The architecture of unhappiness

How the Docklands style is ruining Britain’s urban fabric
Bland, boring and ruining the city

Bland, boring and ruining the city

The “Docklands style” is the quintessentially British architecture of the 21st century. It is not easy to describe although anyone living or familiar with London today will find it instantly recognizable. Perhaps the best way to identify it is not for what it is but for what it isn’t. First and most obvious, it is not the classic Victorian and Georgian terraces and mansions that still can be found in abundance in most British cities. Secondly, it is not the grim, monolithic council estates that were designed as modernist utopias after World War II but slowly fell into disrepair and squalor. Take these two out of the equation and you’re left with the Docklands style, which on the surface seeks to emulate the wharf and warehouse conversions that have become ubiquitous in over the past three decades, first in East London but later spreading like an unholy urbanistic plague across much of Britain.

Indeed the Docklands style stretches back to the Thatcher era when large tracts of unused land in what used to the be the Port of London (the world’s largest up to around World War II) were revitalized as part of numerous development schemes, the most notable which was Canary Wharf in the Isle of Dogs. Canary Wharf was at the time the single largest commercial development project ever attempted, so ambitious and yet so untimely that it resulted in the bankruptcy of its Canadian developer, Paul Reichmann. Yet despite its near-death experience, the relocation of various key banks into the area (notably HSBC and Citigroup) in the early 1990s saved Canary Wharf from turning into an embarrassing financial flop. Although Canary Wharf is almost entirely commercial, its surroundings were transformed in tandem into new residential areas, which included Canada Water and the southern tip of the Island of Dogs as well as Limehouse to the west. To the east, the Docklands territory spread across the River Lea and into the Royal Albert and Royal Victoria docks where a massive convention center and an airport were built.

Despite the colossal sums of investment in reshaping what was once one of London’s most downtrodden areas, ask any Londoner what is the dullest and most boring part of town and they’ll say without hesitation: the Docklands. Although it’s architectural style, now referred to generically as “new builds” are the ambition of the middle classes (and have now spread beyond London to most major British cities), as an experiment in urbanism the Docklands style must today be qualified as an unequivocal failure. It created soulless communities, far from the amenities of urban life, and seemingly segregated into their own gated little utopias of key card entrances, private gardens (which nobody used) and the promise of a better life away from some imaginary threat from the streets. This is what it got wrong: Continue reading