The changes that have been made to the London Docklands in the past 25 years have been among the most striking and most dynamic developments in the world. The London Docklands Development Corporation (1981-1998) played a huge role in the areaâ€™s transformation, turning what used to be industrial wasteland into a vibrant area for commerce, residential life, and tourism. The area of the Docklands is over eight and a half square miles, all of which have been affected by the new developments in businesses and transportation. The Docklands represent one of the largest concentrations of twentieth and twenty-first century architecture in the world, and with new projects in development now, it will continue to grow, benefiting not only the area but London as a whole.
The history of the London Docklands is a storied one, dating back to the early 17th century when the first docks were built as a part of the East India Company. The number of docks began to grow, experiencing a boom during the 1800s. The Docklands reached their peak in the 1930s when over 100,000 people were connected to the Port of London through their jobs. However, in the post-World War II years, people began to see the decline and closure of docks around the world, and the docklands of London were no different. New technology, such as containerization and air transport had made the docks seem antiquated and no longer as useful as they once were. Many docks around this area were closed in the 1960s, leaving behind empty warehouses and creating a very uninviting environment.
The word used most often to describe the Docklands during the late 1970s and early 80s was derelict. By 1981, 59.7% of lands and buildings that fell under the control of the LDDC were considered derelict, vacant, under-used, or unused. The area had experience a severe loss of jobs from 1978-1983, as the skills of the people in the area were not appropriate for new industries. The condition of much of the property in the Docklands was so bad that most investors did not wish to take a gamble on trying to develop this property. Plus, there was very little transportation between the Docklands and Central London, meaning that if the area was to be refurbished, investors would also have to pay for transportation improvements to make the area more accessible, a project that would tack on millions, if not billions, of pounds. The Docklands were in a downward spiral, and without intervention, the situation looked grim.
However, in 1981, hope came for the Docklands. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was founded in the Local Government Planning and Land Act of 1980 with four primary goals: making the lands and buildings useful once more, encouraging new industry and commerce in the area, ensuring good housing and amenities for its residents, and creating a pleasant environment. Instead of relying on a grand plan for development, the LDDC instead focused on market-led development in order to be more flexible.
One of the first challenges faced by the LDDC was that of transportation. At first, they wanted to see how much more access the new developments would demand before spending millions on building new roads. Because of this, the construction of new roads was gradual, but as they built, they found that these new roads were actually inadequate to handle the amount of people that came with the new developments. It appeared that the redevelopment might fall apart if new transportation systems were not put into place. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) was built in a monorail style which alleviated the strain but did not solve the problem entirely (though today, it can carry approximately 80,000 people daily). An extension to the Jubilee line was proposed, and while it took several years to be approved, was ultimately successful and was completed in 1998 with stops in Canada Water, Canary Wharf (whose station is designed by Norman Foster), and North Greenwich. Furthermore, over 72 miles of new roads were built in order to make the area, especially the Isle of Dogs, more accessible from Central London. Today, the Docklands are easy enough to get to by train and car, and the success of the area is due in much part to its improved transportation.
In addition to building up the areaâ€™s industry, the LDDC wanted the Docklands to attract new residents and improve the housing in the area. New housing developments sprang up all over the place, many with a unique postmodern exterior. Because the LDDC wanted these developments to go up quickly, many have pre-fabricated interiors which can be assembled off-site and then put into place like a puzzle. Many of the developments are now local landmarks due to their unique look, such as The Cascades apartment block off Westferry Road, which is one of the most well-known buildings in the entire Docklands. The expansion and improvement of housing has brought thousands of people to the Docklands, allowing the areaâ€™s economy to expand and pay back much of the cost of the development. The area is especially popular with young professionals (bankers, lawyers, etc.) because of its prime location to businesses in the area, chic living, and great selection of stores and restaurants. It was described to me by a current resident who has lived in Canary Wharf for the past four years as being â€œLike a pretty, new, clean, large Midwestern city on the Great Lakes.â€? Indeed, when you are in the area, you do not feel the same hustle and bustle of central London, finding instead wider roads, more sunlight, and an atmosphere that is a touch more relaxed (if you glance over the harried investment bankers).
