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Designing for London: Joe Morris

I’m as much a surgeon as an architect, scalpelling through terraces, cleaning out the arteries of canals

Joe Morris is co-director of Duggan Morris Architects, an emerging practice committed

to the delivery of architecture through a proactive and intelligent engagement with clients and context. The firm’s work covers a broad spectrum of sectors, from specialist sports facilities to high-specification office fit-outs. Morris has also taught at UCL, and is a member of several design review panels.

What is the traditional image of England’s countryside, and which stereotypes persist in our understanding of its role in our culture and industry? For me, the image conjured up has the soft golden glow of hazy days spent in woodland glades. It’s an image influenced not by my rural upbringing, but by a reproduction of John Constable’s painting The Hay Wain, which gathered dust over my parents’ mantelpiece during my childhood.

Constable’s picture, completed in 1821, depicts a stretch of the River Stour deep in England’s countryside, bordered by Suffolk in the foreground and Essex in the distance of his frame. At first glance, the painting fits perfectly with the stereotype described above, with its rolling fields, meandering rivers and oak trees. But, look again and this image begins to reflect a subtle reading of what the contemporary countryside is actually about – namely a man-made territory of agriculture and industry, represented by the mill and the idiosyncratic worker cottage in the painting.

Switch now to the present day and Walthamstow Marshes in East London’s Upper Lea Valley. The view is remarkably reminiscent of Constable’s back catalogue, with all the constituent parts present: fields, rivers, mills, horses and lakes. However, what is evidently different between The Hay Wain and a view of present-day Walthamstow Marshes (apart from the obvious) is how the contemporary working landscape no longer offers distant, unbroken views of the horizon. Instead, an amazing yet peculiar range of juxtapositions have emerged: warehouse on canal on nature reserve; school on culvert on refinery. The geographic opportunities and obstacles along the edge of Walthamstow Marshes have created a space which is wondrous and expansive, yet concealed and inaccessible.

Once you pass from the City into Walthamstow Marshes, you are immediately struck by the network of embankments, railway arches and bridges that divide the park into pockets of land. Some areas are open and public. Others are inaccessible and wild, where elevated train routes collude with canals and rivers to hold the park in check. Consequently, we could see these pockets of Walthamstow Marshes as rock pools, each pool unique and supporting a range of activities including sports, farming and agriculture, industry, leisure, walking and nature conservation, rather than a single blanket of autonomous green field.

The marshes are both wondrous and expansive, and concealed and inaccesible

In response, my role has emerged as the architect/surgeon, splicing and cutting terraces, peeling back and unearthing substrata, and cleaning out the arteries of canals and paths sufficiently to impart a subtle but readable change, rather than a wholesale reinvention.

As for what all this means, I have been trying to illustrate how I see the potential for the area, which aspects could be read differently, and which activities could take place on the various new thresholds formed by the surgeon’s mega-scalpel.

What is important in all these imaginings is that the industrial context of the locality is extremely evident and potent. Examples include a lido in the refinery on Coppermill Lane, a ride in a gondola on a chocolate river, and the subtle simplicity of a weed breaking through a crack in the pavement.

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