Words by Veronica Simpson
Although it is only two thirds complete, and as yet there are just a handful of people living or working there, Fish Island Village, a brand new, £125m, 2.85ha, mixed-use site for 1,000 residents on the edge of London’s 2012 Olympic Park, is already many things to many people.
For its joint developers, housing association Peabody and construction firm Hill, this is a rare opportunity to create a new kind of residential scheme, mixing in creative and business opportunities thanks to built-in studio and commercial facilities — 4,600 sq m of workspace, in total — giving the development a far greater chance of economic and social resilience. For its landlord, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), it’s a chance to make good on the promise of bringing new life and much-needed housing to the Olympic Park fringes, driving regeneration post-2012.
Haworth Tompkins’ three Neptune Wharf buildings, part of Fish Island Village, overlook the Hertford Union Canal. Image credit: Fred Howarth
For the architects who have just completed Phase one and two — Lyndon Goode Architects, Pitman Tozer Architects, and architect and masterplanner Haworth Tompkins — it’s an opportunity to set a new benchmark for what a tenure-blind mixture of high-quality, affordable, social-rent and market-value homes might look like, while expressing, through design and materials, the area’s strong industrial character.
Where it hits some glitches is how it sits with the thousands of people, mostly artists, who have been occupying the wider area’s industrial buildings for the last 40 years and who had created a vibrant, DIY culture and community until the bulldozers moved in. By recent estimates, only a third of them remain.
It was the identification of this dense network of creative studios that stopped Eleanor Fawcett, then head of regeneration at the LLDC (now head of design at Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation) in her tracks, after the results came in from a survey she had commissioned in 2007 from muf architecture/art.
Stacked brick maisonettes on Wyke Road by Haworth Tompkins. Image credit: Fred Howarth
Speaking in June 2019, Fawcett said: ‘We found there were 610 studios, with up to five artists per studio. It was possibly the highest density of artists in Europe. Literally overnight everyone changed their tune. Everyone realised we had to do things differently in Hackney Wick and Fish Island.’ She wrote a paper identifying fears that the area ‘will lose its distinctiveness, its robust, adaptable historical buildings.’ The LLDC made a commitment ‘to accommodate growth without displacing the area’s existing working and creative community.’
Fortunately, no actual residents were displaced for the Fish Island Village scheme. There were no people living on this particular site, and just a few single-storey industrial units still in operation. And judging by the freshly finished blocks of 423 apartments, these solid, brick and concrete structures do much to fulfill that desire to express the area’s past as a warehousing and manufacturing hub, laced with canals and relief channels to the River Lea, and fringed by the A12.
Neptune Wharf's material palette includes four different types of brick, concrete, and weathered steel. Image credit: Fred Howarth
Certainly, none of the spirit of creative can-do, nor any distinctiveness would have been preserved if a previous developer’s scheme had gone ahead, and for which consent had already been given when Peabody bought the site off them in 2014. It featured several tall towers of luxury flats topped by penthouses; a scant 4% of the dwellings were designated affordable. Haworth Tompkins was brought in to radically alter the masterplan.
Associate director Ken Okonkwo was involved in the new scheme from the start, and had the dual challenge of conjuring an attractive and appropriate character, while value engineering it so that it was both economically viable for the developers and offered the right mix of tenure. Now 35% of the 423 homes for Phase one and two are designated affordable — that’s 146 homes in total, including dedicated social-rent apartments and maisonettes, operated by Peabody.
Haworth Tompkins has created diversity across its building types, referencing warehouses and wharfs. Image credit: Fred Howarth
‘We decided the architecture should focus on robust materials, with a warehouse aesthetic and large openings,’ says Okonkwo. ‘We were trying to create a timeless architecture that will age well, and we felt there would be a benefit to having different architecture practices involved, to create both diversity but also coherence.’ Peabody selected the current trio — Haworth Tompkins, Pitman Tozer and Lyndon Goode — through its architectural competition framework.
