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Greenwich design district: ‘It’s going to have this amazing anthill quality’

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The AJ talks to Peter Besley of Assemblage – the urban designer and lead architect behind the new Greenwich Peninsula Design District – about working with eight other architects, how to manufacture creative space and the necessary laziness of poets

There’s a great selection of practices on the list. How did you select them? Did you hold a competition?
No, we chose them. Richard Margee (chief executive at developer Knight Dragon) and Kerri Sibson (director of sales and marketing) sat down and discussed it. But we had a wishlist and knew who we wanted already. They had to be architects who were comfortable wielding a pen – ones where we knew that the principles of the practice would be involved and it wouldn’t just be handed down to a team.

The project was set up by Knight Dragon to be a plum project for architects. However, the buildings are low cost and the fees are not high. People might look at the images, and think it looks like such a fantastic project for an architect, but ask what’s the catch in this? Well, the truth is that the masterplan and the urban design are quite strict. It has this logic; it is not just a smorgasbord. But the architects do get to explore their own language.

Previous attempts to ‘create’ a creative district have often seemed artificial, indeed counter-intuitive. What makes this different?
Well, of course, you could just have had one or two big buildings on this site, surrounded by a moat of parking and split up into little pigeon holes, then put a creative in each one and call it a creative district.

That’s actually the efficient way of doing it. We weren’t going to do that. We wanted to do this thing of having individual buildings while still creating lanes, squares and courtyards – something with an urban grain.

The big thing is that it’s also permanent. You find people all the time who do pop-up or meantime uses in a kind of cynical way as a Trojan horse to get planning consent through for X thousand flats.

So we have had it ensconced in the planning consent. It’s written in that the buildings can only be 20m high and can only be specific uses, and have to have certain specific qualities about them. The area can’t just be flipped [to another use]. But the other big danger is of course that it’s too expensive and then no one can afford it.

Yes. So how do you calibrate what’s an affordable rent?
Well. Someone like an architect or a post-production editor might be paying £50 a square foot in a basement in Soho – and we’ll halve that easily: rents will be on average £25 per square foot. There will also be rents lower than that and some slightly higher. But not only won’t they be in a basement, but they’ll be up in a big loft in an architect-designed building, surrounded by the squares and the courtyards.

The design district indoor outdoor studio space greenwich peninsula ¬knight dragon

Can you explain in general the basic brief for every building?
It was generated by having a very clear idea of the different kinds (and needs) of creative industries.

Each building will have this tripartite character to it. There will be the studio spaces ­up in the heights, with north light and high ceilings, which will be great for easel artists and photographers.

Then on the middle floor we’ll have the desk-based creatives – people working on computers or on a surface.

And on the ground floor we’ll have workshops – designed for heavy machinery and for goods coming in and out.

So how did you manage the process of working with eight architects in the context of the masterplan?
The architectural community are, to be frank, quite bad at taking the pluralism of the modern contemporary city and translating that into a masterplan. Because they are so used to creating things and perfecting things and making them high quality, that there is an instinct to produce, not conformity exactly, but consistency. But we were very aware, using the metaphor of the theatre, that we were not designing the actors here.

That doesn’t mean the stage is invisible. And it’s a beautiful stage with a fantastic proscenium arch that works very well. But then we have to hand over to the actor. So the urban designer has to hand over to the architect, and then the architect has to do this to the incoming creatives. So it’s not designing a space that’s over-designed for the creative.

There needs to be a pluralism of voice that everyone understands in terms of the city – it’s not something that comes after.

How long do you expect people to stay?
Well some people might stay for 20 years but most will be for a few years perhaps. Some for a few weeks or months. But you want that. You want a lot of churn – people coming and going.

It will also be a very 24/7 environment, with people coming in at 2am on Sundays; the lights will always be flickering on and off, the bars always full. You have to remember there will be 1,800 people just working here – so it’s going to have this amazing anthill quality to it.

So there will be bars and cafés?
The infrastructure and services coming into each is designed to be ultra-flexible: so at ground level, some workshops can become bars or cafés. There is so much space. There will also be space to show work, to have galleries. We don’t want it just squirrelled away but also available for people to see.

