Bad timing meant the Docklands project proved the undoing of its developer, but its move to shift London’s centre of gravity eastwards was prescient, says Ellis Woodman
This year marks the 25th anniversary of a project that changed the landscape of London as profoundly as any in the city’s history. Setting to one side the advice of the heir to the throne – ‘Personally, I would go mad if I had to work in a place like that!’ – the employees of State Street Bank boarded the new Docklands Light Railway in the summer of 1991 and headed east to become the first occupants of Canary Wharf.
The eight buildings that constituted the project’s first phase had been built in just three and a half years with the aim of capitalising on both the tax breaks afforded by Docklands’ 10-year designation as an enterprise zone and the anticipated need for new office space following the deregulation of the UK’s financial markets in 1986. Developer Olympia and York, employing project management methods honed on developments in the US and its native Canada, revolutionised British construction in the process. Where the NatWest Tower had taken nine years to build, Cesar Pelli’s One Canada Square delivered four times the floor area for around the same cost, in a third of the time.
Yet while the development may have been a model of efficiency, Olympia and York got its timing spectacularly wrong. It completed work just as the UK was beginning to pull out of a two-year recession. The Canadians offered prospective tenants free rental periods and even bought The Daily Telegraph’s existing premises in order to lure it east; but deep as their pockets were, they did not prove deep enough. In March 1992, the company filed for bankruptcy, owing $20 billion.
It was not an auspicious start for a project that many already viewed as a monumental act of hubris. Margaret Thatcher had failed to make good on her promise of extending the Jubilee Line so, for the better part of a decade, Canary Wharf was destined to stand in alarming isolation. Its immediate context was a post-industrial wasteland peppered by the dismal fruits of the first five years of the enterprise zone designation – in the main, single-storey sheds. The development’s mono-functional nature and the fact that each of its urban blocks was occupied by a single gigantic building only exacerbated its phantasmagorical character. Canary Wharf did not feel much like London, or indeed any city.
Canary Wharf is increasingly a residential neighbourhood too, boasting shops and cinemas
Happily, today’s picture is more complex. The number of people working at Canary Wharf has quadrupled in the past decade, while a major expansion to the east is set to deliver another 30 very large buildings over the next 10 years. Not all will be offices. Canary Wharf is increasingly a residential neighbourhood too, boasting shops and cinemas that are patronised by Londoners from further afield. The launch of Crossrail in two years’ time, will represent a further step towards integration. Heathrow will lie just a 40-minute journey away but the connection to the east may ultimately prove just as important.
If Canary Wharf’s development represented a first sign of London’s centre of gravity shifting eastwards, a quarter of a century on, that process shows no sign of abating. A Crossrail-connected Thamesmead will lie an 11-minute commute from Canary Wharf and, given the necessary infrastructure investment, there is no shortage of land further east that would be fit for development.
Writing for the AJ at the time of Phase 1’s completion, Colin Davies took issue with Olympia and York’s suggestion that Pelli’s tower represented a symbol of London’s future. ‘It is static, not dynamic, backward rather than forward looking,’ he wrote. Increasingly it feels as if it looks both back to the city and outwards to the east.
Pelli’s enigmatic obelisk may look like it has been there forever but for the past twenty five years it has exerted a remarkable pull on the city to the west. Could it be that in another quarter century it might even come to embody London’s centre?