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Renaissance at South Quay

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LANDSCAPE: Sue Duncan takes a look at new landscape in Docklands

On 9 February 1996 an IRA bomb ripped into London Docklands.

The explosion, adjacent to the retail mall at South Quay, killed two, injured many more and caused more than £100 million pounds of damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Imaginative landscaping, formal but playful, has since helped unify and revitalise the area

At South Quay Plaza in London's Docklands, which runs east from South Quay Docklands Light Railway (DLR) station between Marsh Wall to the south and South Dock to the north, the 1996 IRA bomb blast severely damaged the Richard Seifert-designed post-modern blocks dating from the late 1980s.

Of these, the South Quay Plaza II and III (14 and 17 storeys respectively) have since been rebuilt, forming an 'enclave' between the dock and a new retail mall opening onto Marsh Wall.

But next to the station, behind hoardings, there is a void where South Quay Plaza I has yet to be redeveloped.

Came the reconstruction, came the realisation that the place was a bit of a mess anyway. 'A discordant and fractured void, cramped by tall buildings and without any natural focus, ' as landscape architect Rick Rowbotham of LDC describes it.

He might also have mentioned the DLR structure disfiguring its southern edge. Without an attractive environment and public spaces around the redeveloped blocks, the quarter would struggle to attract businesses back.

Transforming urban anonymity For that, a coherent landscape strategy was needed. A unifying theme was essential, in LDC's view, to bring together these unpromising elements.

This theme should generate a decidedly individual character that would transform space into place.

The game plan was to bring the focus down to ground level. This shifts the gaze away from the relentless verticals of surrounding development with a distinctive polychromatic floorscape that introduces new colour, texture, warmth and human scale. Wit, too.

A decorative pavement has been unrolled - like a carpet laid edge-toedge across the plaza, but set on the bias to the prevailing grid. Its striking patterns are designed to create a threedimensional effect when viewed from the surrounding offices or from passing DLR trains. You don't need to scale to boardroom heights for the trompe l'oeil trickery to work; even from first-floor offices the pavement starts playing games with perception.

Renaissance influences Rowbotham cites as influences the trompe l'oeil interiors of the Italian Renaissance, and has used the technique before (using alta quartzite) on a scheme at the Royal Albert Dock.

This time the materials and palette have changed. The geometric motif is a square module formed of silver/grey concrete block pavers in combination with clay brick pavers, using a controlled colour palette which progresses from dark blue, through brindled to plain red. This transition mimics the appearance of light and shade on which the optical illusion is based. The colour handling is deft and the execution precise - without the meticulously mitred corners between pavers the effect would be compromised.

Look closely at the roughened 'scabbled' surface of the concrete units and you will notice a sparkle from the light-reflective granite aggregate they contain. These are laid in herringbone pattern, setting up a contrast in texture and rhythm with the clay units, which are all set in running bond. These motifs sit within a ground of sunny buff pavers, the warm end of the spectrum coming as a welcome relief to the all-pervasive steely blue cool of corporate Docklands.

The colour permanence of fired clay was a critical factor in specification.

'Any change in shade over time would have destroyed the optical illusion so any possibility of colour fade had to be ruled out, ' says Rowbotham.

Design consistency Japanese pagoda trees - a robust species for urban environments - have been planted in the open pavement along Marsh wall; but in the 'enclave' section between offices and retail units, basement car parking below the concrete slab precluded planting deeprooted trees. However, deep raised beds faced with polished concrete accommodate substantial planting and sustain the diagonal theme - as do a series of triangular beds edged with blue bullnose engineering bricks.

The clay pavers conform to BS 6677: Part 1, transverse strength designation PB, making the paving suitable for vehicles, and there is no shortage of them going down the paved ramp into the basement car park. Each side of this ramp there is just a partial motif, which seems rather arbitrary, and you wonder why it wasn't simply scaled down to fit the available space.

Then you realise it's designed to be viewed from above and is part of a larger motif extending right across the drop. Seen from that angle the pattern reads as being on a single plane, with no visual hiatus where the contours change.

On the first floor cafe terrace between buildings II and III, a subsequent adaptation of the motif, by others, has used only three colours and has dispensed with mitring. It works, sort of, but not as well as the original, which you can see on the waterside walk just below.

The sculptural forms of the stainless steel lighting and bollards - an inverted triangle atop a slim column - reinforce the triangular theme, and contribute to the cohesiveness of the overall plan. It's a shame there was no budget for the artworks and other improvements envisaged in LDC's original proposal;

also that without South Quay Plaza I, it must still be seen as a work in progress.

That said, it is a considerable achievement, to reinvigorate a rather sad corner of Docklands with zing, brightness and humour. Even partially.


Clients London Docklands Development Corporation/ South Quay Plaza Management Landscape Architect LDC Contractor Gabriel (Contractors) Limited Photography Brian Fowler

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