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Greenwich Design District plans revealed

Plans for a permanent home for the capital’s creative industries have been unveiled: here’s a first look at London’s future Design District.

15/04/2020 6 min read
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Dedicated to London’s creative community, the new Design District is a permanent hub for makers and thinkers driving forward the fields of design, art, tech, food, fashion, craft and music.

The Design District is a striking and eclectic addition to the city, occupying a one-hectare plot at the heart of Greenwich Peninsula, beside the O2 and NOW Gallery. It will provide space for work, play and cultural pursuits for around 1,800 people in the creative sector.

The urban developer behind the regeneration of Greenwich Peninsula, Knight Dragon, has set out to deliver a purpose-built creative neighbourhood that will exist in perpetuity – a dedicated district to preserve and stimulate the creative innovation and enterprise that has been integral to London’s global identity for centuries.

‘The simplest and most efficient route would have been to create a symmetrical layout of homogenous, large-scale workspaces, but the Design District will be a richer and more complex neighbourhood, with low-lying buildings sitting cheek by jowl around a series of asymmetric courtyards,’ says Matt Dearlove, Head of Design at Design District and Greenwich Peninsula.

Masterplanner Hannah Corlett is determined that the district should be a distinct ‘piece of city’, embodying the architectural diversity, unpredictable geometry and authentic character found in the creative neighbourhoods that evolved organically over centuries.

‘The Design District shares qualities with the scale and tight grain of pre-industrial inner-city neighbourhoods. The height, scale and massing of the buildings is small and human-scale in relation to the tall, large-footprint masses of surrounding buildings,’ says Hannah, the Founding Director of HNNA, says.

Some 16 buildings are to be designed by eight innovative architects. To achieve this, eight architects, including HNNA, have each taken on the design of two buildings, ensuring a range of architectural voices are expressed. Firms involved are 6a Architects, Adam Khan Architects, Architecture 00, Barozzi Veiga, David Kohn Architects, HNNA (previously Assemblage), Mole Architects and Selgas Cano.

The architects were handpicked – there was no competition and no-one turned the invitation down – and were asked to design a pair of buildings ‘blind’ from each other, to ensure diversity in the district’s buildings. Through this process, each practice was given the freedom to design independently and individually, without the restrictions that a prescribed materials palette or the design codes usually associated with masterplans might impose.

David Kohn

‘This masterplan has the bone structure of the places people naturally like to hang out. Small lanes and courtyards will breed creativity and make the Design District feel neighbourly in a way familiar to London,’ says Adam Khan, Director of Adam Khan Architects

The only significant stipulations were that each building should keep to a clear footprint to maintain the cohesiveness of the streets and public spaces, and that each architect should try to maximise affordability for tenants through all aspects of the design – for example, the brief required that each building had a single lift core and stair so that the floorplate dimensions would allow for natural ventilation, which reduces costs and energy consumption. These constraints forced the architects to think more creatively.

‘We wanted to ensure that the district reflected the diverse architectural styles and embraced the ‘wit and mess’ that one often finds in neighbourhoods that have grown organically over time,’ Mark Dearlove says. ‘The challenge was to do that from scratch in one go and so we wanted architects who would look at the project through a very individual lens. Even though they would work from the same brief, we felt they would bring a great sense of individuality to their buildings.’

This bold and playful combination of forms, colours and styles, stimulate the imagination – the ideal environment to inspire creative thinking, collaboration and bold new ideas.

The individual visions of multiple architects have created moments of serendipity – snippets of dialogue between buildings that could never have been planned or predicted with any other approach.

For example, the contoured roof of Selgas Cano’s transparent market building at the entrance to the site is unexpectedly paralleled in the undulating surfaces of HNNA’s adjacent, all-white façade; whereas 6a Architects’ neighbourly decision to slope the front of their harlequin-patterned building has gifted Barozzi Veiga’s structure with a view across the central courtyard to its counterpart. The design of the outdoor areas is the work of Copenhagen-based landscape architects Schulze+Grassov.

‘Good urban design considers how people, buildings and open spaces relate to each other,’ Oliver Schulze, Founding Partner at Schulze+Grassov, explains. ‘The Design District reinvents the idea of the city for the 21st century: a medina of buildings, each with their own character, but sharing a common DNA and approach to the public realm. Rather than forcing context and conformity upon its buildings, the Design District liberates them – it has a built-in eclecticism that is distinctly British. The open spaces are the glue that holds the district together, connecting buildings and encouraging interaction between businesses. The coworking yards at the heart of each cluster reference the working yards of the Industrial Revolution, with signature trees in each courtyard that will blossom at different times, so occupants will be exposed to the rhythm of the changing seasons as they work.’

Thanks to the irrepressible individuality of the architecture, the coherence of HNNA’s masterplan and the shared landscape design, the Design District will have a clear sense of identity, an engagingly organic character, and a dynamic creative energy reflecting that of its tenants.

HNNA’s masterplan arranges the buildings in four loose clusters, each with a shared courtyard at the centre, and a fifth, larger, courtyard area in the heart of the site. These public spaces are linked by an asymmetric network of pedestrian lanes, which are angled to disrupt sight lines and cultivate a sense of discovery and surprise as people navigate their way through.

Throughout the 16 buildings will be versatile spaces, specialist workshops, studios, meeting rooms, pop-up sites, food and drink venues, destinations for leisure and cultural activity and even a rooftop multisport court – everything needed to nurture a vibrant creative community – as well as some 150,000 sq ft of workspace.

A broad range of businesses, including ambitious start-ups, individual makers, and household-name enterprises are preparing to move in later in the year, taking the unique opportunity to be inspired by extraordinary architectural surroundings.

One of the Design District’s founding objectives is to provide affordable workspace to creative businesses of every scale. To achieve this, the team worked closely with the Mayor’s Office and has secured recognition as an affordable provider by the Greater London Authority.

Aiming to start at £7 per sq m, rents will be scaled depending on the workspace to be rented and the size and needs of the tenant, and will be reviewed regularly. In order to deliver a site-wide blended-rent target of £25 per sq m, larger organisations will be able to occupy buildings at commensurate rents that will reduce the rental burden on smaller businesses. This is designed to create an ecosystem of businesses of varying sizes, each contributing according to its means, which will ensure that any individual or organisation that wishes to be part of the district can afford to find a home here and benefit from this unique creative environment.

Selgas Cano

‘We have a determination to eschew that lazy ‘follow the herd’ thinking that so dominates new developments,’ comments Richard Margree, CEO of Knight Dragon. ‘As the Greenwich Peninsula project is twice the size of Soho, it deserves fresh and bold thinking. Not that the creative industries are new – quite the opposite. They have defined what is great about the UK and London for centuries. In no small part, they have made London the global city and tourist destination it is today. Yet, starved of cash and quality places to create, the sector has become a difficult career choice for so many. So we are going to play our part in changing that, by providing extraordinary workspaces at incredible value rents. Not temporary. Not tokenistic. Not cynical. The Design District is a real place for real people to take their ideas and create real things.’

Although nothing confirmed right now, of course, the new Design District is scheduled to open later this year.

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