The many pasts, present, and perceivable futures of London's Battersea Power Station
by Anmol AhujaNov 14, 2022
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Anmol AhujaPublished on : May 27, 2023
With every architecture striving towards making a dent on the urban scale, inching towards an ever elusive urban renewal, it appears as though a singular usage, a unifaceted spatial programme simply isn’t pragmatic enough to attract either capital or public interest. This is especially valid for cities closing in fast on an urban congestion of sorts, limiting the extent of construction activities and architecture-for-urban-renewal they can undertake—and London is a fitting example. As with its recent revamp of the Battersea Power Station into a mixed-use scheme unlike any other, it becomes apparent that this amalgamated real estate hybrid is a bonafide architectural typology in its own, located at the centre of contemporary city-politics and socio-economic cohabitation. Spaces must transform into hubs, locations into one-stop destinations, and places of business and offices into incubators for the creative community at large. The mixed-use typology may thus seemingly appear to be a method for a much more equitable distribution of functions over large pockets of land—and it admittedly does release stakeholdership to the public—even if the larger question of equity over the city, over land, over resources, and housing, looms.
At the heart of these extensive exercises in placemaking lie veritable attempts at image making—the image of a disparate but diverse group of people coming together to achieve a near utopian vision of communal harmony, the greens and commons being fully utilised as intentioned and significantly adding to their quality of life, and a young, creatively oriented section of the community thriving within this commune, finding inspiration in this new, revived setting. The architectural image here seems like a contemporary radicalisation of the modern image in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, wherein quality living in the city is ‘spectacle’ enough. Housing is precisely the arena to best project that image. A massive 2.23 hectare site located on the fringes of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London transforms into that arena as a response to the rapid urbanisation and densification that the Fish Island neighbourhood and Hackney Wick at large have been witness to in the wake of the 2012 Olympics in London.
The approach to this site from the Hackney Wick overground station, itself renovated and modernised close to half a decade ago, is marked by rows of uninterrupted graffiti lined streets, and several houseboats bobbing along the Hertford Union Canal. This visual avenue clears to make way for arrival into a large public square amid a cluster of mid-rise buildings, first in a series of planned courts that are permeable towards the side of the canal. Unassuming tinted brick facades set within precast concrete frames compose 588 mixed tenure dwellings in this complex, propped on 5,522 sq.m. of expansive commercial space on the ground—the eye is immediately met by this contiguous band of double storey workspaces wrapping around the buildings at their base. A quarter of this housing is in the officially affordable category; two others are renters’ blocks, while the fourth one comprises a version of classic British maisonettes. All of the housing blocks follow the same subdued architectural formation but are visibly treated differently on the surface. A series of black steel balconies project outwards from the mass of housing units along the canal, reminiscing the vestiges of an erstwhile warehouse aesthetic. At once a regeneration project, a bout at a distinct kind of urbanisation, and a response to a rather animated densification in the area, a series of nine concordant blocks over three aesthetically and materially earmarked phases compose Fish Island Village.
Its scale only exceeded by its aspirations towards its montaged context, the ‘village’ is a result of sizeable collaborations across the board. The overall vision for the site as a hub for artistic production and affordable homes and studio spaces reforming industrial heritage is by Haworth Tompkins, building on an outline planning consent from 2012 by Stock Woolstencroft, with the flow and walkability largely engineered through the use of a two-dimensional Nolli plan. Within the masterplan, the extensive series of works are designed and detailed by three individual teams of architects. The centrepiece of the arrival square, a stand-alone building called Lanterna comprising 16 dwellings and a restaurant on the ground floor is by Lyndon Goode Architects. Pitman Tozer Architects design Monier Road, comprising three blocks of 71 homes and seven workspace studios. The most sizeable of the lot, Neptune Wharf is designed by Haworth Tompkins, built up of 17 individual blocks across three clusters of 501 housing units, and 56 commercial set-outs, all linked porously through a series of courtyards on ground. David Lyndon, Director, Lyndon Goode Architects, Luke Tozer, co-founding director of Pitman Tozer Architects, and Sho Das-Munshi, Associate at Haworth Tompkins, joined STIR for a walk along Fish Island Village on a crisp February afternoon, discussing the design language, intent, and eventual manifestation of the project, eight years in the making.
