We’re all familiar with those famous London landmarks: Big Ben, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. For television viewers, however, perhaps one of the capital’s most iconic images remains an aerial sweep of the Thames in east London.
Fans of the long-running soap opera EastEnders have been gazing down on this particular landscape more or less nightly for the past 30 years. During that time, at least on the ground, much has changed; nowhere more so than at Leamouth, the distinctive bow of marshland formed where the River Lea joins the River Thames. Here, a 12-acre river-locked plain of industrial scrub is undergoing reinvention as a desirable new neighbourhood, called London City Island.
London City Island is not, as its name might suggest, an island, but rather a peninsula. The marketing angle, however, is only stretching the truth by an inch or two. Road access is limited to a single, slim entry point and locals will enjoy the same sense of encircling water as locations with a more legitimate claim to the name.
The development’s extensive river fringe has played a key role in the way this urban village has been envisaged. Architect Glenn Howells has taken inspiration from the waterfront skyline of Manhattan and Chicago, introducing a similar sense of jagged geometry and bold use of colour to brighten the cloudy metropolitan skies. “We wanted to create something visibly different, which, from a distance, would act as an interesting collage,” says Howells, founding partner of Glenn Howells Architects. “The modelling allows you to see the island as a coherent composition and the colour helps you read one building against another.”
Addressing the city’s perpetual grey is a question that has long preoccupied architects. The Victorians fought the smog and the gloom with wipe-clean, blood-red terracotta. More recently, however, the trend has tended to go with the flow, and co-ordinating neutrals in steel, stone and concrete have become the norm. This makes the response here – 10 mid-rise blocks in a palette that ranges from rust to marine-blue – all the more radical.
“The London tradition was not generally colourful,” says Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic of the Financial Times. “Various postmodern schemes attempted it but, unfortunately, much of it wasn’t very sophisticated. It can work, however. The fault doesn’t lie in colour itself, but in the way the colour too often looks tacked on.”
At London City Island, the polychrome approach is not only deeply embedded in the glossy brickwork, but also rooted in Leamouth’s long maritime history, a past in which every object needed to be clearly visible, even in the most profound peasouper. The island’s vermilion drawbridge, for example, which links the development to Canning Town station, echoes the SOS red that was used on local ships, such as the one now docked in the adjacent arts quarter, Trinity Buoy Wharf.
Prior to its reinvention, Leamouth was a busy industrial zone, where, in the 18th century, the main form of work was whale-blubber processing; later, when east London’s docks became the hub of Britain’s global trade empire, iron and engineering took over. Good Luck Hope (as the peninsula was known) was also home to the Thames Plate Glass Company, which was responsible for producing “the largest plate of glass in the world” for display at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
When the last container ship left Docklands in 1980, much of east London was left a desolate wasteland; but, just over a decade on, the flashing beacon of Canary Wharf’s One Canada Square semaphored the arrival of a thrusting new business quarter. The completion of the Docklands Light Railway and Jubilee Line extension helped knit the reborn area into the fabric of the city.
Transport, as elsewhere, has played a critical role at London City Island, and residents here will be unusually well served. The Island lies a two-minute stroll to Canning Town station, where the journey to the City and the West End is less than 20 minutes. Escape by air is equally easy from nearby London City Airport and, when Crossrail arrives in 2018, from Heathrow in just under an hour.
Today, of course, Canary Wharf is the City’s grown-up younger sister and, as hoped at its launch, a refuge for an array of banks and law firms. Increasingly, too, it has become home to a global blend of affluent, young urbanites, mostly aged 25-40, with many employed in the financial sector.
London City Island’s target market is similar, but property pricing here is more accessible. Phase 1 starts at £360,000 for a studio and rises to £1.29m for a three-bedroom flat; Phase 2 will include larger townhouses. New residents are likely to include not only refugees from banking’s grinding hours, but also a growing number of tie-less employees from the rapidly expanding technology sector. It is intended that the latter should feel particularly welcome. “This area has a strong tradition of creative industries,” says Glenn Howells. “Like Shoreditch and Bermondsey, it has always been a community of makers, and, from the beginning, arts and culture have been enshrined in the planning.”