So as well as the makers, you’ll be able to see and buy some of the things being made?
Yes. But we’re very clear it is not a site of consumption but of production – whether that is of an object, of a service or of an idea. What it certainly isn’t is a shopping centre or a business park.

We see it almost like what London used to be like; London as a site of actual production not just as a point of sale, where you could wander through places surrounded by makers, which is pretty thrilling. Nobody wants to create just points of sale anymore – you might want this on your phone but not anywhere else.

Will you be making any more appointments or have further buildings planned?
No. This is it for this design district, there’s no more space. It’s all being delivered together 

In fact, some buildings are only 3m apart – outrageously close to one another – it’s almost like in a medina, and probably the opposite of recommended masterplan practice – you know of being transparent and navigable. Some of the most memorable places in the world are those you discover for yourself … that you never knew were there, and there is something great about clambering your way through dense urban grain and finding spaces you never knew were there.

When the architects came forward with stuff, sometimes they were all over the place and went over plot boundaries. But we were able to take a view on each one of these cases, sometimes deciding: this is net positive so let’s let it go. So it wasn’t a rigid and rule-based way of development but based on a pool of trust.

The design district inside the selgascano designed food market greenwich peninsula ¬knight dragon

The design district inside the selgascano designed food market greenwich peninsula ¬knight dragon

The SelgasCano-designed food market

Has Brexit affected the project?
No. But one thing there might be in the future is more of a preference for British goods and materials because of the uncertainty over currency fluctuations and over deliveries – when it’s a choice between a British-made façade or a European-made one.

But the worse thing that could happen is the uncertainty over the exchange rate of the pound to the Euro. It just makes things difficult.

All the architects were paid the same fees no matter how big or small the building was

Do you reckon there are any potential Stirling Prize-winning schemes among the 16 buildings? 

Each of the buildings is interesting, but it’s the Gestalt effect of the district that is the really interesting thing. It’s when the public realm starts blurring across the buildings, across the spaces and up and down the stairwells – that’s what makes it really interesting.

We also made sure there were no dud plots. All the architects were paid the same fees no matter how big or small the building was. So this was very much not about the commission of the individual building but about the Gestalt effect of the district.

Given the current questions over the marginalisation of architects, how you ensuring the designs won’t be dumbed down?
It is in for planning now and we still have all the full architectural teams working away. Just this week we’ve had full Stage 3 packages and we’re going into Stage 4. So this is not your straight up and down Design and Build (D&B).

D&B here is as much related to transfer of risk to the contractor as anything else, because there is so much going on in the Greenwich Peninsula. It’s not D&B in terms of dumbing down the quality to get the price. So we are very much taking the architectural teams with us. Otherwise it would not be a design district; it’d be like a commodity or something.

In general this marginalisation has been, in part, the architects’ own fault. The project managers and others involved in the construction process are just more organised. Of course, there is that necessary side of architects, indeed of creatives, that TS Eliot once encapsulated as ‘the necessary laziness of poets’ – it’s a required quality but one that leaves them vulnerable to people who don’t care about the same things and are extremely organised. Traditionally their role was protected, indeed the client-architect relationship was always kept as primary.

Where there is a massive cost issue, architects – often seen as part of the problem – are usually the solution

The problem is often with the clients too, with buildings having just become commodities and development often being just an exercise in moving capital around from place to place – a process of commercial decision-making in which architects will be marginalised because they are not experts in the packaging and de-risking in the packaging of a commodities. Architects need to stop pretending that their presence is immune to those forces.

But the good news is that where there is a massive cost issue, architects – often seen as part of the problem – are usually the solution. Good clients recognise this. They know that you can’t just chuck lots of money at project; you need a vision, which is not just the process. Architects provide this. It is not just delivering the spreadsheet. So I think there are two sides. They can turn their hands to anything and are generalists in their training – and good at the synthesis of different aspects of a project. But as part of this they should learn more about how capitalism and commodification works.

Hannah Corlett and Peter Besley of Assemblage 

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