Bugis was formerly a district in Singapore that was washed away in the 1980s because to its colorful nightlife upsetting the ordered minds of Singapore’s powers that be. They built a pale and not-trans simulacrum of its bygone liveliness, with an assortment of tiny eateries serving a diverse range of cuisines, after belatedly discovering that they had lost a significant tourist draw.
The only problem was that those seemingly disparate restaurants were all serviced by a single massive kitchen that delivered orders by conveyor belt.
The Design District, which opened to the public last week on the Greenwich Peninsula in east London, is attempting to achieve something similar with architecture. A single developer, Knight Dragon, and a single contractor, Ardmore, are constructing a £56 million controlled mess of 16 buildings designed by eight different architects.
The goal, according to Helen Arvanitakis, director of the Design District, is to “create a community that can connect with each other… a totally fantastic ecosystem” where 1,800 “creatives” will work. They aim to create a small and fascinating “piece of city” based on examples from Tokyo, London’s Clerkenwell, and “Moroccan souks.”
They aim to create the sort of environment that is typically the result of many hands working together for decades or centuries at a time. Surprisingly, everything seems to be in good operating order.
The peninsula is home to a former massive gasworks, whose decontaminated soil has been soaked in public funds for the last quarter-century. The Millennium Dome, now the O2, and the elegant North Greenwich Jubilee Line station are also nearby. Boris Johnson’s ludicrous cable-car-as-petrostate-promotion, the Emirates Air Line, comes to mind.
The declared goal of all of this money has always been to revitalize the 150-acre property. Which is gradually taking shape, most of it in the form of serried rows of apartment buildings that will ultimately accommodate 40,000 people.
The Design District is located near the O2 and the tube station, making it a perfect location for a forest of profitable skyscrapers. However, some vistas of the O2’s construction, such as the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, must be maintained under the existing design for the peninsula.
This implies that no building in the district may be more than four stories high. So Knight Dragon saw an opportunity in their issue, constructing a cluster of tiny buildings in the hopes of attracting the kind of innovative companies that, although not paying expensive rents, provide vitality and pride to a community.
The term “creative” has a wide definition here: tenants’ activities range from leatherworking to music management to website creation.
The profession of urban design
The straight lines that characterize most of the peninsula’s layout are broken up by eccentric angles in HNNA’s design. Blocks are close together – as near as three meters apart in certain cases, which is allowed in commercial structures but not in residential developments.
Courts and yards were built in the hopes of allowing designers to take their work outdoors, smoke, hang around, and exchange ideas.
Knight Dragon offered each of its architects two plots of comparable sizes and briefs to work with, and instructed them to create without knowing anything about their neighbors’ projects. Their practice selection was thoughtful, coming from the serious-playful end of the profession: individuals who think meticulously about the task at hand, but then strive to elicit pleasure and surprise from the realities of building.
Thus, David Kohn Architects created “miniature glowing palazzi,” which are influenced by both Venice and American roadside buildings and include green-framed glass boxes above rows of enormous red columns. Mole Architects reference the area’s gas-working history: one of their structures is covered in rusted metal evocative of an old gasholder, while the other has a dichroic skin that recalls the blue-orange sheen of a gas flame.
The artist Richard Artschwager, who created finely constructed items out of the allegedly trashy material Formica, patterned with wood grain, piano keys, or moustache patterns, was an influence for 6a architects. 6a’s designs turn enormous gutters – their version of Artschwager’s moustaches – into near-comical elements, creating gigantic harlequin patterns out of the thin cladding materials of normal commercial construction. On the top of one of their concrete buildings, Architecture 00 wriggled a basketball court out of their budget and brief.
High attic lofts under sloping roofs; a peaceful and open café interior by Roz Barr Architects; outdoor staircases on Architecture 00’s buildings that allow users to see and be seen There are the courtyards that were promised. By chance and purpose, there are oblique perspectives and startling juxtapositions. The Canteen, a bulging, transparent walk-in caterpillar by the Madrid-based architects of the 2015 Serpentine pavilion, SelgasCano, sits in the midst of it all. Its inside is all sunlight, grass, and golden metal.
As one of the architects involved puts it, it might all amount to concocted spontaneity, a Potemkin bohemia, or a “petting zoo.” It’s also worth noting that the Design District is small in comparison to the peninsula’s overall size.
Its size is comparable to the abstract sculptures seen in the plazas of 1960s office buildings. It’s a smart take on the huge ornaments that come with contemporary mega-developments, like Thomas Heatherwick’s Vessel building in New York’s Hudson Yards.
The Design District, on the other hand, is full of wit, energy, and intellect. It possesses allure, vigor, and intrigue. There are several obvious excellent choices in terms of size, illumination, and spatial connections. And Knight Dragon has been wise enough not to trivialize the objectives of their designers.
The developers and architects work together to complete the arduous job of creating someplace out of nothing. What would now be really fantastic would be to apply comparable characteristics to the whole peninsula’s reconstruction.