Haworth Tompkins’ buildings take up the lion’s share of the scheme: Neptune Wharf consists of 13 blocks, opening on to a sequence of courtyards. The material palette comprises four brick types and the use of grit-blasted, acid-etched and fairfaced concrete as primary materials. Says Okonkwo: ‘We proposed four different typologies for the blocks, distributed around the site: the frame building, the wharf, the warehouse and stacked maisonettes. Each building type deals with the location in slightly different ways. The wharf has vertical piers and protruding balconies, and a slightly darker tone. The warehouse is more about creating a typical London street, with flat facades and load-bearing precast lintels.’
Lyndon Goode Architects’ Lanterna comprises 16 apartments. Image credit: Rory Gardiner
There is some nice variety within the arrangement, including a sequence of lower, garage studio-style apartments facing the secondary, internal square that is most likely to become spillout space for the surrounding workspaces. On the opposite side, along a street — where London plane trees have been painstakingly preserved, adding much-needed mature greenery — are some of the most attractive dwellings of all: maisonettes with protruding entrances and nice brick detailing. ‘That helped to break down the massing. We needed to have both repetition and variety,’ says Okonkwo.
These units are all affordable rent. There are 22 maisonettes, 11 on the lower floors and 11 on the upper deck. Two red-brick blocks further on are also affordable rent, with 20 apartments in each. Overall, says Okonkwo, ‘It’s about not creating too strong or formal a statement with the architecture. The liveliness should come from the people.’
Lanterna’s design was inspired by the area’s history of oil and tar processing, printing and manufacturing. Image credit: Rory Gardiner
That liveliness has been designed into the scheme, in the form of the aforementioned studio and commercial space. Thanks to a £2.27m grant from the European Regional Development Fund, plus a £617,000 grant from the GLA Good Growth Fund, there are now 63 flexible studios, a 50-desk coworking space, a fully equipped manufacturing suite, plus a central hub and event space, housing a cafe/bar, and meeting and event rooms for the creative community as well as residents. These are curated and managed by social enterprise The Trampery, which runs seven other sites around London, predominantly for fashion sector and tech startups.
Other attractors designed in to the masterplan include the opening up of 200 metres of previously inaccessible frontage along the Hertford Union Canal, which includes a wide, canal-front terrace for The Trampery’s event hub. And the street plan — which reinstates that of the 18th-century plan that existed before the warehouses — also creates a public square, plus several cross streets which will help to percolate people through the largely car-free site; though there are a few parking spaces on the surrounding streets, there is basement parking for 84 cars below Neptune Wharf, and lots of bike and bin storage.
Lanterna overlooks the scheme’s public square. Image credit: Rory Gardiner
At the head of the public square is one of the two landmark buildings Haworth Tompkins designated for the site, Lyndon Goode’s Lanterna; the other will be built as part of Phase three, comprising five buildings, three of which are still awaiting planning consent.
A freestanding block of 16 apartments, arranged four per floor around a central core, Lanterna sits at the top of the square, across from an earlier timber-panelled block. It is the focal point for anyone crossing the canal footbridge from Hackney Wick station (a new footbridge, which will be elevated to the same level as Lanterna, is due to go in over the next few months). The ground floor is set back behind a colonnade, its prominent position, imposing facade and 5m ceiling height — with full-height windows — offering a standout location for whichever cafe moves in there.
The balustrades on Lanterna’s generous balconies reference the facade’s herringbone pattern. Image credit: Rory Gardiner
The design, says director David Lyndon, was inspired by the area’s history of oil and tar processing, printing and manufacturing. While the scale and structure echoes the site’s previous warehouses through large recessed openings and regular grid arrangement, the textured precast concrete contrasts strongly with the brick and timber of its neighbours, with a herringbone pattern hand-painted an oily black. It is a nod to one of the area’s more famous pieces of graffiti, while also hinting at fish scales, thus evoking the area’s past and present incarnations.
Walking around one of Lanterna’s apartments, with a canal-facing balcony, one is struck by the generous living arrangements, and also the quality of the finishes. Despite a certain amount of value engineering across the scheme, Lyndon declares himself relieved that constructor Hill has retained the anodised aluminium it specified for doors and window frames. A number of such details set this building apart from the rest, not least the depth and breadth of the balconies, and the slant of their metal balustrades, replicating the diagonal downstroke of the concrete’s herringbone pattern. These must be at the top end of the price scale, which start at £432,000 (Help to Buy London financing is offered for homes below £600,000).
