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Urban Design Scholarships: Alicia Pivaro, Royal Albert Dock

At first sight the Royal Albert Dock seems defined by mega-structures and vast, open spaces in which a community would struggle to develop. Alicia Pivaro has other ideas

When I meet Alicia Pivaro and her DfL mentor Jamie Dean at the Royal Albert Dock, it’s one of those freezing, sunny November days that global warming was meant to have done away with. It makes the vast tracts of land, crisscrossed by railway lines, heavy-duty roads and hulking, aloof residential blocks, seem more forbidding than usual. How do you turn this space – which most people hurry through on their way to somewhere else, where the most welcoming building is a brightly skinned packaging factory – into a place?

The Royal Albert Dock in the London Borough of Newham is the focus of a DfL masterplan, dopted in 2005, which Alicia’s research will inform. ‘This was always the area where London did its business,’ says Jamie, leafing through a series of maps showing how the area has changed in the past 150 years.

The new road we walk along, Atlantis Avenue, hints at the area’s lost city status. Until1855, when dockland development began, it was marshland. Within 30 years it was the most important hub in the British Empire’s trade network, and the largest area of impounded water in the world. It was ravaged by bombing raids during the Second World War and by 1981 the Royal Docks were all but closed. Since then, only sporadic, isolated industrial and residential development has taken place. DfL’s masterplan, however, aims to come up with a ‘new idea for what this area is for and about’. Alicia will help establish DfL’s architectural approach by re-editing the existing draft document, injecting it with, Jamie hopes, a degree of personality.

Building on the 2005 masterplan by Dutch firm West 8, the draft document proposes sensible prescriptive development rules – tower-and-tail blocks with a general datum of six storeys rising to maximum of 13, a limited material palette, direct links between transport nodes, residences, public spaces and parkland – that will hopefully attract more than bottom-rung developers to commission well-mannered, joined-up civic architecture.

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