Variety is the spice in high density London scheme

 

There are 58 different types of units, 199 homes and a rooftop football pitch in a mixed-use development in London Docklands

THE DOCKLANDS area of London has come a long way since parts of it were designated in the 1980s as a Thatcherite enterprise zone, free of planning restrictions. Canary Wharf, with the city’s tallest building – One Canada Square – as its centrepiece, is now a thriving business district, supplemented by more and more housing in the vicinity.

Pan Peninsula, developed by Ballymore Properties, is a flagship of new living in Docklands. Two sleek towers, rising to 40 and 50 storeys at Millwall Dock and containing more than 700 luxury apartments, are the tallest residential buildings in Britain, designed for Seán Mulryan by international architects Skidmore Owings and Merrill.

There had to be some payback for the public, in the form of social and affordable housing, and this has now been built in a stylish scheme by Brady Mallalieu Architects, run by Dublin-born Angela Brady and her partner Robin Mallalieu.

They also designed Dublin’s first “foyer” sheltered housing project for young people at Marrowbone Lane.

Some 500 metres west of Pan Peninsula, on Mastmaker Road, Phoenix Heights is immediately identifiable on the London Docklands skyline by its two towers, 20 and 23 storeys high, with their projecting canopies at penthouse levels, vibrant use of colour and solid balconies big enough for residents to sit out and enjoy the breathtaking views.

South of Canary Wharf, the 1.5-acre site is on the western edge of the Millennium Quarter, where the masterplan called for a gradual reduction in building heights towards squat two-storey houses in the Barkantine Estate, built in the late 1960s; they are gathered around four identikit 22-storey towers — as grim as anything in Ballymun.

The new complex drops down from its two towers to five low-rise buildings of three to seven storeys, arranged around a pair of pleasant south-facing courtyards, with a gated children’s playground at the south-western corner.

There is also an AstroTurf football pitch in a wire cage on top of the five-storey block that houses the community centre.

Apart from the pitch, which provides an active “green roof”, the centre has a double-height entrance space, training facilities, a music recording studio, meeting rooms and a café/shop at the corner of Byng Street, which is intended to contribute to the life of the area. When we had a tour of the complex last month, this unit had not yet been let.

The elevations are deliberately varied to allow the large complex to respond to local context around its different edges. Zinc cladding reinforces the corner of Mastmaker Road and Byng Street, while larch weatherboarding, with patches of red and orange fibre cement, provide a warm contrast to the cooler aesthetic of nearby office blocks.

Or, indeed, the shimmering residential towers of Marsh Wall. “Who’s going to sit on one of those balconies, I mean really?” Robin Mallalieu exclaims.

“The test we gave ourselves was if someone came along and built a PVC conservatory on one of our balconies, would the whole architecture melt into a pile of nothing, as it would over there?”

His own answer, predictably, was that it probably wouldn’t – because Phoenix Heights has such variety. This helps to break down the scale of what is, he admits, a “huge dense piece of work”.

It’s also “definitely not a gated community”, as Angela Brady points out, because anyone can walk through it from the surrounding streets.

This was also specified by the Millennium Quarter masterplan, to make up for the practically zero connections between the pre-existing residential communities on the Isle of Dogs – such as the Barkantine Estate – and “all the wealth coming into Canary Wharf”, as Mallalieu puts it. So Phoenix Heights has that element of social engineering.

Altogether, there are 199 homes in a mix of houses with own-door access from courtyards, maisonettes and apartments conveniently located to Canary Wharf and the Docklands Light Railway. But what makes it even more remarkable is the mix of housing tenures – social (49 per cent), affordable (22 per cent) and private (29 per cent).

The affordable component was aimed at meeting the needs of “key workers” in London – teachers, nurses, police officers, etc – who might otherwise have had no option but to move out to the wilds of Essex; it was former London mayor Ken Livingstone who insisted that they would have to be provided for close to where they work.

Incredibly, there are 58 different types of units in Phoenix Heights, of all shapes and sizes; it must have taxed the ingenuity of the architects to design them all. Family-sized homes are located at the base of the building having direct access to rear gardens, a playground and courtyard areas, while apartments are located in the two towers.

Environmental features include “green walls” of climbing plants integrated with bird boxes to encourage wildlife – right opposite a warehouse containing the Bank of New York’s computer centre. Biodiversity roofs and a link to the Barkantine combined heat and power plant also contributed to its “very good” EcoHomes rating.

The entire north elevation on Mastmaker Road is much starker than its southern counterpart and reads like the back of the building, which is unfortunate. “Value engineering” – in other words, number-crunching by the developers – was partly responsible for this and the omission of some other features that were in the original architectural design.

But the scheme is an exemplar of high-density urban living, with 132 units per acre. All 57 of the private apartments were sold by Ballymore Properties to an unnamed investor for an undisclosed price and are now in the process of being rented out – probably to young professionals with well-paid jobs in and around Canary Wharf.

Showflats were given the kind of lavish fit-out one expects from Ballymore. Most of them have one or two bedrooms, and even the single-bedroom units are generously sized. Disappointingly, livingrooms in the penthouse apartments are not large, as one might expect – certainly, nothing like Clarion Quay on Dublin’s North Wall.

But architect Derek Tynan, who was involved in designing Clarion Quay, said it “should be on a ‘must visit’ list for anybody associated with housing policy in Ireland to demonstrate what can be achieved as long as we do not retreat from the aspirations of neighbourhood, sustainability and quality developed over the past 10 years.

“As Government policy here retreats from any commitment to building mixed-tenure housing – in favour of long term rental from the private sector – it is enormously refreshing to see such an exemplar of intelligently designed, sustainable housing accommodating a diversity of tenures,” he commented after we toured Phoenix Heights.

“The generosity of community facilities, the garden space and the use of the roof spaces – including the rooftop soccer pitch – are great, but most cogent of all was the level of civilised urbanity which the scheme extracts from the Isle of Dogs, standing as a criticism of what has gone before and a portent of what could happen hereafter.”