Pitman Tozer Architects’ Monier Road complex has a central courtyard which provides shared amenity space as well as small gardens for the family units
Occupying a huge area within Neptune Wharf’s adjacent ground floor is The Trampery’s event, co-working and cafe space. ‘This will cater to the 500-strong community of studio users, with a members’ lounge,’ says Patrick Scally, who is managing the programme for The Trampery. ‘We’ll have a drop-in membership for locals; for £50 a month you can drop in and use the desks. Anyone can come in and use the cafe.’ I ask how studios are allocated. Scally says: ‘We do open call for every block. They get priority if they are local, and reduced rent.’
The final element is Pitman Tozer’s three tall blocks on Monier Road. Comprising 71 ‘homes for Londoners’, they include apartments and maisonettes, ten of which are retained for affordable rent, five for shared ownership through Peabody and the rest private sale. They are reached via deck access off a central courtyard, in the traditional Victorian mansion block style. The central courtyard provides shared amenity space as well as small gardens for the family units.
Strong crafted elements at Monier Road include the concrete staircase with its curved steel balustrade. Image credit: Nick Kane
Luke Tozer, the practice’s co-founder, shows us around a 70 sq m corner flat that has an inset balcony (as do most of the apartments, to make year-round use more appealing), which is accessible both from kitchen and master bedroom. All rooms enjoy really deep-set, low windows, contributing to the perception of spaciousness. Storage is ample, welldesigned and none of the rooms feels cramped. There are the same ceiling heights throughout the block. But, I ask Tozer, where is the value engineering? He points to a small tree in the shared courtyard which, in the original design, was meant to be twice the height; it will grow.
Standard bathroom fittings, standard windows and flooring throughout the scheme kept costs down, he says. But there are still strong crafted elements that really lift the scheme, such as the c-curve on the concrete staircase coupled with a curved steel balustrade, and a voluptuous aperture, cut — for aesthetic appeal and visibility — out of the staircase’s slim supporting ground-floor pillar (‘They can’t argue that it’s cheaper to fill in,’ says Tozer). All apartments and maisonettes enjoy underfloor heating, which will be connected to the Olympic district heating network when it finishes (for now they are powered by a central heating plant in an adjacent development), and mechanical ventilation with heat recovery. With the addition of photovoltaics, the scheme achieved a BREEAM rating of Very Good, and Level 4 in the Code for Sustainable Homes.
The price of most units is ‘unrealistic, certainly not affordable, for the majority of local artists’, according to director of Stour Space Neil McDonald. Image credit: Nick Kane
No doubt about it, the people moving in to these homes are the winners: this coherent, civic and walkable new neighbourhood will be an attractive place to live, especially enjoyable for those who want live/work proximity and can afford a studio. If there is a lack of garden or green space for those with families, they have the entire Olympic park on their doorstep. But a lot hangs on who gets these studios and how they are managed. And the fact is, few of them will be from the fast-disappearing existing artist community.
All rooms across the block’s 71 homes boast deep-set windows and a spacious design. Image credit: Nick Kane
Along the ground floor of Pitman Tozer’s Monier Road flats are the first seven units that will be offered for growth-stage fashion designers and makers, at the lower rate of £25 per square foot. The rest of the units are around £35 per square foot, which ‘is unrealistic, certainly not affordable, for the majority of local artists’, according to Neil McDonald, a director of Stour Space, a nearby artist-led studio and community not-for-profit, and also director of the Hackney Wick Fish Island Community Development Trust.
Although Stour Space and other organisations are trying to protect the area’s low-cost studio ethos, he thinks: ‘If development continues as it has been… with little influence given to local organisations or priorities, then within the next few years there will be no artist community. There will be a community, because there are all these flats, but there won’t be the same vibrant, energetic, resourceful creative spirit that the developers enthuse about.’
Correction: This article was updated on 17/01/2020. An earlier version contained figures that were incorrect. The Trampery's drop-in membership for locals is £50 a month, not £50 a year as previously stated. The ground-floor work units in the Monier Road development are are around £35 per square foot, with the lower rate of £25 per square foot — not £25 per square foot, with the lower rate of £10–12 per square foot as previously stated.