The architecture of unhappiness

How the Docklands style is ruining Britain's urban fabric
Bland, boring and ruining the city

Bland, boring and ruining the city

The “Docklands style” is the quintessentially British architecture of the 21st century. It is not easy to describe although anyone living or familiar with London today will find it instantly recognizable. Perhaps the best way to identify it is not for what it is but for what it isn’t. First and most obvious, it is not the classic Victorian and Georgian terraces and mansions that still can be found in abundance in most British cities. Secondly, it is not the grim, monolithic council estates that were designed as modernist utopias after World War II but slowly fell into disrepair and squalor. Take these two out of the equation and you’re left with the Docklands style, which on the surface seeks to emulate the wharf and warehouse conversions that have become ubiquitous in over the past three decades, first in East London but later spreading like an unholy urbanistic plague across much of Britain.

Indeed the Docklands style stretches back to the Thatcher era when large tracts of unused land in what used to the be the Port of London (the world’s largest up to around World War II) were revitalized as part of numerous development schemes, the most notable which was Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs. Canary Wharf was at the time the single largest commercial development project ever attempted, so ambitious and yet so untimely that it resulted in the bankruptcy of its Canadian developer, Paul Reichmann. Yet despite its near-death experience, the relocation of various key banks into the area (notably HSBC and Citigroup) in the early 1990s saved Canary Wharf from turning into an embarrassing financial flop. Although Canary Wharf is almost entirely commercial, its surroundings were transformed in tandem into new residential areas, which included Canada Water and the southern tip of the Island of Dogs as well as Limehouse to the west. To the east, the Docklands territory spread across the River Lea and into the Royal Albert and Royal Victoria docks where a massive convention center and an airport were built.

Despite the colossal sums of investment in reshaping what was once one of London’s most downtrodden areas, ask any Londoner what is the dullest and most boring part of town and they’ll say without hesitation: the Docklands. Although it’s architectural style, now referred to generically as “new builds” are the ambition of the middle classes (and have now spread beyond London to most major British cities), as an experiment in urbanism the Docklands style must today be qualified as an unequivocal failure. It created soulless communities, far from the amenities of urban life, and seemingly segregated into their own gated little utopias of key card entrances, private gardens (which nobody used) and the promise of a better life away from some imaginary threat from the streets. This is what it got wrong:

1 – The lack of public spaces

The first and most damning of all the failures of the Docklands style is the near-complete lack of public spaces. You know, people where people congregate and walk around and see each other doing their own mundane routines. The lack of public spaces is more egregious due to the ample unused space in these developments (in other words, the actual built area relative to the total area). The problem here is that most of these developments did indeed have spaces, albeit private ones for their residents. Yet despite the renders and sketches showing people walking around enjoying life in their private wonderlands, most of the time these spaces ended up empty and lifeless. It was the exact same mistake made by the modernist planners of the 60s and 70s, which sacrificed public spaces for large playgrounds and fields in the public housing projects, most of which ended up inhabited solely by truants and delinquents.

I know first hand of such idiocy in planning because I live in one such development that has plenty of spaces. They are never used despite the perfectly manicured gardens and water fountain. Had these places been made public rather than private then the story may have been different. Despite the waste, the privatization of space has continued unabated, often with highly controversial consequences. Recently there was a row over the fact that a new development, One Tower Bridge, would not allow its social housing tenants access to the gardens, under the excuse that it would “would push up service charges to unaffordable levels”. This seems silly since the gardens are probably not going to be used much (because people prefer public over private spaces to hang around in) and therefore the cost of taking care of them are probably more like a sunk cost. All the better for the upper class snobs not to have to see poor people while they show their guests the gardens and spaces they never use themselves.

2 – The lack of street life

The other planning crime is the lack of street life. Most of these Docklands style developments were created as inward- rather than outward-looking, as if protecting residents from some unknown threat from the streets (new build developers seem quite good at promoting the “security” aspects despite the fact London being one of the safest large cities in the world). Anyway, this completely unwarranted psychosis has resulted in new build neighborhoods being completely devoid of street life of any kind. Canary Wharf, for example, is surrounded by a ring of high rise new builds, and barely a soul can be seen on the street at times where other parts of the city would be teeming with activity. Obviously residents rather spend time in these more vibrant parts of town since there’s nothing to do near home.

Look ma, no street life!  Except in the renders

Look ma, no street life! Except in the renders

This rejection of street life is architecturally evident by the lack of storefronts and in fact, the lack of anything resembling life within the developments themselves. Occasionally the odd chain supermarket is there to break the monotony, or as is most common, a real estate branch which provides no contribution to the social fabric of a neighborhood. The glut of real estate branches in London is hands down one of the most idiotic wastes of space imaginable; a restaurant or a bar would be far more conducive to spicing up the neighborhood although deep inside they probably feed on the misery of residents who after a few years will probably be looking to move somewhere else.

