Down by the River

How do you build a new riverside district from scratch? The answer is to gather the best creative minds in the business and allow them scope to produce something truly distinctive. Clearly, this project is about much more than bricks and mortar.

SOM and GROSS MAX, architects and landscapers respectively, have been gifted with a blank canvas of sorts, outlined by its proximity to the River Thames, and a brief that engages with a far-sighted approach to building a neighbourhood from the ground up. For a new urban space to succeed, it needs life-affirming amenities that its residents can feel proud of for the long term— restaurants, galleries and a local pub, of course, as well as thoughtfully designed public spaces, all go a tremendous way towards achieving this.

Melbourne Docklands (Photograph: David Iliff)

The shifting cultural face of Copenhagen’s harbour, or the rejuvenation of Melbourne’s Docklands, a 190-hectare area offering a mix of residential, commercial, retail, dining and leisure, are both examples of new waterfront districts that have been activated through relevant cultural outposts.

“Hudson Yards in New York is another one to watch,” tip Anne Hynes and Jenni Carbins, who were responsible for the cultural curation of London’s Southbank, and are now bringing the best-in-class restaurants, bars, cafés and shops to Greenwich Peninsula. And for Upper Riverside, the newest stage of this regeneration? “We were inspired by Shad Thames in London”, they say, “which was regenerated through the 1980s and 1990s when disused warehouses were converted into flats, many with restaurants, bars and shops appearing on the ground floor.”

A view of the skyline and river Thames from Upper Riverside, a future district on Greenwich Peninsula

Part of the team tapped to succeed at what is, in short, the placemaking of Upper Riverside, is Eelco Hooftman of GROSS MAX, who suggests it all begins with quite a traditional feature of urban planning: “What we’re doing in this neighbourhood is creating a town square, which has a direct relationship with the Thames,” he says. Hooftman is not alone in his preoccupation with the Peninsula’s natural assets. While the natural landscape and industrial fabric of the area may have shifted, the Thames continues to be a constant point of focus for the whole Peninsula —with its dramatic tidal rise and fall, it’s not tricky to see its pull.

Kent Jackson, design director at SOM’s London office, is known for spearheading projects that prioritises both the human experience and the natural environment. Established in 1936, the firm masterplanned Canary Wharf in the 1980s, and was essential in shaping the area. For the Upper Riverside district, Jackson and his team have designed a series of five, light-filled glass and stone towers that tier downwards to the riverbank, and are crowned by lush roof gardens.

Nearly every apartment is afforded views of the Thames and is designed to feel spacious and light; the loft apartments, particularly, maximise the natural draws of the site. With double-height ceilings, Jackson sees these dwellings as a new spatial paradigm for high-rise living: “We’re changing the face of residential architecture here.” The great outdoors has even been considered in the design of the high-level swimming pool: “You can just imagine swimming, the skyline of London as your view,” muses Jackson.

Upper Riverside: five towers cut like prisms

SOM’s glinting angular towers will define the Greenwich Peninsula skyline: “We’ve looked at how this works from the riverfront square to the cable cars to the south. The result is this really elegant, undulating elevation along the river. It will bring the Southbank feel to the Peninsula.”

For Jackson, too, the riverside site was key to defining the scheme: “This is one of the best locations in London and we wanted to make the most of the closeness to the Thames—to enhance the great positioning, and bring in a new creative feel to this enclave on the Peninsula.” It’s a democratic approach, as the design allows visitors and residents alike access to the waterfront, creating a fantastic public destination.

Sky-high garden terraces at Upper Riverside are perfect for summer-time lounging

So about this placemaking. SOM and GROSS MAX have taken a great interest in the spaces between the residential towers: cascading green terraces, planted with white poplars and silver maples are primed for sunny afternoon lounging, while cafés and retailers will directly front the Thames, making for ideal promenading. It’s a social pastime that suits Hooftman, his firm being familiar with many waterfront regenerations globally: “You see this all over Europe, especially in Italy where they have the passeggiata—it’s good to see how London has had an amazing renaissance in this respect over the last ten years.”

In London, GROSS MAX is responsible for Lyric Square, Potters Fields Park, the public spaces around Festival Hall, and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. “It’s a fantastic experience to have a force of nature right on your doorstep. For us, the river is not only about space and recreation, it’s to be experienced on a daily basis,” he says.

As well as its anchorage to the Thames, one of the landscape design’s defining features is its achievement of abundant light and space within high-rise architecture. “I think what the riverfront landscape can do is be the intermediate between the private, the semi-private and the public. It’s about the transformation of scale, coming out of your more secluded apartments, facing this fantastic wide expansive space. Kent [Jackson] and I talked a lot about London, and if there’s any place in the world where we enjoy parks in a very creative, spontaneous way, it’s here—this landscape will become very important to creating that sense of place.”