Greenwich Peninsula's Design District.
Taran Wilkhu Greenwich Peninsula's Design District.

It’s all about the creatives. That is the argument somebody at London-based developer Knight Dragon seems to have made a few years ago as they were trying to figure out how to kickstart the largest single real estate development in Europe, set on the city’s Greenwich Peninsula. While only a few residential towers now dot what was once a heavily polluted coal yard and industrial area, the heart of the 150-acre new city of more than 17,000 planned homes and several million square feet of offices is essentially finished: the Design District, a hodgepodge of incubators, educational outposts, and design-y establishments laid out in a skewed grid. It’s “London’s first purpose-built district made specifically for the creative community,” according to a description on the Greenwich Peninsula website, which goes on to name-check writer Richard Florida and his idea about how vital creative types are to a good city.

The Design District is now more or less done. Whether these 16 buildings will indeed attract those mythical unicorns of global energy infusion—the people who are somehow creative, either in writing code or designing the desk on which you string out the code, or merely coming up with the clever financial formula that puts desk and coder together—remains to be seen, but the district now stands as the most concrete embodiment of Florida’s myth of urban creativity I have seen.

Laid out by local practice HNNA, the district benefits from occupying a defined and highly trafficked area. It is a superblock between the newish Jubilee Line tube station; Richard Rogers’ Millennium Dome, which now serves double duty as an arena where you can hear the likes of Taylor Swift and a discount shopping mall circling the main event space; the first drab and identikit buildings Knight Dragon has finished; and, to the south, Millennium Park, a swath of green space reaching down from the peninsula to the rest of London. As a result, even on a cold day right before Christmas, there were actually people, albeit not crowds, wandering through the alleys HNNA carved between the three-story objects.

The planners’ strategy was to slice a meandering path through the middle of the block, creating diagonal variations on the grid as it angles from northwest to southeast. To protect and contain these precious creatives, HNNA deliberately occluded that main gathering area—which widens into a square at its midpoint—from the large space in front of the Dome while opening it up to the park at the other end. They then gave each of the designers they invited to participate in the build-out two structures to work on, so there would be an even greater sense of unity and variety. As the Design District’s director, Helen Arvanitakis of HNNA told Dezeen: "I want them to feel that they're not in Kansas anymore; that they've stepped into somewhere distinct from the surrounding city…I want visitors to feel an urge to explore—to look around corners and linger in courtyards." At that, at least, they have succeeded.

Design District Canteen by SelgasCano.
Taran Wilkhu Design District Canteen by SelgasCano.

The sole exception to the two-fer rule also resulted in the single most successful building: Madrid-based firm SelgasCano designed a variation on its 2015 Serpentine Pavilion as a central food hall or “Canteen.” In addition to recalling the 2015 model, the Canteen is a miniature, refined, and deformed version of the Dome, a resemblance made all the more striking because it shares Richard Rogers’s strange predilection for the color yellow, which is slathered on the structural elements in both buildings. As it snakes along the main alley, the Canteen bulges and curves into hints of domes and bays while creating different seating and gathering areas within its overall shape. Filled with light, offering swerves galore, this is a food court as circus tent inviting those coders and their financial enablers to think outside the box as they slurp their fusion noodles.

Boxes, however, are what they will have to work in if they do alight here. Each structure is the same size and height. HNNA tried smoothing the edges in its designs, which feature undulating metal façades cut through with narrow windows. Without a clear top or bottom, or beginning or end, these buildings seem unrelated to either site or use. More successful are the designs by Architecture 00, which leave the box’s skeleton exposed and play with floor heights, exterior stairs, and a rooftop basketball court enclosed with netting to lighten the, well, boxiness inherent in the structures.

Design District building by Architecture 00.
Taran Wilkhu Design District building by Architecture 00.

If those are the Modernist experiments in a theme and variations, many of the district’s other buildings seem stuck in the last millennium, before the Dome was built: They are attempts to clad standard construction with fake brick or patterns of overlapping tiles in unusual colors and with expressive entrances or other details. Barozzi Veiga and David Kohn Architects seem not to have noticed that Charles Jencks is dead (see my previous posting) and present a lifeless version of Postmodernism. Maybe the movement is coming back, but if it does, I hope it will be with more fun than this. On the other hand, the standard-issue Modernist reductions by Adam Khan Architects are equally soulless, so quality is not an issue of style.

Good, bad, or indifferent, this jumble of buildings serves HNNA’s purpose: to create diversity in density. It might not be a medieval city created by centuries of use, reuse, and adaptation, nor does it have the creativity of blocks laid out by truly good architects, but the Design District as a whole, because of its variety, does evoke a sense of place. In that artificial arena, it offers enough to catch the eye and remind you of where you are in the development and also create an identity at both a specific and an overall scale. You always know you are in the Design District, even if everything is new and artificial.

Design District building by David Kohn Architects.
Taran Wilkhu Design District building by David Kohn Architects.

The rest of what Knight Dragon has proposed for the Greenwich Peninsula looks dreadful in the renderings, and the towers they have already built outside of the district are so bad that, if any true creatives were wandering around the area designated for them, they would surely not want to walk to work by living in the pastiches of different style laid onto badly scaled and generically arranged blocks and towers that will make up the remainder of the development.

I went to the Peninsula to see a set of warehouses still standing on the other side of the Dome, awaiting demolition to make room for those towers. It was redesigned and is managed by Assemble (about which I am writing a book) and is actually a creative hub. Filled to capacity with furniture makers, metalworkers, and musicians dubbing tracks, it is truly a creative district. I know it is horribly romantic of me, but if only the planners and developers could leave that area the way it is and find a way to spread that spirit of making both things and community throughout the Peninsula, what a better neighborhood London would gain. Instead, we will have Singapore on the Thames, with a reservation to park people who I just cannot imagine being creative in that environment.

This article has been updated.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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