The Mill, Ipswich by John Lyall Architects
John Lyall Architects’ dense waterfront development in Ipswich heralds the maturation of a new kind of architectural expression, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Morley Von Sternberg
England has a new mode of architectural expression. It’s called Cabe-ism (by me, at least) and has taken ten years to perfect. It draws upon many sources: Gordon Cullen’s Townscape philosophies, Ian Sinclair’s psychogeographic musings, public-private (usually develop-led) ideas about brownfield regeneration and transparent decision-making inspired by New Labour.
Throw in a bit of old-fashioned modernism, concern around climate change and some mixed-messages about ‘iconic’ design. Finally, sprinke liberally with branding concepts culled from 80s-style advertising culture, and what you have is Cabe-ism.
If you want to see the kind of buildings this ‘movement’ has fashioned, go to Ipswich and visit Cranfield Mill on the Suffolk town’s waterfront.* Designed by John Lyall Architects for the East of England Development Agency and Wharfside Developments, this is Cabe-ism’s posterboy, a mixed use scheme of 382 dwellings, a dance venue, a multi-storey car park, with a public courtyard, retail and leisure built in. It’s not hard to find. It’s focus is totemic: a 23 storey tower, the tallest in East Anglia, rendered a very bright white, and visible from miles around.
Cabe celebrated its tenth birthday last month, coinciding with the completion of ‘The Mill’. To mark the occasion, the quango published its Ten Year Review to highlight its success in making England a “better place to live” over the past decade. The Mill, which embodies Cabe’s place-making values and received a broadly positive design review in 2004, features as a case study. As Bob Kindred, conservation and urban design manager of Ipswich Borough council is only too happy to admit in the document: “Cabe gave the planning committee the confidence it needed to support the proposal, and to insist on better quality design.”
Pressure applied throughout, Cabe suggests, helped convince planners that a well-designed landmark tower would boost Ipswich’s fortunes. Simultaneously, Cabe nudged Lyall and his team closer to the ideal mixed-use model of waterside regeneration The Mill is now being hailed as. Lyall, a natural collaborator and a design review panelist himself, is unlikely to disagree.
The Mill occupies a one-hectare plot previously dominated by Cranfield Mills, a 19th century industrial complex. The densely packed site was augmented over the next 100 years, most significantly in the 1950s when grain silos, 17 storeys high, were added. These have since been demolished, although some of the Victorian era mill buildings have been retained. Lyall says it was this “automatic precedent for density” which persuaded him and developer-client Brain Tanner to proceed with their plan that creates a staggering 382 dwellings per hectare.
Together they formed Wharfside Developments, entered a limited competition organised by the East of England Development Agency in 2002, and landed the commission largely on the back of their creative approach to mixed-use, which involved making a new home within the scheme for arts organisation Dance East.
As Cabe says in its appraisal of The Mill, ‘there often seems to be an unofficial standard or “default” model for residential development in waterside locations, consisting of lumpen, mediocre apartment blocks rolled out with blatant disregard for the particular character of a site and its surroundings’. The Mill impressed Cabe however ‘by aiming to reflect the rhythm and character of its historical waterfront location through its architecture. The visual richness of the proposal is enhanced by the thoughtful design solutions proposed for each of the various uses which go to make up the scheme.’
The Mill is CABEism’s poster boy - a mixed - use schemeof 382 dwellings, a dance venue and a car park
Lyall’s £55 million scheme is monumental. It comprises what the architect calls a ‘family of buildings’, large volumes clustered around a courtyard.
Each one is exclusively clad with its own material - render, Prodema timber boarding, Eternit spandrel panels and two types of brick - although they share common details. Velfac windows are specified throughout and all balcony railings are the same. The lowest block is eight-storeys high and backing onto the soaring tower, there are two blocks which rise 17- and 13-storeys, in a composition which steps down from the waterfront. The Victorian buildings will be refurbished as homes in a later phase.
