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Amanda Levete: ‘There’s a presumption against tall buildings in this city'

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Amanda Levete talks to the AJ about her practice’s contentious 23-storey twisting tower on a former industrial estate in Shoreditch, east London

What were the main design drivers behind the tower?

The form of the building is derived entirely from putting a critical mass on the site that straddles the City of London and its fringe. This is expressed by merging the crumbly, interlocking grain of Shoreditch on the ground with a tower that rises in an elegant form with a minimum footprint. The proposed 23-storey, mixed-use development between Bethnal Green Road and Redchurch Street will provide 107 high-quality apartments that do not currently exist in Tower Hamlets. The 2,500m2 of commercial space will attract local, small and independent retailers.

The project has been described by objectors as ‘alien’. What is the most contentious element of the scheme?

Without question it’s the height. There’s a general presumption against tall buildings in this city but it’s a position that’s at odds with the innovative, energetic spirit that is London. It’s also at odds with the creative vibrancy and diversity of this locale. Everyone accepts that this site is barren and needs redeveloping. But we have to be realistic – it makes no commercial sense whatsoever to develop it without a certain critical mass. In fact, it is a certain mass that has enabled developer Londonewcastle to submit a parallel scheme by Peter Barber for excellent, affordable family accommodation, something that is so desperately needed in Tower Hamlets.

I understand the emotional issues raised by large developments. But the evolution of a city is bigger than us all. Tower Hamlets has long been characterised by poverty and poor-quality housing but, in terms of relative wealth, there has probably been more change in the past 10 years than in the previous 100. It is continual evolution that makes London the exciting city we all love.

It does not advance the debate to use ridicule and exaggeration as ammunition

It does not advance the debate to use ridicule and exaggeration as ammunition. You can take any scheme, anywhere in the world, however brilliant or not, and unpick it and find fault, because there isn’t just one way of doing it. It’s what makes architecture an art, not a science. So, of course we analysed a number of different configurations, as did other architects before us. But, taking into account the very complex constraints of this site, especially rights of light and criteria for natural light, we concluded that, to make this building work both architecturally and in the urban context, we needed to create a distinct and elegant tower rising out of something of much smaller scale. A dense, mid-rise scheme, covering the entire site, would have created permanent overshadowing to adjacent properties, with significant loss of both daylight and sunlight. I’m already falling into the trap of apologising for doing a tower – we live in the 21st century; there’s a chronic shortage of housing in London.

Of what part of the project are you most proud?

The perennial issue of plinth and tower is a difficult typology to handle. In my view, we’ve resolved it in an innovative and creative way – one that fulfils the commercial imperative of the site, but respects and complements the diversity of the local area. It also raises the issue of how to retain the charm of this original, crumbly part of the city alongside something sleek and elegant. But it’s precisely that juxtaposition that makes London so exciting and vibrant. The height of the tower has allowed us to respect and extend the scale of Shoreditch’s urban grain and the eclectic mix of uses across the entire site.

Does the project mark a defining moment in terms of how skyscrapers are viewed outside the City or on the City fringe?

It brings into question when and where to have a high building. Bethnal Green Road is not a street, it’s a highway bounding the edge of the City. The site is opposite a brand new station and there are plans to redevelop over the station at a scale that is significantly greater than our tower. In a scheme like this, you can’t just think about today; you have to think about the future, too. 

How does this scheme relate to the practice’s other work?

The derivation of a project is what creates momentum in design. In each of our projects we mine and analyse both the brief and the context in order to find the idea that will unlock the potential of a project. This is a thread that runs through our work. In this case it’s about how to manipulate a critical mass that reconciles ideas about fringe and central, city grain and tower.

What are your current views on the state of the profession and how do you foresee thenext 12 months for yourselvesand for architects in general?

I find it difficult to talk about architecture as a profession, because, when you look around London in particular, so much of what is being built is banal beyond belief or just plain bad.

Having said that, London continues to educate some of the best architects of our time and they are making a huge impact around the world. But back here there’s a political obsession with caution, minimum spend and measuring value, so the best architects are still doing their best work abroad. How can you measure value when architecture carries so much meaning? It defines our social and cultural context, changes the way we interact with each other, changes our mood, the way we see ourselves and the way others see us. Isn’t that enough to justify a bit of vision, a bit more than minimum spend? But I don’t want to moan. I think the next 12 months and beyond will be an exciting time.

The AL_A scheme for the former Huntingdon Industrial Estate was submitted for planning last month and will be heard by Tower Hamlets strategic development committee this summer. For more dinformation about the scheme click here

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