Perhaps the most iconic development in the London Docklands is the area known as Canary Wharf, on the northern end of the Isle of Dogs. Development of Canary Wharf began in 1982, with the conversion of an old warehouse into the television studio complex Limehouse Studios. This work was done in an attempt to revitalize the area by bringing in a different kind of tenantâ€” in this case, the television industry. In time, the Canary Wharf development would continue to grow and attempt to attract many different groups to its land.
As with the rest of the Docklands, the Canary Wharf development began as a primarily low-rise complex. Most likely in an effort to maximize floor space to entice firms to move there from the City, high-rise development was called for, despite the protestations of many, who claimed that high-rise development would be too visible, particularly from Greenwich Park. Regardless, it was decided that this new type of development would be situated directly above the Docklands Light Railway station in the center of Canary Wharf.
In the late 1980â€™s, in an effort to get work underway, control over the development was passed on to the North American firm Olympia and York, already known for their designs of Flemington Park in Toronto and the World Financial Center in New York City. Olympia and York were chosen because of their ability to take an undesirable location (which the Docklands certainly were) and make it attractive to tenants with elegant buildings and extensive landscaping. Much like their work in downtown Manhattan, their design took into account the scenic location on the Thames, and water plays an important role as a visual element, with over 25 acres of land being set apart for waterside promenades, as well as boulevards, parks, and squares.
For the most iconic building in the Canary Wharf development, Olympia and York called on architect Cesar Pelli (of Yale University) to design a skyscraper at 1 Canada Square, immediately adjacent to the DLR station in the center of Canary Wharf. Pelli had worked with Olympia and York on the World Financial Center, and the Canary Wharf Tower looks very much like its Manhattanite siblingâ€” a tall, austere tower with slight stepped recessions and a pyramid peak. When it was built in 1991, the Canary Wharf Tower was somewhat at odds with the rest of the development, having been clad in Welsh stainless steel instead of the stone Olympia and York asked for. Pelli claimed to have done this to further his goal of making a very simple, pure design. His use of steel cladding was incredibly innovative for his form, as it had never been used on American skyscrapers before, but Pelli had intended to make a skyscraper that was not American, and that did not fit neatly into â€œthe three main styles of Classical, Gothic, and Art Deco.â€? (Cox 63) His design managed that, taking an American building and adding to it a distinct touch of British high-tech. At 800 feet in height, the Canary Wharf Tower is the tallest building in Britain, and one of the tallest in Europe.
However, One Canada Square is not the only skyscraper in the Canary Wharf development. It has since been joined by 8 Canada Square (Norman Foster- Foster and Partners, 2002) and 25 Canada Square (Pelli and Associates, Adamson Associates, 2001), both standing at approximately 650 feet in height. All three towers are fully rented out as office space, and together, they draw the eye upwards, creating a spectacular skyline sometimes described as a miniature Manhattan. Other noteworthy buildings in Canary Wharf include 10 Cabot Square, a 12-storey office block near the Canary Wharf Tower clad in yellow brick with a steel pitched roof. Its â€œTransatlantic neo-Classicalâ€? (Cox 61) style, with circular towers at the corners and recessed windows sits in contrast with the sleeker, flatter office blocks that neighbor it.
As an originally industrial area, the Docklands have made much improvement in the last quarter century. Indeed, for a district that was initially the overflow of commercial space from the City of London, the Docklands have shown quite a bit of dynamism, and are now able to really compete with the rest of London as an economic powerhouse. Much of this has to do with the dramatic overhaul of the districtâ€” firms like Olympia and York made the Docklands an appealing place to work with its graceful landscaping and dignified architecture. The Docklands area has the quiet elegance of a commercial center, and has justly earned nicknames like Manhattan-on-Thames or Wall Street on water. With development of the area continuing all the time, and transportation made much easier with the Docklands Light Railway and the extension of the Jubilee Line, one can only imagine what the Docklands will look like in the years to come. Below is a computer-generated model of what the Docklands might look like in just a few short years.
â€œThe Condition of the London Docklands in 1981â€? Study by Price Waterhouse
The LDDC History Pages
Cox, Alan. Docklands in the Making: The Redevelopment of the Isle of Dogs. Survey of London, Ed. John Greenacombe. London: The Athlone Press, 1995.
Pevsner, Nikolaus and Williamson, Elizabeth. The Buildings of England: London Docklands. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
The Canary Wharf Group plc
Canary Wharf Buildings, Isle of Dogs: Architecture