Thirty years ago, the closure of London docks ripped out West Silvertown’s heart. Twelve years ago, architect John Thompson and the residents imagined a dramatic plan to put it back. Two weeks ago, the architect went with Elaine Knutt to find out what happened to that vision. Tim Foster took his camera

Angled against a cold breeze, John Thompson stands on the pedestrian bridge spanning the dock between the Excel Exhibition Centre in London Docklands and the residential area of West Silvertown. He’s looking west towards the Millennium Dome, Canary Wharf, and the jumble of chemical factories that form the north Greenwich skyline. But in his mind’s eye, he’s seeing a landscape that was never built.

He is visualising a bridge of houses and shops stretching across the dock like a latter-day version of the medieval London Bridge. Moored yachts make a colourful display against the awnings and umbrellas of cafes and bars. The sheltered basin beyond the bridge is perfect for wind-surfing or canoeing. “Imagine it. Instead of all that crap in the background, you’d have a focused vision,” he says, shaking his head as if he can’t quite believe what he isn’t seeing. “It would have reconnected the two banks and brought more visibility to the site.”

The idea for an inhabited bridge emerged from a pioneering exercise in community consultation held back in 1993. Silvertown contains the only sugar refinery in the UK, and the largest in the world. However, it depended on the Royal Docks for its economic vitality. When they closed, the area went into decline, and even after their death, the docks still dominate the area, which is a kind of crescent-shaped island between the basins of the Albert, Victoria and George V docks and the Thames.

The regeneration plan was worked out at the “West Silvertown Planning for Real” weekend in 1993, an event initiated by the Prince

Charles-backed Urban Villages Forum and chaired by Thompson, who was then a partner in Hunt Thompson Associates. Twelve years later, Regenerate took Thompson back to West Silvertown to see how the scheme that eventually took shape measures up against the plans drawn up on that weekend.

During the weekend, participants told the team about a long-demolished dock wall that had once created a tidal basin at the dock’s western end. “Local history and knowledge gave us the idea. People remembered the dock wall as a route and an important piece of heritage,” Thompson recalls. After the event, Hunt Thompson teamed up with a consortium led by developer Trevor Osborne and housebuilder St George. They calculated that the bridge was commercially viable if it utilised the existing wall footings.

But the community had no powers to ensure that the team appointed by the London Docklands Development Corporation took account of their wishes. In the event, the LDDC preferred the less risky vision proposed by George Wimpey and architect Tibbalds Monro. “It was a really bad decision,” Thompson says. “It would’ve raised the scheme’s commercial value.”

The community had no powers to ensure that the team appointed by the LDDC took account of their wishes

Renamed Britannia Village, the area now has about 800 private sector homes and 140 rented by the Peabody Trust and 95 by East Thames Housing Group, plus a new primary school. They are connected to east London by a shiny silver footbridge, its metal deck raised above the water to allow access for the boats that are conspicuous by their absence.

The need to negotiate a none-too-clean lift in order to cross the bridge seems to emphasise that the area is a semi-island cut off from the rest of Docklands – as does the sign announcing that the bridge is closed between 1am and 5am every night. In the lift, Thompson thrusts the report from the planning weekend at a fellow passenger, explaining the inhabited bridge concept with urgency and enthusiasm. City worker and private renter David Enzor, 23, nods, especially when Thompson mentions bars. “That sounds great,” he says. “I always have to run back from a night out because this bridge shuts at one o’clock.”

On the bridge, Thompson compares his original sketches with the view in front of him. Apart from the missing bridge, there is one more obvious difference. Britannia Village is a medium-rise development, as uniform in height as the low-slung Excel exhibition centre it faces. But in the sketches, two tower blocks stand at the western end, providing an anchor-point and a visual link to the towers of Canary Wharf.

Thompson has to wrestle with the irony that the planning event demonstrated bold thinking over the inhabited bridge, but proved reactionary over the fate of two council-owned high-rises, Barnwood Court. At the event, the dilapidated tower blocks were used as target practice for local people firing broadsides at their council. “People felt stranded, and so they blamed it on the building, not the housing policy,” he says. “Nowadays there are plenty of examples of high-rise make-overs, but Wimpey thought they were vertical slums that would pull down the value of the estate. In fact, they’d have been extremely valuable, and added to the density, mix and vibrancy of the area.”

The bridge lands in the lee of a crescent-shaped block of flats with shop units at ground level. With its red-brick facade and glazed-in balconies, it’s an attractive-looking building in a prime location. Thompson is surprised to see the Peabody Trust nameplate on the intercom, indicating that these are social rented flats and an early example of pepperpotting.