But by far the biggest architectural sin in these developments is that often there’s even nothing on the ground floors at all. No windows. No doors aside from the key card entrance which looks more like something out of a student dormitory than a residency for adult families. It is not uncommon for the first floor to be used for parking rather than having it underground, which admittedly is more expensive but contributes far less to the visual pollution. In any case, the astronomical profits reaped by developers given London’s house prices makes it inexcusable not to hide these more unglamourous architectural details away. Back on the issue of key card entrances, that also implies no lobby, just a bland hallway leading to the stairs or escalators. Despite these lack of amenities, these developments are branded as “luxury” or “exclusive” which just goes to show how low the bar has been set in London these days thanks to developers hell bent on cutting costs at the expense of residents’ well-being (this kind of stuff is standard in middle-class apartments in Manhattan).

3 – “A center for ants!”

I cannot resist quoting the classic Zoolander line when describing the size of most of these places. To describe them as shoeboxes would be warranted only if one were talking about shoes for a Japanese geisha. It is shameful that Britain has the smallest new build house sizes of any Western European nation despite the fact that is less densely populated than say, the Netherlands (and London itself is less dense than many other European capitals). Why this is so? Well, regulation. Space standards were removed during the Thatcher era (1987) and dwellings are rarely advertised on the basis of square meters in addition to the number of rooms, as is the case in Continental Europe. This means developers can essentially sell a rat box excuse for a room and pass it as such. It is not uncommon for the smallest room in a new build flat to fit barely a single bed with less than a meter of space with the wall. In a city where demand for housing far outstrips supply, unscrupulous landlords also have no qualms in dividing already small spaces into smaller spaces just to fit in an extra student or young professional (and still charge the equivalent of what one could get a three-bedroom house in Leeds).

I have heard horror stories of the tricks that developers and real estate agencies use to prop up the size of these rat boxes, such as buying particularly small furniture. Lord knows what other shady tactics they use. What is clear is that no effort has been made to provide decent sized homes nor has any political party bothered to impose proper regulation that would force developers to build more dignified spaces for humans. Of course, given the obscene amount of profits that these scumbag developers and real estate firms are making, it ain’t happening anytime soon.

4 – The Money Pit

Remember that old Tom Hanks and Shelley Long movie from the 80s in which a young lawyer (Hanks) buys a gorgeous McMansion in the outskirts of NYC only to see it gradually disintegrate? Well, that pretty much describes most new builds. It’s bad enough that average British construction standards are appalling by the standards of the civilized world (and worse than many third-world countries), but new builds are renowned for setting the bar even lower. Particularly awful were the first wave, those built in the 1980s and 90s and which dot the landscape of places like Surrey Quays, Rotherhithe, Mudchute and Beckton. These are usually single-family dwellings with either a “fake old” look or generic brick façade. Not only are they tiny, but they are often creakier and more flimsy than the Victorian or Georgian houses that are more than a century old. Worse yet, they were built with no soundproofing whatsoever. Prepare to hear the neighbors argue, snore, walk up/down their stairs, etc. Despite being sold as individual single-family dwellings, the fact that these row houses are separated barely by two slabs of drywall/plasterboard makes them essentially horizontal apartments, certainly not a place where one can get an privacy worthy of owning your own home (the British cultural fetish for row houses and duplexes is also to blame).

A duplex in Beckton: the Thatcherian Dream

A duplex in Beckton: the Thatcherian Dream

Standards improved slightly in the new decade, although sizes kept getting smaller but at least soundproofing regulation was established in 2004 (make note: if you’re going to live in a new build, make sure it was built after that date if you want to ever sleep again!). The new builds also started moving away from the Docklands style of generic beige brick into slightly more diverse styles. Unfortunately, although the flats got smaller, the size of the developments got bigger. No longer content with a block of row houses or a medium-sized apartment block, the new builds are now neighborhood-sized multi-billion mega-developments that often rival the massive council estates of the 70s in size (the Greenwich Penninsula project around the O2 Arena will create 10,000 homes). “Creating communities” is a common slogan to promote these places, which at least promise some semblance of street life albeit one composed of the same identikit amenities and chain stores. All the same mistakes being made, at a grander scale.

When will this end?

Not anytime soon. It’s simply too profitable to continue with the same urbanistic follies, and governments both Labour and Conservative are too pathetic to do anything about it. The result is that London, and increasingly most other big British cities are becoming increasingly blighted by the Docklands style, a style which unfortunately is etched in people’s minds as a sign of gentrification despite the way they are destroying the very fabric of the city and its society. No surprise why even hipsters – the quintessential modern gentrifiers – are recoiling in horror as their grimy run-down haunts are gradually being transformed too. Yet for ordinary people there’s not much choice out there: an older period home is unaffordable to most these days, and a council estate is of even worse construction quality and carries negative socio-economic connotations. Given the inexhaustible rise in house prices in London, those lucky enough to get one foot on the property ladder has at the very least made a worthwhile investment and can rejoice at no longer being at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords and agencies.

One day urban policymakers and politicians will see the mistake, just as they did in retrospect when looking at the brutalist concrete horrors they unleashed during the orgy of modernist planning that defined the post-war decades. But by the time the realize it, large swathes of the urban landscape will have been converted into this post-modern dystopia. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

For those interested in the history of the redevelopment of the Docklands, there is a great website on the London Docklands Development Corporation. Hey, at least the history ended up more interesting than the reality!

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