Remarkably, Lyall has managed to fit an eight-story car park on site. This is ‘clad’ to use the architect’s choice of word, with retail, at ground level, and single aspect housing. Both elements face the courtyard, which due to the sheer scale and height of development, is in shade for much of the day. A sea-faring ‘window museum’, is also located here. There is a wide choice of one-, two- and three-bedroom flats. A typical two bed flat is a reasonable 71m², with three bed duplexes at 150m². Along with the long, tall – equivalent to four storeys – volume of the dance venue which underpins the towers on the eastern boundary of the site, these elements set The Mill apart from the myriad waterfront developments built or planned throughout England.
The Mill is the best example of how to do super-dense speculative housing on a tired waterfront
When I discuss the choice of materials with Lyall and associate Chris Bills, another aspect typical of Cabe-ist design emerges; a loose fit approach to materials and their relationship to the volumes they enclose. The concrete frame used across the entire scheme uses a fusion panel detail that allows each building to be clad in any kind of material using the same fixing methods.
So, the housing block on College Street, for example, was waved through planning with a timber boarding skin, only to be changed to brick later on. The waterfront housing too, now in dark brown brick, was approved with timber cladding. Essentially, this means the tower could have been expressed in wood. Or Eternit panels. Or even brick. This raises two points: that British architects – or at least John Lyall Architects - have excellent technical capabilities no matter the material they work with and that they are rewriting the rules regarding the meaning of materiality. Can a building be said to be the same no matter what material it is wrapped in? And how do you determine which material is most appropriate?
Each in this ‘family of buildings’ is clad with its own material, although they share common details
On the waterfront, newbuild elements have pitched roofs reflective of the buildings they replaced and match the roofline of the retained Victorian structure behind and alongside them. But once again, I’m left wondering whether such Cabe-isms should be cheerfully adhered to. It’s an open question: does it really make sense to mimic the form of a building, now demolished, that was used for a very different purpose? I’m not sure that such blatant ancestral references adequately embody historic character and a sense of place.
And so to the tower, which I find quite beautiful, an Yves Chaland Atom-style graphic made real. Views from the countryside east of Ipswich conjures another powerful image: a 21st century cathedral rising, shining, high above the hillocks and trees. Up close my gut reaction is that it’s probably too tall - what message is it so desperate to declare? - and I realise I’d prefer it to be extant from its rendered siblings. But it is elegant, well detailed, and, yes, iconic.
On the face of it, what Lyall’s achieved here is quite incredible. This is genuine mixed use waterfront regeneration and I know of no other scheme that matches its ambition. Simply crossing the finish line in the midst of recession is worthy of applause. Lyall’s firm numbers 16 souls, and just six architects worked on the project. That says much about the ability and efficiency of the practice and perhaps British practice in general. Furthermore, creating large span volumes for the dance studio and balancing residential towers on top - and making sure noise doesn’t leak out - that’s a major technical achievement.
A stroll along The Mill’s waterfront and through its courtyard, despite the boarded up retail units, is an engaging urban experience. If you’re going to design super-dense speculative housing on a tired waterfront in provincial England, The Mill is the best example of how to do it well. However, just as Cabe-ism has become fully fledged, the mixed use model on which its flagship building is based, is on the verge of extinction.
Although planning consent was granted on the basis of the retail/leisure provision, they are at present, vacant. Given that only half of the homes have been bought (all off plan and none for the past 18 months) and that many of those are online now for rent, the promotion of such schemes must be challenged. Why, I wonder, did Cabe think a housing density twice that of Georgian London was a suitable model for Ipswich?
Start on site July 2007
Contract duration 20 months - Phase 1
Gross internal floor area 20,000m2
Form of contract Design and build
Total cost £42.5 million - phase 1
Cost per m2 £2,100
Client Wharfside Regeneration
Architect John Lyall Architects
Structural engineer Walsh Associates
M&E consultant Haleys (client) Emcor Consulting (contractor)
Quantitiy surveyor DBK Goyne Adams
Planning consultant PFB Construction Management Services
Lighting consultant Emcor
Main contractor Laing O’Rourke
Annual CO2 emissions Uknown