The 10-storey tower of luxury apartments has been named the Pinnacle, and, zipping past on the Docklands Light Railway, you can instantly see why. From the tower, a white concrete fin juts out like a ship's prow over Limehouse Basin, a large triangle cut just below the leading edge. The symmetrically planned tower, with its large curving window wall facing the dock, is the centrepiece of a 262-unit scheme. Five dumpier blocks that cluster around it contain the bulk of the homes.
Much more than a rakish symbol of 21st-century high life, this inner-city scheme is a model of urban renaissance. Built at a remarkably high density of 118 dwellings and 500 habitable rooms per hectare, plus one parking space per dwelling, this is precisely the type of scheme that Lord Rogers said should colonise our cities in his report last year.
It also meets the urban taskforce's aim to put high-quality design at the heart of our urban environment. As Robert Macdonald, of architect Robert Macdonald Associates, puts it, "we've unlocked the site and added value" through careful urban design. The only part of the Rogers agenda the project doesn't address is mixed tenure – all 262 units are luxury apartments for private sale ranging in price from £290 000 to £490 000.
New housing in London Docklands is not often noted for its inspired urban design. Macdonald says: "So often, I've gone for interviews with developers with prime sites on the riverfront. They ask for a big slab along the riverfront that will command high selling prices and they ignore the rest of the site behind it, which will be cut off from views of the river."
The Bellway Homes development occupies one of Docklands' choicest sites, the western end of Limehouse Basin, now home to an upmarket marina. Macdonald felt that an earlier feasibility study drawn up at the same density for the London Docklands Development Corporation and the landowner, the British Waterways Board, did not exploit its location. "Only 20% of the flats had decent views of the water. We have redesigned the layout so that 90% of the flats have views of the water," he says.
Macdonald managed this by arranging the five lower buildings in a U-shaped formation embracing the western end of the dock. All five blocks, which rise to seven and eight storeys, face the water either head-on or at an angle. The Pinnacle is part of the U, but sits close to the water's edge. Being relatively slim, tapered and raised on slender stilts, it presents little obstruction to views from the flats behind.
The lower blocks come in two layouts. They either have through flats facing directly over the docks, or are arranged in two rows of flats placed at right angles to the dock, so that the flats have oblique views of the water. Of the 41 flats that make up each
floor of the scheme, only five have no view at all of the water. Almost all have wide frontages giving generous-sized windows to bedrooms and living rooms. Kitchens are generally set behind and open to the living rooms, from which they borrow daylight and views.
The detailed design plays its part in optimising views without compromising privacy. Balconies are spaced wide apart and are fitted with glazed patio doors on the inside and clear-glazed balustrading panels on the outside that do not obstruct downward views to the dock from the rooms behind. In the Pinnacle, the floor-to-ceiling window walls extend to the side of the balconies giving even steeper unobstructed views downwards.
The rear of the site faces a hostile approach road to the Rotherhithe Tunnel. The three smaller flats on the west side of each floor are protected by curving blank walls that project outwards, leaving gaps for side windows and balconies.
As well as maximising the views, Macdonald has also managed to fit a richly landscaped communal garden into the high-density development. Open space has been created by pushing the car parking underground, except for a few surface spaces for visitors. At the northern end of the site, covered parking has been formed into a two-storey podium that projects out from beneath the Pinnacle, which is raised on stilts. Spread out over the roof of the podium, the residents' garden is an exotic concoction of bamboos, rounded boulders, timber decking and a pond with a waterfall that flows to a lower pond beside the podium.
A public walkway runs the entire length of the dockside, separating the development from the water's edge. Here again, Macdonald has taken pains to segregate the private residences from the public right of way without creating a forbidding barrier or fence. The garden, for instance, is bounded by an informal screen of railway sleepers and shrubs that makes it look like an extension of the public realm but effectively bars interlopers.
The materials and detailing are quite a few cuts above the norm for private housing, as Macdonald was novated to design-and-build contractor Bovis Crowngap. The lower blocks are crisply modelled with square windows and recessed curtain-walled penthouses beneath oversailing flat roofs. Facing materials are brick and render above plinths of polished limestone. Timber deck balconies are supported on rectangular frames of steel I-beams painted charcoal grey.
Even the eaves are unusually slimline affairs, with soffits and narrow facia boards in natural timber. They are a far cry from the flabby steel facia boards that crown the scheme now nearing completion across the dock.
There is, however, one false note in the detailing, and it is a pity that it is such a prominent one. The Pinnacle is encircled by a cleaning gantry rail that threads its way through the triangular slot cut into the soaring white prow. It does not seem to have put off prospective buyers, though. Even though flats in the Pinnacle are not yet finished and the London housing market has started to flatten out, all but 11 flats have been sold.
As Macdonald says: "When the market goes flat, people look around and compare schemes, rather than buying off plan. In that situation, schemes of high value and high specification win out."
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Developer Bellway Homes Architect and Landscape Architect Robert Macdonald Associates Structural Engineer Clarke Nicholls & Marcel Design and Build Contractor Bovis Crowngap Services Engineer Designbrook