Sky high luxury in East London

[slideshow_deploy id=’17703′]


Cast an eye over the East London skyline, and apart from the small cluster of commercial buildings in Liverpool Street, you’ll see few skyscrapers, and even fewer residential ones. It’s a different story in Vauxhall where developers have flooded the South Bank with clusters of multi-story apartments, leaving this southwest transport hub overcrowded and undesirable. With space for development on the Thames bankside becoming increasingly rationed and West London’s luxury real estate saturated, developers are increasingly looking to East London to build their luxury dwellings.

When Canaletto, a new residential development – where studio apartments are listed at over £500,000 – announced its planned arrival for late next year (2015), there were no surprises where it would be. The confusing factor lies is its placement on the less than appealing City road basin – where the nearest restaurant is a McDonalds. The redeeming factors lie in quick transport links to Shoreditch, Islington and the City, its proximity to Regent’s Canal, and that Dutch architects UNStudio are behind the design.

Named in reflection of its canal location, this high-rise luxury development is the first UK project for architect Ben van Berkel and his practice UNStudio. The 31-storey skyscraper boasts hotel-style concierge service, members–only restaurants, clubrooms, a cinema and other features such as gyms and pools you’d expect its price tag to justify. The fact that already half of the properties have sold signals a change in consumer attitude for luxury living in East London.

The unmistakable façade with curving balconies carves the tower’s mass into three-to-five story clusters, an attempt from van Berkel to retain intimacy in such a large development (190 apartments) by creating individual neighbourhoods through this grouped framework of glass and metal.

Founded in 1988, projects such as the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, and the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam have bestowed UNStudio and Ben van Berkel with  enviable respectability. Beyond leading projects at UNStudio, van Berkel has educational roles  at Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Staedelschule fine arts academy in Frankfurt. During the launch of Canaletto, the co-founder of UNStudio spoke to Glass about his vision for this development and his life between the studio and the classroom.

The 1960’s idea of Streets in the Sky inspired your notion of Neighbourhoods in the Sky that is brought to life in the Canaletto building. How have you materialised this social concept throughout so many apartments?
My belief is that you can create communal spaces within the building, where people can gather together and be in a social atmosphere – such as the restaurant on the ground floor, which will be used by residents. We did numerous studies to investigate which corners would have the best sight lines, where the best place would be to place the living room so as to have the best views at night etc.

I also thought about how could you frame, say, three storeys in clusters so that you could maybe talk about neighbourhoods in the sky. If you look at the history of residential towers, they’re [usually] so neutral and monolithic. If you walk away from the tower you cannot point to your own apartment. So the idea is that you can say, “well I’m living in the third cluster”. You know, that you can point at your own apartment. That identity is something that we were working on quite intensely.

Have you used this concept in any of your other residential buildings?
Yes, one of the first projects where we applied this concept was The Scotts Tower in Singapore, which is also currently under construction. There, because the different apartment sizes were organised in clusters, we articulated the balconies in each cluster differently and in doing so created variety in the identity of the ‘neighbourhoods’.

It is in fact a concept that we are testing and refining, as the architect cannot completely direct how the internal neighbourhoods will develop, but you can stimulate this development. Perhaps simply referring to this neighbourhood concept acts, as stimulation for the occupants and that idea is very interesting to me. It is also important that contemporary high rise residential buildings are not stigmatised, or seen as stacked isolated units where you only meet your neighbours in the transfer spaces. This is why the amenity spaces are also very important in the building. In Canaletto, the cinema, the restaurant and especially the clubroom provide areas within the building for socialising and exchange with the other residents.

How do you feel your creation of a neighbourhood will succeed where Streets in the Sky arguably failed?
The first architects that were fascinated with this idea of the  Street in the Sky  were the Smithson’s, and the reason why it failed was because they weren’t attractive. They were harsh in terms of material, organization, they were alienating and not inviting nor safe, which is why many of these semi public spaces are now abandoned.

What made you choose the materials you did for this building?
Looking at the context of Canaletto, we investigated the textures of brick and warmer materials, more modern materials. We tried to combine the different colours and textures from the surroundings.

The building facade creates a modelled elevation in which clusters of adjacent floors are grouped together. Using both textured and smooth materials contrasts with the expected contemporariness of a typical high-rise metal construction and lends the facade a residential ‘twist’. Sustainability benefits are achieved by the surface modelling that creates opportunities for shading, balancing good internal daylight and views with reduced heat gains.

What were the most important design functions you wanted to include within this building?
Designing a residential building creates particular challenges. Where commercial buildings can be more formal, a residential building must possess real humanity. It has to provide a sense of invitation, or coming home. So, for me the whole project was as much like a piece of product design as an architectural scheme. And the result is more like a piece of furniture than a building. It’s deeply personal: it has that kind of intimacy.

The local area was also a great source of inspiration, in particular the proximity to water. We wanted to reprise the ripples and reflections and use fluid forms for the exterior. We have tried to actually “scale down” the building, not wanting to emphasise its verticality but rather convey the more intimated residential qualities.

How have you balanced the relationship between interior and exterior spaces within this design?
UNStudio’s approach to architecture is strongly driven by an in-side-out approach. Throughout the building the cluster concept of the façade is designed to maximize views to take in the panoramas of the City and basin waterways.

When designing residential projects do you feel restricted by the relationship between consumer appeal and creativity?
No. But perhaps this is because when I think of the consumer I do not think in abstract marketing terms, but rather try to imagine the end user as somebody I know and see them in the environment I am designing. This can also stimulate ideas, so I have never experienced it as a restriction of any kind to creativity.

Did London’s strict planning regulations constrict your creative process at all?
London is a wonderful, intense city to work in. I always get this question from my colleagues and friends here, “Did you not have difficulties with the regulations and the planning department?” But it was quite good for us. I don’t know, maybe as a Dutchman I like restrictions and I like to play with the puzzle of restrictions. The more difficult, the more I am pressed to innovate. So I like that.

Did you design the building with the London skyline in mind? If so, what do you think the Canaletto will add to it?
Yes we did. But London doesn’t really have a centralised, continuous skyline, it has clusters of high rise, so in that sense you consider the effect at different scales: how it will appear from a distance, its silhouette and its appearance as part of the whole. You can play with how it appears from different distances through the articulation of the façade, for instance.

Foster + Partners are working on proposals for a residential tower in this area, signalling a sparking of interest in residential development here. With the un-typically high price-point for each apartment, do you view the Canaletto development as gentrification or re-generation?

Re-generation. We have taken every step to consult with local stakeholders throughout and we will continue to do so. Canaletto is a statement of ambition for the neighbourhood and is designed to complement it in every way. Over the next two years you will see us supporting the local community in numerous different ways including enhancing facilities along the canal. We are determined that the Canaletto development enhances the local community and acts as a beacon to signpost the ambition of the district.

You’re a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor of Conceptual Design at the Staedelschule, all while being the principal architect in both Amsterdam and Shanghai offices of UNStudio. How do you divide your time?
I teach at Harvard for one season each year and have teaching assistants that also assist with the running of the course. At the Staedelschule we also have a fantastic and talented team running the Architecture Class, so I am there more in a supervisory role – but hopefully a motivational and inspiring one. I divide my time between carrying out research, as this is essential to improve the quality of our work at the studio, and a significant amount of time is also spent meeting clients. I would say that I spend about 50-60 percent of my time designing at the office and the rest is spent on research, teaching and client meetings.

by Stephanie Clair