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Room with a view - or two

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PROJECT PROFILE: HOUSING - Sue Duncan visits award-winning housing in London's Docklands

Back in the mid-1980s, developer Wates Built Homes acquired this 0.86 ha site at Blackwall Basin in London's Docklands. But the troubled economic waters that succeeded the boom years consigned it to the flotilla of projects riding at anchor pending better times.

Architect David Richmond and Partners had looked at the site for Wates in the late 1980s but it was not until 1993 that the practice was asked to draw up planning proposals.

Doubtless the subsequent decision to build the Millennium Dome smack opposite gladdened a few hearts.

The site is a long and narrow one lying in the Coldharbour Conservation Area, which includes a number of Grade II listed Georgian buildings such as Isle House and Nelson House.

From its southern boundary of Manager Street, it is tucked between the busy thoroughfare of Prestons Road to the west and Coldharbour to the east. At its northern end, the plot extends out to the Thames along both sides of the Blackwall Lock.

Blackwall Basin was originally built in 1800 to help tow in ships through to West India Docks and the narrow street pattern that emerged between the basin and the river helped establish the grain and support the densities of the scheme that emerged.

Organisation The development provides three threebedroom penthouses, 57 two-bedroom and 13 one-bedroom flats, and six twobedroom mews houses organised around a new garden courtyard, the lock sides and a new urban square.

This paved square created in front of the Georgian Isle House (designed in 1825 by Sir John Rennie as the Dockmaster's House) is the hub of the scheme, linking the old and new architecture together at the waterfront.

The scale, forms and massing and materials create an impression of permanence and security, sympathetic to its close neighbours. Indeed, Isle House was the muse for the materials palette - so yellow and yellow multistock brickwork predominates. The same is true of many design details - brick plinth, steps, window proportions and eaves details have been reinterpreted effectively in the new development.

The garden square Maximum space and sunlight penetration have been teased out of the narrow site by creating a gated square along its north-south axis, stretched east as far as humanly possible. At its centre is a sunny garden overlooked from the west by a terrace of fourstorey apartment blocks turning their backs to the busy Prestons Road, and from the east by three-storey mews houses backing on to Coldharbour.

Garages are tucked in at ground level behind a colonnade.

In the apartment blocks, the living/dining rooms enjoy a dual aspect unusual for high-density schemes:

double-aspect bays and deep-set balconies look on to the square while dining-area windows face west on to Prestons Road. Blocks are linked with recessed lantern staircase towers that also help articulate the terraces. On the public Prestons Road frontage, alternating with the indented dining-area sections, the rhythm they set up is specially apparent at night when the timber structure of the roofs is uplit and visible through the clerestory glazing.

The modelling is very pronounced on the Coldharbour elevations of the mews houses, where rusticated plinths rise to first-floor level. The rustication - six courses of stretcher bond brickwork followed by a recessed course of header bricks - is further punctuated by blind windows to the garages behind, producing attractive shadow lines as you proceed up this narrowest of streets.

Above plinth level, the brickwork changes to a lighter, plain yellow stock - as does Isle House, which, when cleaned had revealed lighter brickwork above a darker plinth. The rustication is a new introduction and you encounter it throughout - often rising a full four storeys, enriching the texture and contrasting with stretcher bond brickwork.

The locksides The tight passage of Coldharbour has an undeniably dockside ambience, but it's only as you emerge from it and the confined views open out over the lock towards the river that the sense of waterfront really impacts.

Blocks of one- and two-bedroom flats are arranged north and south of the entrance lock where the scheme's presence on that powerful Canary Wharf-Millennium Dome axis is announced by nine- and seven-storey penthouse towers commanding the river entrance.

Height was an issue but the towers survived protest relatively unscathed, only two floors being lopped from the downstream tower. In fact, the development is height-sensitive. In the close confines of Coldharbour it steps down from four to three storeys and, elsewhere, brickwork gives way to rendering for the top floor, simultaneously tying the brickwork to a uniform line and reducing the apparent overall height.

Brick elevations in the lock area are in a mixture of plain and rusticated brickwork. Vertical cedarboard cladding to the full height of the towers' upstream elevations is weathering attractively, reflecting the colours of the reconstructed stone sills and rendering.

The response to the site preserves the ethos of old dockside housing and street grain, balancing a sense of enclosure with dramatic views of river, docks and iconic architectural neighbours.

While respecting the extant Georgian buildings of the Coldharbour Conservation Area, the development has created modern, well-proportioned architecture free of tweeness and gimmickry. These factors commended it to the 2000 Brick Awards assessors, who voted it winner in the Private Housing category. All units have been snapped up, so it's proved popular with purchasers too.

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