AJ LANDSCAPE STUDY London’s Thames Barrier Park by Patel Taylor and Groupe Signes suggests the capital has learned some lessons from continental examples - but does London really know how to look after it?
Drive along North Woolwich Road to City Airport and there are plane trees and planted mounds as if you were in the middle of a business park. The effect is a surreal antiurbanism - London’s East End made Milton Keynes.
This is the surviving evidence of 20 years of the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC), a development agency that in its early years did not believe in masterplanning. But the LDDC changed its ideas in the late 1980s as it pushed east to the vacant spaces of the Royal Docks.
The new Thames Barrier Park is the swansong of the old LDDC. It represents the thought, effectively new to post-war London government, that public urban park investment can lead the redevelopment of an area.
Here it is meant to encourage private housing. So far, the site to the west has been developed by Barratt, with a continuous block of six- or seven-storey white ‘Modernist’ housing by Goddard Manton terminating in an 18-storey tower block on the riverside. The area immediately to the east has yet to be marketed while, to the north, the Pontoon Dock site on the far side of North Woolwich Road is subject to a London Development Authority (LDA) two-stage competition.
The park’s uses are traditional. It is a place to walk in, to see horticultural displays and to enjoy views of London - the Thames Barrier, the river itself and tree-clad Shooters Hill to the south. The old Spillers’ Millennium Mills by the Royal Victoria Dock is the main landmark to the north.
Surprisingly, the new Barratt housing along all the western boundary blocks views to Canary Wharf and the Millennium Dome from most of the park.
The site in Silvertown previously housed a chemical and dye works, an armaments factory and a tarmac plant, bringing a legacy of pollution - particularly oils and tars. It had been cleared for a Thames Barrier construction site but had lain largely derelict since 1984. The Greater London Council proposed a park in 1984, an idea adopted by the LDDC which acquired the site. In 1995, it staged an international two-stage competition for which the brief was very loose:
reclamation of the derelict and toxic land, a park and residential development. At this stage there was no set budget.
The site fronts the Thames just west of the northern end of the Thames Barrier.
Sadly, there is no river landing stage to the park (though there is a jetty by the Barratt housing). It follows the pattern of rectangular parks along Woolwich Reach: Lyle Park to the west and Royal Victoria Gardens in North Woolwich.
London-based architect Patel Taylor and Paris-based landscape architect Groupe Signes won the competition, with Arup as engineer, in 1996. Groupe Signes is particularly identified with Alain Provost, who has recently retired. Among his contribution were designs for Parc Diderot at La Defense and Parc Citroen Cevennes in Paris.
The park was developed in two phases.
The first, comprising reclamation, riverbank work and earthworks, cost about £2.3 million and began in January 1997. Reclamation involved dewatering of the contaminated water table, off-site disposal of the areas of oils and tars, and formation of a capillary break layer. The heavy metals in the soils were low concentrations and were not mobile.
Phase two was park building and planting, costing about £5.8 million.Work began in January 1998 and was completed in March 2000, with a two-year maintenance contract to follow. Meanwhile, in 1998 the LDDC wound up and the park passed first to English Partnerships and, in turn, on to the LDA in July 2000 when the Greater London Authority was set up. Now the park is owned and maintained by the LDA for the GLA and park maintenance is under contract.
The overall tender prices were just over £8 million, which came from the LDDC, English Partnerships and the London Borough of Newham. Overall the park is much as the original design intended; only the plaza fountains were reduced in scope. It covers 9.3ha and this gives an all-in figure of £86/m 2for Parc de Bercy in Paris, the budget was not generous.
The park is due to pass to the London Borough of Newham on 31 March 2002. But there is no provision of funding from the LDDC or LDA land sales for the ongoing park maintenance, other than the indirect receipts from council tax and business rates.
The LDDC never provided properly for the management inheritance of its public open space, even though this was a problem the older new town corporations were all facing when the LDDC was set up.
The Patel Taylor/Groupe Signes design was for a simple, square-shaped grass plateau fronting the Thames, with housing development on three sides. The housing blocks were to be like ‘armchairs’ to maximise views in and allow views out.
