling, but the building will now be home to laptop nomads of the Bureau co-working club.
In contrast to 00’s gritty concrete and steel comes a full-on PoMo revival from David Kohn. Channelling James Stirling’s 1987 Clore Gallery at Tate Britain, his pair of buildings feature bright green square grids contrasting with red bricks, colonnades of fat columns, and a jaunty rooftop sign. Taking inspiration from historic guildhalls, Kohn persuaded Knight Dragon to include plinths and niches for figurative sculpture on the facade, which will hopefully be added over the coming months to reflect the range of tenants and what they produce. “Throughout the history of architecture there have always been many hands involved,” says Kohn. “I’m interested to see what happens when you relinquish control.”
PoMo revival … David Kohn Architects’ design. Photograph: Design District
After years of working on subtle renovations of historic structures, 6a Architects are also clearly enjoying a neo-PoMo moment. In a similar vein to their recent Milton Keynes gallery, their contribution here brings a loud graphic pop, with supersized terrazzo diamonds running across the facades like jazzy wrapping paper.
“We were really interested in the flatness of commercial construction,” says Emerson, whose work has mainly comprised projects for artists and galleries until recently. “Everything is made up of these flat layers, so you end up with a very smooth world – which can be awful. But we wanted to see what we could get out of it if we really went for it.” Inspired by the super-flat Formica sculptures of American artist Richard Artschwager, they have played with the banality of proprietary systems, with oversized spiral ductwork and big cowls forming canopies over the doorways. Inside, pink fireproof plasterboard has been left exposed, and breezeblock walls simply painted to match the red and pink facades.
There are other intriguing things in the making by Mole, Adam Khan, HNNA (who also did the masterplan) and Spanish firm SelgasCano, architects of the 2015 Serpentine Pavilion, whose writhing plastic caterpillar will soon be a food hall, with market stalls operating among lush greenhouse of tropical trees sprouting from a mezzanine level.
The architectural fashion show is entertaining, but its true success will come down to assembling the right mix of tenants, ensuring this is indeed a place of making and not just more acres of co-working space. People must be allowed to make a mess. The district’s director, Helen Arvanitakis, says the idea is to create a “self-sustaining ecosystem”, where a fashion designer hires the photographer next door to shoot their collection, and the start-up sauce company works with the graphics studio to design its packaging, with mock-ups printed by the repro house downstairs. Confirmed tenants so far range from sneaker design studio Concept Kicks and music PR firm Brace Yourself, to LGBTQ+ art space Queercircle and Love Welcomes, a social enterprise using craft to help refugee women.
Intriguing … work under way at Greenwich. Photograph: Taran Wilkhu
Arvanitakis says bigger businesses are also being targeted, such as advertising firms “who will pay top dollar to be around the young creatives”, with a “blended” rent model that will see the fat cats cross-subsidise the fledglings. She says the intention is for the district to be affordable “in perpetuity”, although the deal with the Greater London Authority, which owns the land, mandates a 10-year period, after which the affordable area can be reduced to 25%.
Whatever its long-term fate, the district is shaping up to be a welcome effort to go beyond business as usual, hiring the kind of architects who might not otherwise get to work on hard-nosed commercial projects. We can only hope that the sense of ingenuity and fun they have brought spreads to the sprawling hectares of the rest of the site – and that this doesn’t end up being an elaborate marketing exercise surrounded by the usual bloated luxury towers.
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