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: Continue reading

Behold the new (private) utopias

How London's real estate farce is destroying communities

It is hardly a secret that I dislike modernism. My main reason is primarily aesthetic: I despise the look of concrete and abhor modernism’s brutal soul-less ness compared to the elegance of the “period” styles that preceded it. Bland functionality may have worked for modern cutlery and furniture, but I have found few people who prefer the concrete monstrosities built in the 60s and 70s over the gorgeous beaux arts or art deco masterpieces that that still tower majestically over great cities such as Paris, New York or London. Architecture is, after all, art for public spaces and eyesores have no intrinsic value other than to blight the beauty of our cities like oil spills do on our oceans.

Living the dream. Or are you?

Living the dream. Or are you?

However, there is another aspect about modernism that disturbs me and that is its utopianism. As a left-winger, I should in theory like the fact that these tower blocks were built with a more egalitarian society in mind and to better the lives of the poor and destitute who had to previously live in terraced slums. There was grand ambition in these designs, of walkways in the skies and communal playgrounds and access to thoroughfares in this new car age. Unfortunately, reality had a different future planned. Most of these social-democratic wonderlands ended up far from jobs and services and over time turned into crime-ridden hell-holes. The cold concrete exteriors also did not stand the test of time, leading to massive tower blocks looking dirty and dated just years after they sprung up. Looking at modernism with the benefit of hindsight, the utopia clearly failed.

Sadly, countries like Britain have had no answer for public housing in the post-modernist world. As Thatcherism closed the door on publicly-funded home-building, the task of filling the country’s housing needs for a growing population has fallen squarely on the private sector and they have not wasted a single second in finding ways to profit enormously. Taking their cue from the Docklands redevelopment that took place in the 1980s and 90s, these private builders have begun crafting a new type of utopia. A utopia of beige-bricked and waveform-roof developments, where half a million sterling gets you a 50 m2 two-bedroom if you’re lucky¬†(only one room which is actually livable for anyone beyond midget-size). Of creaky stairs and non-soundproofed walls hidden behind colorfully tiled balconies. Where the winds blow the air of self-importance of the aspirational middle classes who after years of work have finally managed to have a foothold on the property ladder in one of the dozens of new developments, nay, “communities” that are quickly becoming London’s new private paradises. Continue reading