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Ellis Woodman: Farrell’s Convoys Wharf will be a citadel for the rich

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With a lack of transport, affordable housing and central planning, expect another dislocated skyscraper enclave along the Thames

A central demand of the Skyline campaign is the need for a commission to co-ordinate the location of tall buildings throughout the capital. Some will dispute the relevance of such an initiative to a city whose character is the product of a centuries-old aversion to such top-down planning. Charles II wasted no time in dismissing Christopher Wren’s proposals to rebuild post-fire London on Baroque lines, while the city’s exponential growth during the 19th century, unlike Paris or Barcelona, was not steered by its own Haussmann or Cerdà. Variety and change are London’s key attributes and half a century of tall building construction has demonstrated that well-designed towers have a role to play too.

It is a forceful argument, but before its proponents entirely stake the capital’s future on their confidence in the unwavering wisdom of free markets, they should take a trip to the 16ha of derelict south London riverfront known as Convoys Wharf. If they are coming from the centre of the city – a distance of 10km – they might not find it the easiest journey. Convoys Wharf currently achieves a Public Transport Accessibility Level (PTAL) rating of between 1 and 2: poor given that the PTAL scale ranges from 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest). The closest underground station lies a brisk 25-minute walk from the far end of the Convoys site. Deptford Station is closer, but only offers a two-platform service that is already close to capacity at peak hours.

Nonetheless, at the end of last month, mayor Boris Johnson rubber-stamped Hutchison Whampoa’s outline planning proposal to construct 3,500 homes at Convoys Wharf – a scheme that includes three towers of up to 40 storeys. The development will represent an influx of more than 10,000 residents or a 3.6 per cent increase in the population of the whole borough of Lewisham. Transport improvements are envisaged, but only in the form of a new route for an existing bus service and a pier offering a shuttle boat to Canary Wharf during peak hours. These changes should bring the site’s PTAL rating up to a level between 2 and 3 – still well below the provision that would ordinarily be expected for a development of such scale.

Of course it is to be hoped that some of Convoys Wharf’s new residents will work locally, easing the load on public transport, but the fact that Deptford is the poorest ward in a borough that ranks among the 10 per cent poorest in England instills little confidence that many will. With only 15 per cent of the new homes having been designated as affordable, it seems likely that what is planned will be almost exclusively a commuter enclave. One of the features most revealing of the scheme’s intended demographic is its 1,800 parking spaces.

Drawn up by Farrells, the plan does, at least, offer the local community one significant benefit over previous projects by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Aedas: the incorporation of a 2.3ha working wharf. Having been developed as the site of the Royal Navy Dockyards in the reign of Henry VIII, a substantial part of the site has long-enjoyed protected wharf status – a designation that earlier proposals sought to ignore. Campaigners have been keen to defend the principal that maritime industry should remain on the site, both as a source of local employment and as a means of ensuring that the Thames remains a working river. Hutchison Whampoa has bowed to that demand, but the trade-off has been the extension of the towers to maintain the desired number of apartments.

What is alarming is the density proposed in a dislocated part of London

Of course, one might question whether height is really the problem here. What is fundamentally alarming is surely the density being proposed in such a dislocated part of London. Height is merely the vehicle for that density’s delivery. And yet, if we ask what principal has established the expectation that such a large population should occupy Convoys Wharf, it becomes clear that height is central to the scheme’s problems. For there is surely only one answer, and that is the mayor’s conviction – unarticulated, but certain nevertheless – that the entire south bank of the Thames is ripe for the construction of skyscrapers.

Like it or not, that at least represents a kind of vision of how London should develop. But as Convoys Wharf makes clear, it is one that is not always readily reconcilable with the reality on the ground. If such high-rise housing developments are to be more than citadels for the affluent, they are going to require significantly better integration. The extraordinary level of investment being mooted for London’s riverfront will have a transformative effect on the fortunes of the communities that address it, but whether it is for better or worse remains to be seen.

  • Ellis Woodman is The Daily Telegraph’s architecture critic

The AJ/Observer Skyline Campaign

The campaign aims to ensure the capital’s future skyscrapers are built in the right place and designed to the highest quality.

It has been backed by architects including David Chipperfield, David Adjaye, Eva Jiricna and Ted Cullinan.

To show your support email skyline@architectsjournal.co.uk

Follow #LondonSkyline on twitter

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The irony of Farrell's involvement. An excellent summary of the value of a river frontage and how PTAL has been ignored. Compare and contrast with Old Oak Common PTAL high but no river.

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