Exploiting the potential of the pre-existing

A stadium long empty, disused rail sheds and a granary, a contaminated derelict landscape; rather than things to erase, to build over, these are opportunities to re-imagine. In three different parts of London, each has provided the chance to transform rather than just build anew. Sharing these at the JUNG Architekturgespräche (Architecture Talks) in Berlin, partner Bob Allies illustrated that in many cases the most successful urban projects are those that exploit the potential of the pre-existing.

In 2012, London’s hosting of the Olympics provided the ideal opportunity to reposition a post-industrial backwater. During the Games, many venues were temporary while permanent ones were given post-Games community uses. The legacy of this investment is focussed on a new public park that is the setting for new urban neighbourhoods of mixed uses including housing and a new waterfront of cultural and educational institutions on a river that had long faded in the collective memory. The park has been the anchor of an eastward shift in London’s creative energy, which draws on the area’s rich industrial heritage and multiculturalism, to fuel its inventiveness.

Similarly at King’s Cross, these strands have come together to create another hub of London’s future creative economy by using pieces of its industrial past. The 24ha site immediately behind King’s Cross Station had been an engine of the national economy in Victorian times, but one that in recent decades, had fallen into disuse. Working for developers Argent, an incremental masterplan saw much potential with what was already on site. The old granary and railway sheds provided an ideal home for Central Saint Martins and the framing of a great new public space – Granary Square. Having a globally-renowned arts university as an early tenant brought youth and buzz to the site that is now attracting tenants large and small, global and local. Elsewhere, new offices and housing are going up alongside retained pieces of industrial heritage, creating a rich urban quarter. The adjacent pattern of streets is retained and new connections enable easy access to two of the city’s busiest train stations.

This re-purposing is possible too at the scale of an individual building. When the Arsenal Football Club outgrew its art deco home in Highbury, an important piece of cultural memory faced an uncertain future until it was re-imagined as Highbury Square, a new residential neighbourhood that retained key elements of the stadium’s architecture and urban imprint. It provided a chance to create a new London square and a place that was distinctive from similar developments. This sense of distinction is the elusive ingredient that new urban places regularly need to thrive in the long-term. Often, it can be found by simply embracing what is already there.

Bob Allies spoke on ‘transformation’ as the guest of the JUNG Architekturgespräche (Architecture Talks) in Berlin, 15 Feb 2016.