diamond geezer

 Sunday, June 02, 2019

The London Festival of Architecture, which launched in 2004, is Europe’s biggest annual architecture festival. It lasts a month, and that month is June, so kicked off yesterday. I struggled manfully through the atomised listings trying to find an event that was a) open, b) interesting c) free, and eventually plumped for...

All along the dock edge by Anna Gibb

Anna is an architect with a penchant for drawing architecture, so her contribution to LFA2019 is a self-guided walk. This follows the northern edge of the Royal Docks, from the cablecar to the Thames, and is accompanied by a free illustrated guide combining drawings of buildings, a historical timeline, a decent map and a selection of factual nuggets. I collected mine from the reception of the floating hotel beside the Dangleway, but they're also available in an arts centre and a coffee shop at the other end of the trail. Here's Anna explaining a bit more about the project. She's right that it's a lovely thing to do.

I started at the busy end of the Royal Docks, close to Royal Victoria station, closely followed by Noah and his family who were off for an excitable ride on the cablecar (WilkinsonEyre, 2012). If you must ride, try to come at any time other than a summer weekend because the view's the same and you won't be packed in like sardines. But not even June crowds can rescue The Crystal (WilkinsonEyre, 2012), Siemens' financially unsustainable sustainability exhibition. I watched three potential visitors wander away from the entrance having entirely failed to work out what the place was, let alone how much it cost.

This end of the dockside majors in unsparkling places to eat, ideal for guests whose nearby hotel doesn't serve breakfast. Those wibbly-wobbly blancmange-like flats rising in the background are called Hoola (CZWG, 2017), erected just before brick homogeneity kicked in. The cranes towering above the water's edge are from 1962, by Stothert & Pitt, and very much the oldest thing left. They're particularly prominent above Royal Victoria Square (Patel Taylor, 2002), and much admired by delegates wandering outside from whatever's on at ExCel (Moxley Architects, 2000). This weekend nothing much, so it's like an abandoned air terminal in there. Let's walk fast.

The dock is often alive with watersports. On my eastbound hike rather less so, just a manic race between four boatfuls of sea cadets yelping through the water from Millennium Mills to the Connaught Bridge. Croydon rowed home last. Tooting and Balham had brought a gazebo and were barbecuing burgers. It was quite the afternoon out. Across at the London Regatta Centre (Ian Ritchie Architects, 2000) the last rowers of the day had just finished, leaving water bottles, suncream and oars on the dockside before upturning their boat and making tracks to the pub.

Next up is Building 1000 (Auckett Europe, 2004), Newham council's dockside hub which boasts a buzzing jungle atrium on weekdays but a warren of empty hotdesks at weekends. It's at this point that Anna's intended route hiccups - a locked gate means you can walk no further. The next half mile is reserved for the Royal Albert Dock development, a Boris-enabled Chinese-funded business hub you'll be hearing a lot more about shortly. The first phase (Farrells, 2019) consists of a few drab office blocks but there are a heck of a lot to come. The artist's impression on the hoardings suggests that the upcoming district was designed not by an architect but by an accountant attempting to cram in as many cuboids as possible.

Anna's map suggests that the "route through RAD is expected to open during June 2019", which would be brilliant if true, but would also have been the excuse I'd have used if I'd designed a walk called #allalongthedockedge and a long chunk was impassable. Anna suggests hopping on the DLR or walking parallel to the track instead. I can confirm that the latter option is grim, whether you pick the dual carriageway or the back lane, and that a DLR hop is the only sensible option. However by risking a walk I did get an eyeful of the Dock Manager's Office (Vigers and Wagstaffe, 1883) and the Central Buffet (Vigers and Wagstaffe, 1883), both buildings not so much preserved as scrubbed to within an inch of their lives.

At the University of East London Docklands Campus (Cullinan Studio, 1999) it's possible to return to the Thames, so long as you don't mind passing a security guard and walking through a bunch of students. Its dockside pepperpot accommodation is both iconic and appealing, although less so since somebody decided it needed a repaint in on-brand colours. Usually you can stand here and watch City Airport disgorging aeroplanes, but not on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning which must be when students get a lie-in.

Beyond the Sir Steve Redgrave Bridge the docks peter out. Here we find one final residential enclave, until recently a handful of lonely flats but now surrounded by a burgeoning cluster of unexpectedly rapid growth. One magnificent dockers pub survives, the Gallions Hotel (Vigers and Wagstaffe, 1883) but otherwise this is a soulless outpost of stacked boxes enjoying the benefit of a waterside setting. Anna lives and works here at Royal Albert Wharf (Phase 1, Maccreanor Lavington, 2019), which is also home to a Bow Arts studios project introduced by the developers to gift this dead-end a bit of culture. It's perhaps no coincidence that her trail deposits you here.

But step a little further, beyond the Co-Op and the final wall of flats, and suddenly you find yourself facing the river Thames. It's not the finest stretch, opposite West Thamesmead, but better than the view everybody else so far has been granted. A refreshingly bleak footpath hugs the shore towards Beckton radar tower - you might know it from Capital Ring section 15 - but before long it'll be just another strip of sanitised waterfront overlooked by Royal Albert Wharf (Phase 2, Feilden Clegg Bradley, 2021).

Do come and look before everything changes forever, and Anna's approach is as fine as any.

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