A New London Design District Celebrates Human Scale, Variety, and Surprise

Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.
Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.
Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.
Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.
Design District, London, aerial view. Image courtey of Zetteler.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

Eight architects have contributed to the creation of a new and colourful design village in a booming development zone by the Thames in London.

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of Zetteler

 

Designers gravitate towards a certain sort of urban neighbourhood, making it hipper as they establish a creative ecosystem and boost local coffee consumption. They usually prefer inner city areas with eclectic architecture, industrial heritage, diversity and emerging street culture, such as the Meatpacking District in New York, Wong Chuk Hang in Hong Kong or Clerkenwell in London. Big new buildings designed for the creative market just don’t have such edge or vitality. However, the Design District, in London’s fast-developing Greenwich Peninsula, manages to be brand new and just as quirky as any established design zone.

 

Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.

 

The big idea to make something different to attract London’s creatives came from the masterplan by Hannah Corlett of HNNA Architects. By specifying 16 different plots in a slightly higgledy-piggledy site plan, and giving eight architects two plots each on which to design whatever they want with minimal constraints, it was felt that a creative village would emerge. Six of the architects chosen were UK-based and all eight are acclaimed, original thinkers who reject formulaic design. When conjuring up their designs, none of them knew what the others were coming up with. The result is a slightly mad, colourful, and very diverse collection of contemporary buildings, set in a mini-maze of passages and small piazzas made by the gaps between them. These in-between spaces are pedestrian public realm, with paving, trees, and lighting masterminded by Copenhagen-based Schulze + Grassov. Seven buildings have been active since opening this summer, and by the end of 2021, twelve will be finished, enabling a working population of 1,800. Already, occupants range from a tattooist to a Swedish electric car maker.

At the heart of Design District is the Canteen, a transparent caterpillar-shaped volume served by independent food outlets. Seating is amongst trees up in the mezzanine, where you feel like you’re inside solid bubbles that have somehow become a long airy greenhouse. Madrid-based architectural firm Selgas Cano have a hallmark style of organic transparent spaces alive with colour and plants, such as at their highly acclaimed buildings elsewhere in London for co-working company Second Home. The Canteen’s colour is yellow, echoing the 100 metre-high yellow support pylons that emerge from the iconic dome of the Richard Rogers-designed O2 Arena, just a two-minute walk away.

The kitchens serving the Canteen are on the ground floor of the adjacent C2 building, designed by Mole Architects. Like their other building, D2, it is built on a timber frame with CLT (cross-laminated timber) floors, giving its construction a far lower carbon footprint than normal steel or concrete buildings. Mole Architects like to have fun with their facades and C2 is clad in diagonal rows of Corton Steel plates while D2 has a corrugated chrome finish that shimmers between shades of green as you walk past.

 

Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.
Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.
Design District, London. Photo by Taran Wilkhu. Image courtesy of Zetteler.

 

Just by their appearance, it’s easy to spot which pairs of buildings come from the same architect. The monumental blocks by 6a Architects are like twins. Both slope inwards on one side, with angled facades carrying a harlequin pattern of stone and two-storey diamond-shaped windows, inspired by the sculptures of artist Richard Artschwager. Barcelona-based Barozzi Veiga’s A1 and D4 buildings are boxes but the former is surfaced in shiny aluminium while the latter, the “Art Block”, designed for artists and makers, is in an uncompromising, stark black. Buildings C1 and D1 are by Architecture 00, and their work spaces are set back in stacked concrete platforms, because all common areas including stairs are pushed out to the exterior. Under a net-covered frame, C1’s roof is a basketball court, overlooking the Canteen and with views to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf on the other side of the river Thames.

The first building siblings many will see as they approach Design District are David Kohn Architects’ two blocks A4 and B4, because one announces DESIGN DISTRICT in outward-facing roof-mounted letters, like pre-war downtown American buildings used to. Both buildings have facades that are part green office curtain wall and part red tile or brickwork, including columns, and they both say “PoMo is back!” PoMo, standing for postmodernism, refers to the whimsical, colourful 1980s architectural style that incorporated historical elements. By contrast, Adam Khan Architects’ one building so far, the concrete box A3, looks strangely conventional, except for its four small yellow balconies. A yellow spiral staircase can be spotted inside, promising internal drama.

 

Design District, London, aerial view. Image courtey of Zetteler.

 

Naturally, Design District’s master planners HNNA would be expected to come up with an exceptional building, and they have in the form of C3. This white shape with a wavy footprint is vertically extruded and metallic tubes run up the facade, helping give the impression that it is higher than it is. It hosts the co-working hub Bureau, where members can hot-desk on the calm top floor under a timber ceiling and double-height windows with views, or chill in two open roof mini courtyards. The fit-out by Roz Barr Architects makes extensive use of natural materials or those composed with high level recycled material. The ground floor has a lounge that immerses you in the womb-like redness of its comfy chairs and sofas, as well as a restaurant looking out on a small plaza. Bureau will also fill the D1 building next door.

Bureau is a brilliant reminder that interiors are at least as important to users as exteriors, and again, different architects have created variety. For example, there is the dark robustness of Barozzi Veiga’s Art Block with its black walls and metal floors. The big, light industrial spaces and skylight of 6a Architects’ twin buildings have a sense of floating in the sky because the angled diamond windows don’t look down to the ground. By contrast, SelgasCano’s almost fruity tropical ambience is bound to characterise the vegetated working floors of their second block, under construction.

Human scale is integral to Design District. No building is higher than five storeys, and the whole one hectare site is just a tenth as big as the footprint of the 02. The variety of buildings, textures, passages, openings, and activities give the district its own psychogeography, that emotional sense of urban places that invites exploration. Designers will love it, but so will anyone who loves the secret life of cities behind the big streets.

 

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