As London mayor Sadiq Khan proposes greater densification for London in his draft London Plan, Ian Ralph of Lead 8 explains how his studio is designing a new generation of dense and adaptable mixed-use developments in Asia
We have seen a dramatic vertical shift in the UK’s capital and other major cities. London’s skyline in particular is a highly emotive topic, its Walkie-Talkies, Cheesegraters and Gherkins exciting divergent views from delight (‘beautiful and iconic’) to disdain (‘monolithic and ugly’).
As the debate about our growing cities rages on, densification is becoming a prominent theme. London, the fastest-growing region in the UK, for example, is likely to grow to 10.5 million people by 2041. Growth is both inescapable and vital as demand for more residential and commercial space increases.
Globalisation and technological developments are changing behaviours and consumption habits, pushing architects to rethink spaces. Millennials and ‘Generation Rent’ are ushering in a new culture of co-spaces, a trend affecting how we all work, live and shop. The here-and-now, shared-space generation is reconfiguring building design and pushing for innovative ways to accommodate increasing demand for flexible work and living environments as well as social spaces as housing sizes shrink and demand for convenient social and leisure amenities rise.
Densification is inevitable, but that doesn’t have to be at the cost of liveable and enjoyable environments. Asia has been leading the way over the past few years with multi-use, compact and well-connected buildings and offers some lessons. As a multidisciplinary firm of architects, designers and masterplanners with three studios in Asia and currently setting up a London presence, Lead 8 has been pioneering new approaches to rapid urbanisation through transit-oriented development, mixed-use sites and repurposing of old building stock.
As specialists in sustainable mixed-used developments across Asia, we don’t design high or low for the sake of it – what comes first has to be consideration of how to create liveable, workable and healthy living environments. Building vertically is just one of the options, but we seek to maximise the relationship between spaces and users with a mix of units, uses and meaningful spaces, creating more active developments in terms of health, commercial opportunity and security.
Building vertically is just one of the options … the debate has become too obsessed with height
We also approach single use where it is no longer fit for purpose, a phenomenon common in the UK where residential car parks during the day and clusters of offices and retail parks at night sit empty. If approached differently municipalities like London have huge potential for real estate developments in spaces that are currently untapped.
Another gap in the urban fabric that needs to be tackled are railway and underground rail stations, most of which are single-use. Much of Lead 8’s work in Asia is about creating spaces in which to live, shop, work or play above and around key transport nodes, minimising commutes, maximising opportunities and creating distinctive new hubs of activity whilst reducing demand for car use.
Our retail masterplan for Todtown, a 740,000m² transit-oriented development located above a major transport interchange in the Minhang district of Shanghai, optimises land use, integrates transport and bus services to encourage the use of public transport. By taking innovative approaches we’ve brought active green spaces that utilise roofspace, and even open up basement access allowing for variety of busy squares and quiet gardens as well as active street environments.
The future success of any building or block is not a matter of becoming famous or iconic, but a well-designed building adapting over time. Mixed-used, higher-density schemes can be successful and sustainable. This will work in the UK as is the case elsewhere. The debate has become too ideologically obsessed with height, rather than being focused on reducing single-use, monoculture developments that do not evolve with societal shifts and the changing environment.
Ian Ralph is associate director of multidisciplinary architecture and design studio Lead 8
Image courtesy of Sun Hung Kai Properties Limited, Ronald Lu & Partners (Hong Kong)