Mixing build-to-rent housing with big-box retail, Porters Edge by Maccreanor Lavington makes a valuable contribution to an emerging type, finds Claire Bennie

Buildings.

Words
Claire Bennie

Photos
Tim Crocker

Canada Water’s backstory is long: Southwark Council’s 2012 Area Action Plan anticipated a ‘Kings Cross of the South’ emerging from surplus industrial land at south-east London’s burgeoning Zone 2 transport node. Various former council sites to the north and east of Canada Water station have long since completed, including schemes by Barratt, L&Q and Wimpey. These early phases are at the mid-density beloved by government advisors, comprising five- to eight-storey perimeter blocks ranged around generous courtyards. So far, so civil.

Other developers are now driving the next phases forward in a more mixed-use, high-density idiom, the cross-subsidy allowing them to overcome transport, industrial and waterway infrastructure challenges.

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View across Canada Water showing the two existing Decathlon retail sheds.

Developers and planning authorities have wrestled with the problem of combining homes with ‘big box’ commercial for some time; the first high-profile example, Woolwich Tesco, was the unfortunate recipient of the Carbuncle Cup a few years ago. But the ‘resi-box’ combination is a prize worth reaching for, as it opens up large chunks of valuable land – currently blighted by place-killing boxes – to become new mixed-use, all-day places. At Canada Water, Porters Edge, designed by Maccreanor Lavington Architects, is an attempt at this type, hiding a Decathlon store within a wrapper of Private Rented Sector (PRS) housing in a quite remarkable way.

The public offer from housing is always just as important as the residents’ experience: what should we expect of housing which we don’t live in?”

The public offer from housing is always just as important as the residents’ experience: what should we expect of housing which we don’t live in? I boil this down to place, character and generosity: a sense that the developer and designer have taken care over the cafe, the public realm and the architecture, all while conserving natural resources.

The initial journey to Porters Edge (which was not the responsibility of developers Sellar and Notting Hill Genesis, or their architect) is disappointing. I find it surprising given Canada Water’s relative maturity that no one has sought to bring early unity and richness to the public realm, whether that’s paving materials, dockside railings or parking spaces. However, it looks like the influence of British Land’s Roger Madelin will soon be brought to bear, following the developer’s major planning consent to the west and south gained last year, with a landscape scheme by Townshend.

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Drawings; model showing MLA’s scheme with two adjacent buildings proposed by David Chipperfield Architects (DCA). A masterplan for the redevelopment of two plots on the eastern edge of Canada Water Basin, by MLA, DCA and Klaus en Kaan Architects, was commissioned in 2011. Porters Edge is the first phase of the masterplan. It formed part of a hybrid planning application in 2012, which was approved in late 2013.

The heart of Canada Water – its dock – feels strangely apologetic and isn’t yet an asset to Porters Edge. The over-engineered Surrey Quays Road to the north provides another difficult edge, though Maccreanor Lavington and landscape architects Vogt and HTA have celebrated the service access to the retail box with an epic double-height splayed entrance, mature planes and a generous pavement.

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View from Canada Water Library and corner cafe. “Mixed use is normally lots of housing with limited retail slotted in”, says the architect. “Porters Edge is the opposite. We wanted to take the big-box retail model and redefine it as a series of urban blocks”.

The canal to the west provides the richest edge condition. Maccreanor Lavington’s plan neatly kinks back in acknowledgement of the Barratt scheme across the water, forming a tranquil breathing space between the two buildings; one could only wish for just one more cafe at this shadier spot. The cafe which is provided is in the other ‘right place’: a sunny spot overlooking the dock, and adjacent to the PRS scheme’s ‘super-lobby’, though not open to it as originally envisaged.

Maccreanor Lavington has played ‘hide the box’ with huge aplomb”

The architectural quality and ingenuity achieved is a mixed story. Maccreanor Lavington has played ‘hide the box’ with huge aplomb, using the warehouse-style wrapping which seems to please urban developers (and their customers) at the moment. Very deep reveals: check; floor-to-ceiling windows: check; expressed continuous cornices: check; recessed mortar joints: check; heavy top-floor lids: check. The brickwork itself is water-struck (giving a rougher finish) and comes in four colour blends, avoiding the potential monotony of a single aesthetic hand on a large perimeter block. (This ‘manufactured organicism’ is also now a familiar device, but less is more in my view). Spandrels and unavoidable plant-room doors benefit from a heavy industrial treatment, with stencilled lettering spelling out the timber which used to be sold from the site.

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Views along and across the Albion Channel.

But the architects’ care for materiality and detail only partially survived the icy blast of Ardmore’s value engineering. This diminution of quality isn’t inevitable under D&B; clients, and I’m pointing at Sellar and Notting Hill Genesis here, can still squeeze quality out of a D&B contract if they see fit to hang on to what matters for the long term. I am in no doubt that the GRC window surrounds and the slightly cheap looking windows themselves will fail before they should, leaving the public (and surely the long-term landlord) to regret those cost savings. Maccreanor Lavington was not novated, staying client-side for the envelope package only. It’s a ‘design guardian’ role the practice has played very successfully with Argent/Carillion at Kings Cross: the key to quality resilience is in the architect’s scope of service and in the client’s attention.

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Service entrance and the two-storey retail box designed to anticipate possible changes in shopping habits, with stores providing a range of leisure activities while transactions increasingly take place online.

And what about the resident perspective? Flat-dwellers tend to embody two opposing personalities: the private individual seeking comfort and privacy, and the communitarian seeking sociability and safety. A quick chat with the concierge (a 24-hour service here) revealed that the residents are typically aged 35 to 50, have more dogs than kids, and are reasonably well-off (one-bed flats rent at £1,750 per month). Their community needs are met via a small work-room off the lobby, a yoga space and a podium-level garden complete with multi-use games area (MUGA).

It’s that fourth-floor garden (sitting over two super-height floors of sports store) which is the most successful space, with its generous dimensions, sunny views out and a variety of landscape treatments to suit different crowds. Critically, it also acts as entry and distribution space to all three cores, providing natural activity and surveillance. On a cold day it felt a little bleak (a couple of dogs barked at each other from their balconies) but this is unfair; in better weather, I gather, multiple groups of residents have populated the courtyard to create a thriving, holiday atmosphere, with no small degree of flirtation across the space!

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Podium-height communal garden and MUGA. “The placement of a semi-enclosed sports pitch above the corner entrance to the store, enclosed by a tall colonnade and open to both customers and – after store hours – residents, helps to craft a gentler impact on the local townscape”, says the architect.