The building is a text-book example of a mixed-use development, but its mini-market and newsagents aren’t exactly bustling, and one large corner unit has been taken by a local skills and training agency. As Thompson points out, the text book didn’t include equations on how many residents were needed to support new businesses, and how many businesses were needed to draw in outside visitors. “It’s a reminder of how many people you need to generate activity for shops, cafes and businesses. You’re trapped between two bodies of water and don’t have many people to play with.” Another large unit is taken by an estate agent, which does seem to have a steady trickle of trade. Heike Merlitz, a German GP working in Poplar and renting in another part of Docklands, is on her way to find out about flats for sale in the village. “I think the area is quite nice, but what I don’t like is when the lifts are vandalised,” she says.

As a born-again urbanist, I’m now looking at the masterplan with a critical eye

If she does move to West Silvertown, she will be joining an international community. Thompson had hoped to speak to more of today’s residents and meet someone who had lived in this area before it was rebuilt. But he comes up against a language barrier: a young woman pushing a buggy speaks no English at all, and two lads washing their car are Lithuanian renters who comment that “it’s a nice peaceful area”.

As we walk around, it’s clear that the layout of West Silvertown is reasonably faithful to the sketches Hunt Thompson produced after the community planning event. In the masterplan and in real life, the development has been massed around the middle of the dock. Along the dockside, generous spacing and courtyards between blocks maximise views of the water. And the dock-side cranes give the area a sense of identity. “They’re fabulous, marching down the quayside like something from The War of the Worlds,” Thompson says.

Among the residents that Thompson does speak to, the water-side location is the area’s most popular feature. “When you look out of the window [of the apartment blocks] you can’t see the dock, just the water. At night, when Excel’s lit up, it looks quite pretty,” says David Enzor. “It’s nice being by the water, it feels quite secure. And it’s peaceful – a little too peaceful,” says New Zealander Mary Anderson. The views are also mentioned by Brazilian tenant Flavio de Souza, although he adds that “a gym would be useful”.

Further into the scheme, Thompson is brought up short. So far, the visit has been an exercise in comparing and contrasting what was built with what was planned. But in Evelyn Road, he comes face to face with the deficiencies of that masterplan. “The street’s far too wide – today we would tighten it up a bit. It doesn’t feel like London. Look at how many cars are coming down this street!” he asks, as one solitary Ford Focus snakes its way around traffic-calming bollards. “Who designed it? An urbanist or a traffic engineer? It would have a more urban feel if we’d designed it today. It would have had a tighter urban grain and we’d minimise the space given over to the car.”

Beyond the avenue, apartment blocks give way to terraced housing arranged around open spaces. But Thompson is concerned that the architectural identity evident at the dockside hasn’t reached this part of the site. “It lacks coherence in the urban coding. It would have helped to have a more rigorous spatial language. It’s decoration over design,” he argues. But he concedes that he’s talking with the benefit of hindsight, PPG3, and a decade’s worth of debate on place-making. “Today we’d have given it a more urban solution and higher density to give it a bit more life. As a born-again urbanist, I’m now looking at it with a critical eye. At the time, I was a community planner.”

So does the community planner think that Britannia Village can be judged a success? Thompson thinks for a while before giving a measured response. “People wanted decent housing, a new school, and a community. I think the mix and concept is as it was. It’s a good outcome for where we were at the time.”

What the residents say

"I think the area is quite nice, but what I don’t like is when the lifts are vandalised"
Heike Merlitz

"It’s nice being by the water, it feels quite secure. And it’s peaceful – a little too peaceful"
Mary Anderson

"I always have to run back from a night out because this bridge shuts at one o’clock"
David Enzor

An experiment in community engagement

The 1993 Planning for Real weekend was the third such event in the UK sponsored by the Urban Villages Forum; similar events had already been held at Poundbury and Bishopsgate Goods Yard. Prince Charles dropped in for a visit, and the event was attended by his then architectural adviser, Leon Krier. As Thompson recalls, the actual event was fuelled by anger. “People were jobless, they lived in crap housing, there was a huge feeling of ‘them and us’’,” he says. “Docklands was all about wealth, and this was a place of deprivation.”

It was held over a four-day period with topic-based workshops and open debates. The event was open to anyone with an interest in the area, and was intended to create a greater sense of “ownership” in the resulting development. As well as the 1000 participants, the UVF assembled a multidisciplinary team to evaluate and report back on proceedings.

Although similar community consultation events are now considered essential in regeneration schemes, the West Silvertown weekend was a bold experiment for its time. Under a Conservative government and a conservative housebuilding industry, there were suspicions that the mixed-use, mixed-tenure agenda it was proposing amounted to social engineering. “It’s incredible that the London Dockland Development Corporation and Newham council went for it at all,” says Thompson.

In 2002, a Cardiff University report into 55 urban villages found that most fell short of their aspirations. West Silvertown was one of three singled out for commendation. The study noted the community engagement at the planning weekend, increased housing densities, environment-friendliness, the quality of urban design and identity.