New East Enders
Two private-sector housing developments in the flourishing Docklands area of London provide ample proof not only of the effectiveness of patterned brickwork but also just how exciting brick can be when used in a contemporary idiom. Architect Robert MacDonald Associates has shown that the planar crispness so admired in modern architecture can be created as effectively by brick as it can by steel, concrete and glass. Furthermore, in addition to its thermal and maintenance benefits, this so-called 'traditional' material can provide striking contrasts with the more modern upstarts.
Bellway Homes was the developer for the schemes, one at Limehouse Basin, the other at the Boardwalk in Poplar Dock.
Both are blocks of flats, topped by the inevitable penthouses.
The architect's desire to provide an expression of modern building techniques has led to the almost universal use of stretcher bond, extending even to the clay-paved areas. The desire for an abstract as opposed to a traditional richness has produced a form of construction which does not make use of soldier courses and other typical brickwork details. This results in what the architect considers to be a clean, unfussy effect which also provided savings in construction time.
The resulting horizontality is accentuated in certain areas by alternating courses of yellow and bright red stock bricks, an effect which is a real delight even when used on multi-storey panels. Because the banding breaks up the surface, any colour discrepancies in each brick type are harder to discern.
Why are such simple means of articulating large planes of brickwork not used more commonly? On the down side, wandering perpends become more noticeable. Yet even this is not an unattractive sight - for anyone wanting to snuggle up to the brickwork and gaze skywards.
Both developments have broadly similar underlying constructions comprising flat-roofed, concrete-framed, masonryclad structures of varying heights with steel and glass balconies. A typical wall construction comprises a 140mm block inner leaf, 78mm partially filled insulated cavity and a 102mm outer brick leaf, all achieving a respectable U-value of 0.36. All internal wall surfaces (including party walls) have been drylined.
Striped brickwork - partly inspired by a pub in Kentish Town Road, North London - is common to both schemes, but is by no means all-pervading, as there are also substantial areas of buff stocks which contrast both with other brickwork and with other materials. At Limehouse, smooth blue engineering bricks are used at lower levels, in some places as plinths and in others as walls to service areas and external stairs.
Movement joints seem to be generous throughout. A further benefit of stripey brickwork is that it provides excellent camouflage for what can be unsightly horizontal movement joints provided at every storey where steel angles support the brickwork at concrete edge beams.
This development comprises six multistorey blocks clustered around a marina on a site bounded by Horseferry Road and Branch Road. All are crowned by steel and glass penthouses with dramatic overhanging eaves. What strikes one immediately is the richness of colour, material and textural combinations pervading the entire scheme. The massing of the various blocks is enlivened by planes of vibrant coloured brickwork abutting sheets of vertical glazing which give way to planes of coloured render.
Square windows have been used throughout as an ordering element.
The architect has employed different treatments to express the various volumes, provide visual interest and help break down the scale of the development. This plurality of colour and texture is continued on horizontal surfaces, resulting in a hierarchical treatment of landscape from public to semi-public space.
Buff clay pavers around the marina give way to concrete setts and finally to crisply laid creamy concrete flags edged by offwhite gravel immediately in front of the main entrances to the blocks. The effort expended in creating such detailed landscaping is justified by the likely scrutiny of residents gazing down from their windows and balconies.
One of the reasons for clustering the blocks around the marina was to provide as many flats as possible with views over Docklands and the surrounding regions. Steel and glass balconies are used throughout for this purpose. However, the architects' desire to recreate the industrial warehouse aesthetic, so much a part of the area, has resulted in a gridwork of dark, foreboding steelwork balconies superimposed over some of the marina elevations which add a heavy, sombre note to what is otherwise a rich and lively development.
The Boardwalk, Poplar
The apartment blocks at the Boardwalk development beside Poplar Dock are arranged in a more urban configuration than those at Limehouse. There is also a greater emphasis on low-rise development inherited from the density requirements of the former London Docklands Development Corporation. The threestorey townhouses with buff brickwork and Georgian panelled front doors sit rather incongruously amid a generally bold, confident and colourful contemporary development.
The three-storey perimeter blocks in Trafalgar Way face Billingsgate Market, and Canary Wharf looms on the horizon. Yet for a split second you might think you were in Rotterdam, so strong are the Dutch references on these elevations, with a touch of de Stijl here and a just a hint of Mondrian there. Sculptural forms are broken down into elemental planes using varying materials, colours and textures.
Thus, the striped brickwork on one side is balanced by a rich, earthy, redrendered plane on the other, both separated by a chasm of dark steelwork balconies against a bright yellow background.
Detractors may scoff at what they might construe as an exercise in facadism applied over both sites. Yet even if this were true, the ends have certainly justified the means, with both the East End developments in both Limehouse and Poplar achieving some very attractive environments in which to live.