Most of this square plateau is mown grassland, but it is marked by patterns of long meadow grass and copses of birch trees.
The idea was for six wild-flower meadowgrass areas in whites, reds, blues, and yellows, but this June the long grass was dominated by green vetch.Wild-flower meadow-grass is difficult to achieve in public parks because people trample on the grass (not a problem here yet) and because it needs low fertility and skilled management - a problem in many London parks.
The overall square park plan is aligned along North Woolwich Road and the old Silvertown tramway. Because the riverside is four or five metres higher than the road, the design responds to this incline. A northsouth ramped cut across the site - the ‘green dock’ - was made to link the riverside to the hinterland.
The idea of a meandering river was discarded early on in favour of a straight, dry dock-like channel with 5m-high sides. As part of the reclamation contract, the cut material was used to fill and level the plateau.
The outer perimeter of the park has blocks of tree-planting on the western and eastern boundaries to give some protection from the wind but, apart from the shelter of the green dock, the site is open and breezy, almost as if it were by the coast.
The overall square plan is marked by a loose gravel path and monospecific block plantings of beech and hornbeam and blocks of brightly coloured flowers and leaves; along the river is a promenade, demarcated landward by a ha-ha. The original idea of a ha-ha edge to all sides of the park has been undermined by Barratt, which has protected its housing with a high metal fence.
In the competition entry, the green dock had mounds rising and falling within it like waves, to create some sense of mystery as one approached from the park entrance on North Woolwich Road. However, only one mound has been built at the northern end.
Now the view extends uninterrupted from the entrance across the whole park to the shapes of the Thames Barrier’s bright, stainless steel-clad piers. This green dock gesture is almost overwhelming at first, but repeated visits become a bit of a traipse because there is just one way in and one way out.
The entrance to both park and green dock is marked by a piazza, paved in silvergrey granite (with lines of black granite), from which rise 32 pavement fountains.
Similar to those at Citroen Cevennes, these were designed and constructed by Ocmis Irrigation (which also did the waterworks at Somerset House). They can soar to 6m, though they are lower at present, and dance up and down as they are operated by variable-speed pumps and electronic controls.
This piazza is contained within the open northern end of the dry dock and is set within stark, smooth in situ concrete walls.
From above the patterned stripes show up strongly. The materials are simple: in situ concrete, chunky stanchion-like balustrades, stainless wire fences, gravel and timber decking. The steelwork is either galvanised or finished in a nautical grey, iron-oxide paint.
The effect is of elegant late Modernism, as if the last 20 years of English neo-vernacular had not happened. It is refreshing to see such a simple, confidently handled, truly contemporary park design in the UK.
The basic plan is like a dislocated St Andrew’s Cross, with the dry dock and a single cross-path from north-east to southwest (which bridges the dry dock) forming the diagonals. The contrast of diagonal with rectangular lawn reminds one of Provost’s design at Citroen Cevennes. And emphasising the Frenchness of it all is the bed of the dry dock, which has been divided into 10 strips of planting separated by precast paving.
One of the strips is lawn; the remainder are brightly coloured monospecific plantings of herbaceous plants and shrubs, ranging from geraniums to Rudbeckia to poppies, like a rather cramped version of the Jardin Botanique in Paris. Rising from these strips are waves of rising and falling shaggy yew hedges.
Monospecific planting such as this is a signature of the Versailles Landscape School (including Provost), but in London there is a bit of a problem because current maintenance is not quite up to the job.
There are weeds and the imported clay loam topsoil is waterlogged in places, which is clearly affecting the yew hedges. (Instead of imported clay loam, it might have been better to use sandy loams or to manufacture topsoil by importing sandy subsoil and organic materials. ) It is brave to go for horticultural display in a London park nowadays, but that needs to be backed up by a continuing commitment to management.
The walls of the green dock are of reinforced earth at a fairly steep, 70infinity slope. These now form impressively green walls covered with an evergreen honeysuckle, Lonicera pileata, and are permanently irrigated.