The neighbourhood appears at once to be held hostage by its industrial heritage, as a disused brick chimney from the time stands restored as a relic at a street intersection, while at the same time poised to break free from it, even charged so, as a form of local dissent fills the streets and the walls abutting the canal with graffiti art calling out the gentrification and lack of affordable housing in the area. A surviving defunct warehouse across the canal from the Lanterna square bears the words “broken homes” sprayed in wavy but monochrome letters on its jaded brick front. While these may predate Fish Island Village’s interventive carving of disused single-storey warehouses for homes and offices following the site’s own own quasi-urban planning logic, complete with the formation of new public streets and squares with “European aspirations”, a sentiment of a reinforcement of hegemonic narratives isn’t seemingly lost. In that, the structures’ astute understatedness—a peculiar but harmonious mix of British new brutalism in the concrete and the quintessential London industrial warehouse in the brick—seems both a veritable aesthetic choice and an attempt to aggressively meld, perhaps camouflage the scale of intervention in opposition of architectural iconicity or statement making.
The largely cuboidal masses of the housing blocks are formed in essential materials – concrete and brick – to draw on exactly these aspects of robustness, durability, and permanence that the development seeks to reflect from the area’s historical warehouses. With the public spaces it creates in the interstices between these mid-rise blocks, Fish Island Village strives for legibility and usability, focusing on both unique wayfinding models and intuitive navigation and usage through appropriate distinctions between soft and hardscapes, purpose-defined courts with amenities that are unique to the cluster of buildings it serves, and permeability to primary pedestrian routes along the edges of the development. The legibility extends to the buildings themselves, apart from lending diversity to the overall palette, with six distinct brick types used alongside grit-blasted, acid-etched, and fair-faced concrete in the courtyard blocks in Neptune Wharf. A lighter shade of solid brick contrasted over a black brick base with deep reveals is used along the residences of Monier Road—relatively plain faced on the outside, but opening into a U-shaped court on the inside, overlooking back-to-back green backyards of the maisonette houses. The curved steel fire escape ironically emerges as the highlight of this building, concealed from the world but adding a world of character to the units within.
The linearity of the brick bonds is contrasted in Lanterna that bears dark hand-cast concrete panels inlaid with a prominent herringbone pattern. The strong visual demarcation in cladding pattern establishes it as a gateway building to the village fronting what is to be a prominent public square in the development, with a future elevated walkway planned to eliminate the snaking walk along the canal, linking both the overground station and primary roadway directly to the square. Additionally, all homes have private recessed terraces, balconies, or winter gardens in blocks overlooking the A12, along with others having shared sheltered roof terraces with greens, photovoltaics, and communal spaces. The architectural legibility, despite the scale and recurrence of the housing blocks is only expanded by the personalisation and a sense of customisability—with planters, accessories, furniture, and even clotheslines—that is afforded to residents by way of these sizeable balconies and terraces.
The horizontal striation gains prominence along the workspaces on the ground floor, wherein their character is further pronounced by floor-to-ceiling glazing, catalysing the activity front along the streets and courtyard blocks. This is akin to the strategy employed by the reformed Battersea Power Station, using commercialised fronts to activate groundscapes and ensure footfalls during the day. The set of workspaces is managed by social enterprise The Trampery who imagine the Fish Island Village campus to be a dedicated new hub for fashion, sustainability, and innovation. Comprising a total of 63 flexible studios, a 30-desk coworking spaces, an event space for catwalks, and other amenities including a restaurant, cafés, and a fully equipped manufacturing suite, the set of workspaces and fashion studios benefit immensely from the quasi industrial scale—the architects refer to these as essentially modern warehouses, but with the pitched roof taken away and replaced with an additional mass of residences above. London based Bureau de Change worked on the fit-out of The Trampery studios, imbuing them with a design language defined by interlacing timber structures and an ombré palette that references the industrial history of silk weaving and dyeing in the area.
Apart from providing low-cost and subsidised workspaces to up and coming labels and designers, along with a dedicated block for creative Hackney Wick businesses, the programme is fervently supported by the LLDC and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Admittedly so, the canal facing workspaces are a huge draw for creative businesses and even retail outlets. As residents continue to move into the homes above sporadically, it is the people in these workspaces that continue to add a semblance of life to the courtyards and public spaces – cross pollinating during lunchtimes, breaks, and spurts of creative chats in the open – as the aspirational sense of community extends to not just the residents, but these business owners and designers as well.
Planted as delightful surprises along fabricated streets and intersections, and serving as rustic reminders of the area’s past, a navigational aid, and pause points for contemplation and discovery, artist William Cobbing’s Written in Water is a unique kind of public art installation enforcing unique public interactions and relations with it. Twelve square cast plates, reminiscent of rusted manhole covers the size of the concrete pavers, are embossed with quotes, anecdotes, local legends of the area’s own distinct history, often contrasting it with the popular discursive history of London at large, providing a “portal” to the past of Fish Island. One of them, a particularly telling and endearing one, testament to the urban age of Fish Island, and lending perhaps an uncouth yet candid perspective on city making and urbanisation, reads: When I was a kid, we nicknamed this neck of the woods ‘Fishy Island’. The roads are named after freshwater fish, bream, dace and roach.
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