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building study - Patel Taylor has transformed a 1960s eyesore in Putney into Thames-side housing and made major additions to the public realm

The Berkeley Homes Group - the client for Patel Taylor's Putney Wharf project, via its subsidiary St George - claims to be 'Britain's premier urban regenerator'. With a turnover in 2003/04 of £1.27 billion and operating profits of £213 million, Berkeley is making regeneration pay. Indeed, the entire group (including the Berkeley, Crosby and St James' 'brands') is now focusing almost exclusively on urban brownfield sites, far removed from the suburban plots where it started nearly 30 years ago.

Putney is, of course, a long way from the ex-industrial, inner-city contexts more usually associated with urban regeneration. The high street that extends south of Bazalgette's splendid bridge is prosperous and lively, with highly desirable suburban avenues and riverside mansion blocks nearby. Putney's Grade I-listed parish church, St Mary's, internally an interesting rebuilding by Ronald Sims (completed in 1982 after a disastrous fire), retains its 15th-century tower, echoing that of Fulham's old parish church across the Thames.

During the 1960s, however, the setting of St Mary's was seriously compromised by the construction of a bulky office building in the immediate vicinity. Long occupied by ICL, it was a particular object of loathing for many locally, so that when it was vacated in 1997 there were hopes it might be demolished. For any intelligent housing developer, however, it made sense to retain and adapt the 16-storey slab. St George's strategy was to integrate it into a larger development of the riverside site, formerly occupied by low-grade industrial space, extending eastwards from the bridge.

Recognising the realities of the situation, Wandsworth planners helpfully suggested some architectural practices capable of transforming this '60s eyesore. Out of a shortlist of six and via a competitive process, Patel Taylor was selected by St George. Encouraged by the planners, it developed its scheme in detail to provide 67 apartments, plus a restaurant and a small amount of office space.

Unfortunately, elected members, lobbied by local residents, threw out the proposals and they were given planning consent only after a public inquiry in 2001. The inspector concluded that what was proposed would enhance the context of the listed church. The reconstruction of the tower was completed a year ago, though the impact of the associated landscaping - a very important aspect of Patel Taylor's project - could not be appreciated until this summer.

The Putney Wharf development, including more than 150 houses and apartments in total, plus restaurants, bars, retailing, health club and offices, is architecturally variegated.

John Thompson & Partners was responsible for other new buildings on the site, which are largely in the pastiche warehouse manner and, though appropriate in scale and materials, weakly detailed. The only old building retained has been converted into a pub. What makes the development a striking success in comparison with other recent riverside schemes, many of them Berkeley/St George projects, is the quality of the new public spaces (very popular with locals) that it has generated. The entire site has been made permeable, with convenient routes connecting the residential area to the east with the bridge and high street. There is nothing of the gated community ethos that regrettably detracts, for example, from the success of Richard Rogers Partnership's Montevetro, a mile or so downstream at Battersea, nor any sense that public space is a low priority - regrettably the case at Foster and Partners' Albion Wharf next to Battersea Bridge. At Putney Wharf, the immaculately maintained riverside squares and gardens are a real public asset, an astute use of the planning system to provide gains for the whole community.

Patel Taylor, of course, has a reputation for skilful landscape design, exemplified in its collaboration with Group Signes at Thames Barrier Park (AJ 12.7.01). At Putney Wharf it has achieved landscaping of an exceptionally high quality - granite benches and bollards, for example, and riverside railings that eschew heavy pseudo-historicism in favour of lightweight transparency, enhancing the connection with the river.

There were extended discussions with the planners, Patel Taylor's Pankaj Patel recalls, 'but in the end, everyone was the winner'.

Indeed, the local authority recently gave the whole development one of its Wandsworth Design Awards. The new hard landscape of ashlar and stone setts extends round the tower and connects the high street to the river, with St Mary's, formerly isolated behind a high wall, now integrated into the neighbourhood. (The parish is developing a new social centre, currently under construction, attached to the south aisle of the church and very much intended as an outreach facility, open seven days a week. ) 'Demolishing the 1960s tower and building from scratch would have undoubtedly saved money, ' says Patel - but, of course, a tall new building would have generated strong resistance. St George's strongest bargaining counter was the option of adapting the muchdisliked ICL building with minimal external changes. Patel Taylor's strategy was, however, to reshape it substantially on the basis of the existing concrete frame. The existing office block effectively turned its back on the river and the design strategy for its makeover was naturally to capitalise on riverside views.

The basic structure of the building and its main circulation core, which is on the south side of the tower away from the river, were retained, with the stairs refurbished and new lifts installed. On the north side, a 'prow' was constructed to provide a stepped series of open balconies to the river, enclosed by alternate bands of solid or glazed balustrading, each with a slightly different elliptical profile - the effect is to break down the monolithic form of the building. New spine corridors were formed for access to apartments.

On upper floors there was a degree of demolition to achieve the desired stepped effect and to provide the topmost penthouse with a particularly spectacular external terrace - the views are, needless to say, stunning.

The metal and glass aesthetic of the prow is balanced by the recladding of the flank elevations of the building in red terracotta tiles.

Patel says that the aim was to achieve a richly textured, layered look, very different from the bland surfaces of the '60s. Random bonding and the use of misfired tiles, with a wide variation in colour and pattern, gives the facades a sense of life and movement. The ground-floor restaurant, with its stone cladding, roots the building to its site. Windows are arranged in a staggered pattern to further erode the sense of regularity - the projecting windows, Patel says, were inspired by Aalto's Villa Mairea. To the south, the service core is plainly rendered. The attached three-storey office building is equally unassuming and looks rather incidental.

Whereas the ICL building provided a depressing backdrop to the tower of St Mary's, its reincarnation - and it is hard to think of them as the same building - actually enhances the impact of the medieval tower, its light stone highlighted against the rich backcloth of terracotta. Visually, the reclad tower connects with the brick Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings and apartment blocks around the top of the high street. Yet the reconfigured structure provides a gain of 22 per cent in usable space over its predecessor.

The bottom line, of course, is that this is developer architecture, built to a commercial budget. If the generosity of the landscape surprises, the details of the tower, especially internally, are sometimes disappointing. Yet the overall impact of the development on the surrounding area is incontestably positive.

St George has, in the past, played it safe with architectural commissions, not looking to be leading-edge. It has a longstanding relationship with Broadway Malyan, architect for a number of its projects, including the muchberated St George's Wharf next to Vauxhall Bridge. But Patel believes that St George is now responding to a market that shows every sign of a developing interest in innovative design: 'Tony Carey of St George was a model client, supportive all the way, ' he says.

For Patel Taylor, the experience of this project has been invaluable, feeding into, for example, its proposals for a residential tower in east London for the Peabody Trust. It seems that the experience has been equally positive for the client, with all the apartments quickly sold and the lettable space taken up. And for Putney it is an enormous public gain.

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