LONDON — Rising out of the rubble of the docks that line the Thames River east of the historic center of this city is one of the world's most ambitious urban renewal projects.
Known as The Docklands, the project encompasses eight square miles of river frontage, a public and private commitment of an estimated $15 billion and a rich maritime history that hints of the halycon days of when the British Empire ruled the seas and London was the busiest port in the world.
The Docklands, as being pieced together by a public corporation, also encompasses for England a surprising ad hoc attitude toward planning and design that has resulted to date in a broad range of architectural styles, ranging from insipid to inspired.
Some of the 250-odd residential, commercial and industrial projects that make up the collage that is The Docklands look as if they belong alongside a freeway in Orange County, while others, in particular the adaptive reuse of select historic wharves, exude a sense of style and history appropriate to their settings.
Touted as "the emerging city," The Docklands in its first wave of development since being formed in 1981, appears to be more an emerging suburbia; a fragmented collection of clustered housing developments, office and industrial parks and adaptive reuses loosely linked by a sleek new light rail system, an orientation of the serpentine Thames and the rationales of chief executive Reg Ward.
"You could say that The Docklands is a 'happening,' a happy coincidence of opportunity and accident," says Ward. "There have been no master plans or detailed development frameworks.
"If we had them we would still be debating them and nothing would have gotten built. Instead, we have gone for an organic, market-driven approach, responding pragmatically to each situation, to each proposal."
While Ward admits that some of the earlier schemes may not have been as sensitive to urban design considerations as they should have been, with each new success the Docklands design process is becoming more sophisticated. "And that is really the way a city grows, by stages, and by layers," he adds. "At The Docklands we are just trying to condense time."
As an indication of the corporation's increasing sensitivity to urban design issues, last month it rejected plans for a $700-million office, retail and residential complex designed by American architect Philip Johnson for a Kuwaiti-owned development company. At issue were the siting and style of the office towers.
The Postmodern-style design with hints of the Houses of Parliament had been described by Johnson as "an homage to English architecture." Others, including the Royal Fine Arts Commission, described it more as an homage to money and the architect's ego, prompting the corporation to ask Johnson to do a redesign.
"A few years ago when The Docklands was desperate for new development, any development, it would have embraced the proposal," said a local architecture writer. "But now that The Docklands has caught on as a prime site the corporation has become pickier. I guess you can say it now can afford to be more concerned with aesthetics."
Going through a redesign recently was Canary Wharf, at 10 million square feet of office, retail and hotel space, the proposed centerpiece of The Docklands. It is being developed on 71 prime acres by Olympia & York and designed by a consortium that includes the architecture firms of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, of Chicago, I.M. Pei & Partners, Kohn Pedersen Fox, James Sterling and YRM. The projected price tag of the complex is $6 billion.
The preliminary plans indicate that Canary Wharf will resemble in scale Century City and will dominate the skyline of The Docklands and challenge the skyline of the portion of Central London known as The City two miles to the west. Apparently that is what the corporation wants to do.
To date much of the commercial development of The Docklands has been relatively modest office park quality, singular buildings of a transient spirit bearing little relationship to their settings.
Among the happy exceptions is the Ladkarn Building on the West India Docks designed by Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners. With a sleek steel facade, curved corners and a mast and stay structural system, the building engineered by Ove Arup & Partners evokes a rigged sailing ship.
Also evocative of its dockside location is Heron Quays, designed by the firm of Nicholas Lacey Jobst & Hyett. Built on stilts and featuring gangplanks and glimpses of the water below, the building, clad in red and maroon metal, has been described as a sprightly Italian ocean liner.
Showing great promise as a retail center is the proposed conversion of the sprawling so-called Tobacco Dock. As designed with imagination by the Terry Farrell Partnership, the scheme calls for retaining the dock's dramatic vaults, while literally opening their roofs to glass-clad atriums.