For developers, the inclusion of an artistic or cultural offering has become a prerequisite in “placemaking”, ensuring that industrial tundra is not reinvented as soulless “cookie-cutter” living. Just across the water, at Greenwich Peninsula, for example, Knight Dragon has installed the NOW Gallery, a contemporary art space, for the benefit of its 15,000 properties (from £250,000 to £2.1m). While at King’s Cross the thriving University of the Arts and Kings Place concert hall and arts venue have popularised Argent’s 2,000 new homes (where remaining flats in the Plimsoll Building start at £1.10m, through Knight Frank). At London City Island, the main attraction will undoubtedly be the English National Ballet, whose forthcoming rehearsal space and school will star as the development’s centrepiece.
English National Ballet thought carefully before committing its future to London City Island, selecting the venue out of five options. “We are growing a new and younger audience and were looking for world-class rehearsal and production facilities, combined with a more outward-looking and engaged involvement,” says executive director Caroline Thomson. “London City Island offered the creative ethos we were after.”
The ballet company’s new home will really stand out – the only monochrome structure in a sea of colour. Visitors will be able to watch both the company and the school as they rehearse – both through the floor-to-ceiling windows that surround the perimeter and from the communal ground-floor space, which has a café and shop. “For us, the attraction of being in east London is that we’re part of an exciting regeneration,” says Thomson. “We believe ballet is for everyone and should be a creative force in the community. It’s a marvellous opportunity.”
The rest of the Island’s landscape has been designed to reflect well on this high-art offering, and a significant percentage of the ground-floor retail space is reserved for creative studios, leisure, art and community spaces. Authenticity is the leitmotif – so, no Tesco here – rather a stylish, minimally stocked general store, The Grocer, which does triple duty as a deli and café. It will be joined, it is hoped, by a range of non-chain boutiques and owner-chef restaurants.
The lifestyle theme, as must now be clear, is urban hip, and that is reflected in the design of the interiors, which are warm, colourful and relaxed. “There’s something of a warehouse aesthetic, with generous open-plan living space and loft-style features,” says interior architect Jonathan Clarke of Woods Bagot. “It’s very easy to do a B&B Italia showroom, but we wanted to be a little more decorative and adventurous.” The show apartments feature Crittal-like windows and wood flooring, with rooms punctuated by modish, midcentury-inspired furnishings and bathroom tiling reflective of 1950s Manhattan.
A focal hub of this laid-back universe will be the private residents’ club, called The City Island Arts Club, where cool new neighbours will, hopefully, become cool good friends. It contains a screening room, a red pool (to co-ordinate with its surroundings), a gym, spa and treatment rooms, as well as a full concierge service.
So will this addition to a rash of new developments emerging across the city, from Battersea to Blackheath, Stratford to Shoreditch, win out against the competition? Developer Eco World Ballymore has a good track record; Ballymore started up in London in 1992 and has grown to be among the capital’s chief suppliers of new homes. It is an experienced hand at spotting locations with the right potential. A major venture was in Shoreditch, where it redeveloped Spitalfields Market. More recently, it has captured a prime spot in Nine Elms, where its Embassy Gardens will sit in a prominent position alongside the relocated American Embassy.
Acquisitions analyst Noah Ellis, of luxury residential developers Londonnewcastle, which has been operating in east London since the mid-1990s, feels London City Island could have a bright future. “Buyers in Canary Wharf itself are getting quite nervous that the market will stagnate. We feel the real growth will be in outlying areas, where transport is improving and there is added community benefit. People now want fantastic public realm and amenities – London City Island has everything required and is still reasonably affordable.”
While it’s fair to say that no London development is an island, the breeze at London City Island seems to be pointing in the right direction.