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Docklands defined

As the London Docklands Development Corporation reaches the end of its statutory life, a definitive Pevsner guide to the area is to be launched. London: Docklands, by Elizabeth Williamson and Nikolaus Pevsner (with Malcolm Tucker) is a new venture into pa

During the last 30 years docks throughout the world have declined and closed. The reasons for decline are universal - mechanisation, containerisation, relocation of port facilities and the growth of air transport being the most influential.

The picture is not all gloom: closure has offered the opportunity for redevelopment. Waterfronts previously cut off or polluted have been rediscovered and turned into unrivalled settings for leisure, business, housing, culture and recreation. It was perhaps Utzon's conception for the Sydney Opera House that first showed in 1957 how thrilling the combination of water and daring new architecture could be.

North America and Britain have generally led the way, though Australia, Continental Europe, Asia, and particularly Japan, which in 1996 had 63 developments on redundant port land, have had to tackle the same problems. London Docklands outstrips all these developments in size and ambition.

The London Docklands Development Corporation was entrusted in 1981 with planning jurisdiction over eight-and-a-half square miles of disused docks, derelict industrial land and decaying riverside and given the task by central government of regenerating the area, involving the improvement of the infrastructure and the creation of new jobs and homes. By mid-1997 jobs had increased by 44,800 to 72,000; estimated housing stock by 21,615 to 35,665.

Nowhere in London since the 1960s has there been such a huge amount of new building in such a short time. The new buildings present a Post-Modern snapshot, including all the stylistic strands, innovations and cliches of the last 17 years. They also show that unfettered enterprise does not necessarily unleash good buildings. Some of the worst buildings have gone up within the former Enterprise Zone on the Isle of Dogs, some of the best have been built under the stricter planning guidelines introduced by the lddc since the mid-1980s.

Money is not always the key that unlocks good design either. Some of the best buildings, such as Heron Quays, the Millwall Docks Sailing Centre and Maconochie's Wharf housing, are the cheapest and, certainly, the huge amounts of money invested in Canary Wharf have not ensured consistent excellence.

Docklands is also the place to examine late twentieth-century attitudes to the conservation and conversion of historic buildings, and the vital contributions to the environment made by landscape design, public art, roads, bridges and even pavements.

London: Docklands puts the excellent and the odd in their historical and architectural context. It also charts the buildings of the riverside settlements before and after the creation of the docks. The docks transformed the riverside, both north and south of the Thames, from a string of hamlets and villages whose prosperity depended upon the river and on the cultivation of the drained marshes behind, into intensely industrial and densely developed eastern suburbs of London. Without this huge original enterprise of dock- building and development, there would be no modern Docklands.

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