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

York’s Roman Quarter development: A site with potential both above and below ground, but the Council sees merely an ‘ugly duckling.’

Whilst large-scale proposals are often rejected by the populace (usually sight unseen), there is nevertheless a need and therefore a time and a place for such developments. Cities are constantly evolving and as such, new elements are always necessary. 

Here, the baseline qualification is that proposed developments must be ‘bespoke’ to their unique conditions, being sited, coordinated, programmed, planned and constructed holistically in such a manner so as to further enhance their site and setting. 

Within historic contexts, proposals able to demonstrate such a benefit should therefore be permitted in order to facilitate positive change that will in turn result in the continuing social, economic and environmental success of an area and its associated character and appearance; historic or otherwise.

The site of the Roman Quarter – a planned high rise – offers such an opportunity in a part of York’s city centre that would clearly benefit from such development.

A Location Ripe for Change

Whilst located within York’s historic city walls, the site’s immediate context is the opposite of what one expects when thinking of York’s historic more central core.  Its near surroundings comprise high rises ranging from the mid-C20 to the present day and more akin to a large, modern city than the generally lower, historic, more organically evolved buildings and streets for which York is renowned. 

Furthermore, the application site includes a building (Northern House) explicitly recognised as a ‘detractor’ from its overarching Character Area. Development proposals are therefore welcomed in order to facilitate positive change there (however challenging that may be, given the site’s intensively historic context).

Supplementing the potential for physical and visual enrichment, would be the higher profile presentation of York’s Roman history, which would finally be given due prominence by means of a proposed “Roman-themed attraction”. This will further accompany a “two-year archaeological dig” with the development being supported by York Archaeological Trust.

But earlier this year, York City Council rejected the proposal – what went wrong?

A Tale of Two Buildings

In February – following several rounds of consultation, comment, alteration and (some) support – the Council rejected the proposal; primarily for reasons of scale, massing and form, but further combined with an objection from Historic England.  While changes to the scheme had already been made with respect to said concerns, these were evidently not enough. 

From a perspective of aesthetic and programming, the proposed Roman attraction and the 10-storey building comprising 211 apartments, offices and shops are almost two entirely separate entities.  Whilst logical as one planning submission, this “two building” configuration has nevertheless highlighted the tower – in contrast with the attraction below, which is universally welcomed – as being a potentially more problematic aspect, and which is indeed the source of principal concern for the Council.

It would therefore appear that this dual aspect of proposals has – rightly or wrongly – given the impression that the attraction is merely a means to justifying an end comprising the mixed-use development, instead of appearing as a component part of what is actually one integrated whole.

If at First, You Don’t Succeed…

Any development of this scope and nature is a challenge, even when coupled with best intentions.  Unfortunately, in the view of the Council, this iteration proved an unsuccessful attempt to balance all variables – both tangible and intangible – and the task remains with the applicant to address all outstanding concerns to the satisfaction of the local planning authority.

The project is not entirely lifeless however, and ongoing discussion between developer North Star, the Council, and other relevant parties continue with the intention being to redesign a more acceptable scheme that benefits not merely the application site and its more immediate surroundings, but York as a whole.  

It is therefore hoped that a solution can be found that serves as a positive precedent for not only York, but other, large-scale developments located in intensively historic contexts, along with the benefits they are able to bring to the existing fabric they are stitched into, and the communities that occupy this.

Sources and Further Reading: