Insta-organic Development? Greenwich Peninsula’s Design District and its goal of conveying a ‘sense of a piece of city that has evolved over time’

The Greewich Peninsula Design District is sited to the south of more contentious developments such as the Millennium Dome (now O2 Arena)

Across England, there exists the potential for enhancing large areas of urban tract or individual brownfield sites.  The potential benefits of regenerative development can be tempting with respect to these sites, especially those that have always lacked intrinsic character, or even undergone unsuccessful redevelopment. In an immediate sense, these appear unencumbered by historic structures and the weight of significance or landmark quality.  With the development of this type of land, it is hoped that a distinctive character emerges that not only integrates with its surrounding fabric, but results in a definitive ‘sense of place‘. However, can such sites really prove ready-made and successful without the benefit of past foundations?

A Site with a History (of Controversy)

Located on the Greenwich Peninsula in London, which laid undeveloped until industrialisation in the 19th century, the Design District is a ‘purpose-built district made specifically for the creative community‘.  The 1990s served as a genesis for the redevelopment of the Peninsula as a whole, with the Design District being sited to the south of more contentious developments such as the Millennium Dome (now O2 Arena) and arguably more successful instances like Greenwich Millennium Village.

The Design District itself is not without its storms and a previous master plan – comprising several skyscrapers by ‘starchitect’ Calatrava – was eventually jettisoned. Whilst not entirely soulless, this concept does not unfortunately eschew the ivory tower ambience that many large developments convey and is seemingly dropped into a site in such a manner that remains fundamentally detached from its surroundings.  As such, one cannot assume either its success or lack thereof. However, such an approach echoes back to previous eras, when new, bold, optimistic designs were nonetheless handicapped by not having the framework of the past as a reference.

When a Clean Slate Poses a Problem

In this respect, one can look at numerous developments constructed post World War II. Here, novel, large-scale schemes comprising New Towns and other significant projects were predicted to usher in new standards and achieve a sense of place, yet without the baggage of the past.  Of course – as with all eras of architecture and design – there are successful examples from this period. But arguably – and with a sense of perspective – New Towns today are generally ‘derided for their lack of place, their soullessness‘, being unable to either endear themselves or enhance their surroundings; particularly when compared against older, more naturally evolved settlement.

Conversely, some studies have shown that palimpsest or fundamentally historic environments can provide a ‘stronger sense of place‘.  As such, historic buildings, streets or centres that have evolved over centuries and acquired the associated patina of time, have a cache that brand new developments do not, and achieving newly created genius loci is actually more challenging than this would initially appear.

What is Present is (Future) Past

So where does that leave developments such as the Design District?  Compared to the earlier Calatrava design, the current project makes choices – both in programming and design – that, irrespective of one’s preferred aesthetic, appear to optimise opportunities to create the ‘sense of place’ more commonly associated with historic areas.

First, being programmed for artisans and the creative community meets a need that has not yet been adequately met, resulting in a district that is distinct and fulfilling in such a way that exists nowhere else on the Peninsula. Second, with respect to form and massing, buildings of a lower elevation further distinguish the Design District from its high-rise contemporaries, whilst being of a scale that is more human and therefore amenable to its users.

Hiring a varied mix of architects to design an eclectic group of buildings and styles also halts the potential for ‘sameness’ and a repetitive quality across the development as a whole. Although some designs obviously echo previous typologies – thereby avoiding an entirely alien character and appearance – the resulting assemblies always avoid pastiche.

Whilst development of this type can never truly be truly ‘organic’, the District appears to have been designed and considered in such a manner as to successfully provide that all critical – yet fundamentally intangible – ‘sense of place‘. And although other projects may have faltered with time, this area may yet result in a wholly positive imprint, and one that sustains.

But will it meet all of its goals?  As with everything, only time will tell.

Sources and Further Reading