Up until the turn of the millennium, Greenwich Peninsula in East London was a noxious swamp long forgotten by the capital. That all changed in 2000, however, with the coming of the Millennium Dome designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership (today Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners). Since then the peninsula has been the go-to place for architectural statement-making. After the Dome opened, the Emirates Air Line cable car from WilkinsonEyre was completed in 2012, while 2017 saw another big name—Santiago Calatrava—touted for bringing a twisting triad of towers there (though plans have since gone back to the drawing board). More recently though, a different approach is being tested; instead of opting for a starchitect to aid the peninsula’s regeneration, eight architects have been chosen to design 16 buildings for a new quarter known as the Greenwich Design District, located just a stone’s throw away from the Dome.
The team comprises six London-based studios: 6a Architects; Mole; Architecture 00; HNNA; Adam Khan Architects and David Kohn Architects (DKA), as well as Spanish studios Barozzi Veiga and selgascano. All have been tasked with designing offices and workspaces for those in the fields of design, art, tech, food, fashion, craft and music. But—and here’s the kicker—neither studio was allowed to see what either one was doing and neither knew what the final use of the building was going to be with exception of one building, a food hall. (One architect told me that iPhone images of projects were, however, shared at the pub).
“We wanted architects who would look at the project through a very individual lens, even though they would work from the same brief,” said Matt Dearlove, head of design at Knight Dragon, the developer behind the project. “We felt they would bring a great sense of individuality to their buildings.”
“The guidance was minimal, but practical,” added Hanna Corlett, the District’s master planner and founding director of HNNA. With the exception of the food hall building, the brief to each architect was the same: Heavy workshops were to be located at the ground floor, with lofty, well-lit studio spaces on the top, and flexible studio spaces between.
The responses to this brief have been varied, as one expects the developer, Knight Dragon, hoped would be the case. Each studio, however, applied a similar language to each building. This is most apparent with 6a’s two buildings, essentially twins, which both employ a sloping, diagrid facade inspired by American artist Richard Artschwager’s “precise surfaces and pop geometry.”
“If you do two buildings and one is better than the other, shouldn’t you just do the better one twice?” said Tom Emerson, co-founder of 6a.
With no immediate context to draw on, David Kohn instead chose the history of European guild districts. Sculptures within niches on the facades of his studio’s two buildings harken back to the guild districts in cities such as Venice and Antwerp where facades would be decorated with symbolic figures related to the organization.
Both of DKA’s building facades face the street on the site’s eastern edge, so a communicative facade was in order: “The northern building would be the first thing people would see upon arriving, so the oversized colonnade on the ground floor offers a welcome visitors to the site, and a large illuminated sign on the roof continues this welcome to the wider city,” Kohn told AN.
Selgascano, meanwhile, took a different approach, albeit still using its signature translucent building skin. Taking center stage in the site is a food hall, which has been shaped like a caterpillar, using a structural metal frame that facilitates the opening and closing of certain parts of the roof. Another adjacent building will provide workspaces for fast-growing businesses.
The Madrid-based firm wasn’t the only one to make use of a translucent façade. Architecture 00 wrapped both of its buildings with a mesh—think the Seattle Public Library, only much smaller. The mesh, in turn, reveals both buildings’ floor plates and stairs and creates a covered sports court at the top of one building.
The Design District’s predecessors, the Dome and cable car, have had mixed reviews—and that’s being generous. The Dome almost failed before it started as politicians threatened critics over bad press. Then it opened and things got worse. “You could blow it up,” suggested Boris Johnson, then editor of The Spectator. However, the Dome has since turned its fortunes around and is known today as the O2 Arena, one of the most popular music venues in the world. Such success is unlikely to come to the Design District, but it should be hope to the eight architects that good design on the peninsula does eventually reap its rewards.