With Richard Rogers saying recently that he was 'deeply concerned' whether Thames Gateway, the largest urban regeneration project in Europe, would fulfil its potential (Guardian, 29.1.05), any models of good practice there are welcome. Which is why an infrastructure project at Dagenham Dock, by Florian Beigel and the Architecture Research Unit (ARU) of London Metropolitan University, demands attention.
It centres on two streets, Chequers Lane and Hindmans Way, that lie south of an elevated section of the A13 - the Thames Gateway spine-road that connects London with Southend.
Chequers Lane runs straight from Dagenham Dock Station towards the Thames, but doesn't quite get there, because a still-functioning wharf deflects it to the left. Down much of the east side, behind a high barbedwire-topped fence, is the blue, metal-clad bulk of Barking Power Station. Opposite is a Hovis distribution centre, a vacant lot currently for sale or to let, and a 'waste recycling' yard with mounds of scrap. The whole street is covered in grime, the last 100m being barely passable for pedestrians in winter because of potholes, drainage problems and mud.
Hindmans Way, 150m to the west, takes a more sinuous course towards the Thames, but does arrive there - well, almost. It leads to a large cluster of white and grey Tate & Lyle storage tanks, and a curving jetty which is off-limits to the public, who instead are kept behind a 2m-high steel wall which acts as a flood defence.
Flanking Hindmans Way are some more empty sites, at the centre of one of which is a solitary tree - among the few mature specimens in the area. But any plants here have such a patina of dirt on them that even buddleia looks like an endangered species.
Disheartening though the whole scene is at present, this area of Dagenham is due for a major facelift. It's part of London Riverside: a 6km-square zone on the north bank of the Thames, extending east from Barking Creek, which is 'a priority area' for Ken Livingstone and the London Development Agency (LDA), and a Zone of Change for the government's Thames Gateway Strategic Partnership.
In the words of 'An Urban Strategy for London Riverside', a publication by Livingstone's Architecture and Urbanism Unit (AUU): 'Dagenham Dock is currently an underused industrial area, with substandard infrastructure and a poor environmental quality. It will become a sustainable industrial area, with a special focus on green industries.' A predictable scenario, perhaps, but there's little chance that the words 'green' and 'sustainable' will work their ritual magic unless the 'substandard infrastructure' is dealt with first - as Beigel + ARU plan to do.
This isn't just a case of upgrading roads and pavements physically, but of addressing a more general lack. 'When you're in this area at present, there's really no clue that you're so close to the Thames, ' says Beigel. 'We want to give back an awareness of the river.' With the Chequers Lane waterfront still occupied, the focus for this renewed awareness is the point where Hindmans Way meets the flood-wall and jetty. Beigel + ARU propose a new addition here: a 'truckers' café' built in Cor-Ten, reached up a shallow ramp and angled south-west to gain broad views across the Thames. 'It's a little industrial temple, ' says Beigel - a focalpoint as well as a facility. But it won't stand entirely on its own, for just 100m inland is an old concrete hopper - a powerful presence in the landscape.
'You have to keep that hopper - it gives you a real feeling of industrial time, ' says Beigel. Such structures are what he calls 'time witnesses'. Reminders of a site's previous history, sometimes cryptic, prompting curiosity, they're often integral to Beigel + ARU's schemes (AJ 3.4.03). In fact there's another one near the proposed café: the fuel station at the end of the jetty. With its twin orange-painted tanks on concrete bases, it has a family resemblance to the hopper and the café; they're three points of a triangle linking water, land and shore.
It may be a while before Costa Coffee wants the franchise, or workers from the 'sustainable industrial park' converge there for a latte, but with the Cor-Ten café and its parking area the river suddenly becomes visible - the rhythm of its tides, the changing light, the long view west towards Canary Wharf. If, as Beigel hopes, there's a new road connection to Hindmans Lane immediately north of the hopper, then pedestrians can colonise the old road by the flood-wall, and take an elevated riverside walk as far as Barking Creek.
In their treatment of the roads and pavements, which will all be surfaced in tarmac, Beigel + ARU want to reflect the proximity of the Thames by giving them 'a river-like quality'. Although the width of the roads remains constant, the pavements expand and contract like a flowing stream, while granite 'rafts' are inlaid in them at various angles, as if bobbing about on water. Will people 'get' this? Perhaps subliminally. After all, at sites upriver like Petersham and Richmond, tarmac often turns into water at high tide, with careless visitors discovering their parked cars half-submerged. That would happen in Dagenham too if defences weren't intact.
Beigel hopes that some owners of the new 'green' industrial premises will sacrifice a metre or two of streetfront in exchange for planning gain, which will make the pavement more generous in places and create the overall 'flowing' effect. He would prefer to plant willow trees, the obvious species for a riverside location, but given their wide-spreading roots and the density of underground services, that may not be possible in Chequers Lane; Scots pine and birch are the alternative.
These enhanced but robust streets will be the armature of a changing landscape, as the new industrial park takes shape around them. Is there a risk that, as it does, it will start to seem bland? Unlikely, given the stilldominant power station (its fence renewed without barbed wire), the still-working wharfs, the ranks of storage tanks, and the looming hopper. This area will always have an 'edge'.
The LDA now owns the streets, and has funding from the ODPM's Sustainable Communities Plan and the European Regional Development Fund to begin work on Chequers Lane. The second phase - the crucial connection to the Thames at Hindmans Way - should also benefit from the Sustainable Communities Plan. Mark Brearley of the AUU is optimistic that it will proceed before long, and puts it in a wider context: 'It's one of a series of opportunities on this stretch of the Thames where roads meet the river. There's the chance to make several special places.' Though an infrastructure project like this can't guarantee the quality that Rogers wants to see in any subsequent development, it does have lessons in its light touch (just a few thoughtful interventions), its preference for a landscape of memories (not a clean slate), and its quest to unlock potential - all based on a close reading of the actual site, not its abstraction on a map.
The Thames Gateway sometimes does seem like a huge abstraction but in fact it's a mosaic, whose myriad pieces each have a specific character - the creeks, the wildlife havens, the industrial remnants, the views.
That character must be understood before development begins.
There are 'special places' by the Thames already, which we need to keep, but Beigel + ARU show the way to making more.