The dock ends at an open pavilion on the riverside walk. Approach is through a narrow ramped slot in concrete set in the wave mound. The pavilion consists of 23 irregularly spaced steel columns supporting a slatted timber roof with a large circular hole;
in the centre the steel columns congregate to form a cluster. Below are wavy profile black granite ‘lie-back’ benches, another Provost signature.
The pavilion commemorates those who lost their lives in London’s blitz. Simple and elegant in form, it is reminiscent of the shading structures in Barcelona’s Sants Station plaza. The shadows of the slats and circle create patterns on the deck, conjuring a place out of the air.
By the car park at the northern end of the dry dock, is a simple Patel Taylor-designed visitor centre and cafe with a frame of green oak. The cafe has not opened yet.
This public park is remarkable for London, first because it has been built at all and, second, because it is in a simple Modernist style - indeed, it is almost Dutch in its minimalism. But at present it is primarily a feature to view from a private apartment balcony or from which to view the Thames; it lacks activities. There is a small playground filled with standard play equipment and a solo basketball practice pitch (as if this were the East Side, not the East End).
Paths at the plateau level lead to proposed connections to the future high-level Pontoon Dock station on the DLR extension to City Airport.
Currently the only easy access is by road, by bus to North Woolwich, or by a 20minute trek from Custom House Station, north of Royal Victoria Dock and over Lifschutz Davidson’s bridge. In consequence, this is an isolated park for the few local people and for tourists - it is strangely empty at present.
And the DLR extension will not be operational until 2004 at the earliest. Thus, the public transport infrastructure that will transform this area will not be installed until nearly a quarter of a century after the LDDC was set up. Once the DLR extension is open, this area will rocket in value.
As with transport infrastructure, so with parks and environmental infrastructure: the history of London is of a failure to invest in a way that is common to other European cities.
In contrast to Citroen Cevennes, which has a similar grand lawn or parterre, and to most country house parks, you cannot look down on the park and get an overall prospect (except from the private housing).
It is to be hoped that the DLR railway station will provide such a vantage point.
Meanwhile, the effect is to reduce the visitor’s feeling of command and comprehension; the park would be spooky in a fog.
As a catalyst, it has sparked the Barratt development, which, as well as blocking views to the west, currently excludes the public from its stretch of riverside walk.
Nor do Barratt’s own residents have direct access to the park (they do jog, after all, and could have been given gates and keys). This Barratt scheme is far too defensive. Future development around the park should try to embrace it and be more spatially ‘permeable’.
A new park in London of this quality should be celebrated.
It is cool, controlled, and sets the stage. But that platform has to be followed through and populated.
Parks are not profitable; they are a necessary component of civilised urban living - places of royal and now public patronage.
But the British have huge problems in their approach to urban park management because central government does not trust, or adequately finance, local government to do its job. As a consequence, local authority parks departments are both underfunded and deskilled.
Thames Barrier Park shows every sign of lessons learned from Barcelona, Paris and beyond, but it is too soon to say whether London knows how to look after it.
CONTRACT 1 Enabling works comprising construction of new section of river wall, recontouring, placing of imported capillary break layer, diversion of existing and installation of new service connections for the Thames Barrier Park site FORM OF CONTRACT ICE Conditions of Contract, Sixth edition 1991 PROCUREMENT AND TENDER DATE Single-stage selective tender, November 1996 CONTRACT START DATE AND DURATION January 1997, 27 weeks TOTAL COST £2,311,631 (including preliminaries) CONTRACT 2 Formation of new landscaped park, including the construction of a pavilion building, associated structures, services, hard and soft landscaped areas FORM OF CONTRACT GC/WORKS/1 Conditions of Contract, Third edition 1989 PROCUREMENT AND TENDER DATE Single-stage selective tender, October 1997 CONTRACT START DATE AND DURATION August 1998, 70 weeks GROSS FLOOR AREA OF PAVILION BUILDING 282m 2TOTAL COST OF PAVILION BUILDING £398,853 (excluding services installations)