Published: 26 October 2011
Does it matter what’s underneath the pavement? Under our feet, in the earth, are the traces of the 2,000 years of Londoners, their coins and clothes, their trinkets and tools, the remains of their buildings and roads.
The question of whether this material, this soup of memories, should have any bearing on how our city develops is an open one for those building our city today, and one that has sparked an argument over the massive Convoys Wharf site in Deptford, which I visited last week. If Hong Kong developer Hutchison Whampoa gets its way, this 16-hectare riverside plot (the size of about 20 football pitches) in the borough of Lewisham will soon be home to 9,000 people in 3,500 homes, with a new school, shops and space for “cultural uses”.
So far, so good. But this isn’t just any slice of the river. Convoys Wharf was formerly the King’s Yard, built by Henry VIII in 1513 as London’s military dock and known across the world. It was the harbour to royal yachts, where Francis Drake was knighted aboard the Golden Hinde in 1581, and where Elizabeth I’s Spanish Armada-defeating fleet was built. It is a place of astonishing, nationally important historical significance.
Greenwich, just a mile down-river, with its colonnaded Old Royal Naval College, has become a world heritage site and will officially become a “Royal” borough next year. But it was Deptford that built the boats that made England powerful enough to conceive of and fund that architectural setpiece in the first place.
The plan submitted by Hutchison Whampoa is a regulation piece of urban design by commercial architect Aedas. It’s pretty uninspired, with the usual precision about residential unit numbers but vagueness about the kind of public life that might be found there. But the plan tries hard to link into its surroundings, and the proposed development will be much better than the gated communities of riverside west London. There is a recognisable street pattern, a bus route through it, along with a school and an attempt to make a high street with a mix of uses. Broadly, the plan is based on work in 2005 by Richard Rogers, whose principal insight was to try to continue the line of Deptford’s high street towards the riverside.
Perhaps most importantly, it also proposes public access to the riverside here for the first time.
But a group of local people accuse Hutchison Whampoa of recklessly ignoring the historical remains, and are pleading with the developers to reconsider their plan. They say the site should be given back more of its original character, that ancient remains below the ground should be available to public view, and that water should be reintroduced to the site by digging out the former Great Basin of the dockyard.
Chris Mazeika, who lives in the Master Shipwright’s house on the eastern side of the site, is part of a network of local bloggers and campaigners asking questions of Hutchison Whampoa’s proposal. He believes that there is something important about the history of the site that should be drawn out by revealing the remains or perhaps echoing the original layout of the dockyard.
“To reveal the remains would make it a much more distinctive and layered place,” he says. “When you walk down a road that has been established by hundreds of years of getting from A to B, and one that’s drawn by a planner – it’s a very different experience.”
The site today is rather eerie, a huge expanse of concrete with a few Sixties and Eighties warehouses still standing. There are no roads and no sense of how it all once fitted together. The riverside is spectacular, though. The wharf juts out into the river and the view from it takes in a vista from Surrey Quays to the west and Greenwich to the east. This timber platform will be transformed into a public park in Hutchison Whampoa’s plans, complete with river bus stop.
The Grade II-listed Olympia Warehouse (built in the 1840s) stands in the middle of the site, slightly askew to the riverside, a magnificent iron structure most recently used by Lewisham council as a storage facility for wheelie bins. It is the only historic building left above ground, and the proposals designate it vaguely as a “covered public square”. They aspire to something along the lines of Spitalfields Market. This all feels a bit sketchy at this stage, and the developer’s preference is to retain just the beautiful iron frame, perhaps adding to it a new glass envelope.
In anticipation of these remains being covered up by the new development, a huge archaeological dig is under way between the Olympia Warehouse and the river. The foundations and remains of the huge Tudor storehouse and the docks are clearly visible in the trenches. Two slipways, complete with timbers used to brace and support ships as they were constructed, look amazingly complete to my untrained eye. All this will be recorded, then covered over again and the new residential buildings built over the top. The remains will never be seen again, or at least not until Hutchison Whampoa’s buildings are themselves demolished, which could be 200 years away at London rates of replacement.
It must be said that the King’s Yard has long lost its Tudor character. Since the Second World War, successive idiotic owners chose to demolish the remaining buildings on the site and fill in the basin and slipways. Most jaw-dropping of all is that in stages between the Sixties and as recently as the Eighties, a Tudor storehouse was demolished and its foundations concreted over so that huge distribution sheds and warehouses could be built.
It is heartbreaking that so much has been lost.
None of that is Hutchison Whampoa’s fault. The group and its architects see Convoys Wharf as an opportunity to create a residential quarter they believe will be “modern and positive”. The architects say that the arrangement of the proposed apartment buildings perpendicular to the river somehow mirrors that of the historic slipways, and a proposed park on the site of the former double dry dock will evoke the history of what’s underneath, perhaps by using materials that suggest its former use. That to them is enough. My visit to the site convinced me that while the developers are very aware of what lies beneath, they don’t feel it of sufficient significance to prevent or slow London’s development. Aedas and Hutchison Whampoas have made a judgment that to preserve any remains for public view, or to reintroduce water into the site (as the Rogers plan proposed) would be uneconomical and (they told me) would be a hindrance rather than a help to make it a better place to live.
As for the campaigners, they are vague about what they are calling for and appeal to notions of memory, meaning and history that are not part of the usual property development vocabulary.
Mazeika, like many of us, finds it difficult to describe exactly what difference it makes to resurrect ancient street patterns, to uncover old docks. He favours gradual, incremental development, but that is never going to happen with such a large site under single ownership.
This seems an unbridgeable intellectual gap in today’s London. The nuanced understanding of the place that the locals advocate here in Deptford is mirrored all over the city by local interest groups, amateur historians, and concerned residents near large regeneration projects. But it has no way of gaining traction in a development process involving this much money, and that is a failure of our planning system and of imagination of the politicians who are the guardians of our city.
I respect Hutchison Whampoa and Aedas for trying to make a decent, mixed place that links into the surrounding community. I think (unlike some Deptford residents) that the scale and character of the spaces around the Olympia Warehouse will be fine, certainly better than the meaningless public spaces at equivalent developments of a decade ago (Paddington Basin comes to mind). The quantum of development, and its skyscraper-scale apartment towers, aren’t a problem to me, and the new public space by the river almost can’t fail to be enjoyable.
But in deploying standard urban design tactics the masterplan does find itself ignoring what makes this place special in the first place. I suspect the history of the site will be signalled in branding and signage more than any real, physical or spatial sense. And while it is a very difficult task to capture all these historical and cultural layers of a city in urban design and architecture, good architects should be able to do it.
When Convoys Wharf has been re-developed, the history of the King’s Yard will lie in a shallow grave underneath shiny apartment blocks and cappuccino bars. Professionals will move into the residential towers, which will probably be named after Drake’s Golden Hinde. And when their dinner party guests ask them where the docks used to be, they will reply: “I don’t know.”