Hermitage Wharf, Joseph Conrad, Norman Foster and the River Thames Landscape

The above photograph from Tower Bridge was taken yesterday on my way to the cycle petition hand-in. It struck me as a real Joseph Conrad view of the river and Andrew Cowan Architects design for Hermitage Wharf looks much better than Foster’s design for Albion Riverside. Then I remembered having written a critical comment on Hermitage Wharf a few years ago. Checking it, I was pleased to find that I had praised the architecture and that it was the wretchedly dull riverside space I had criticised. Maybe Tower Hamlets’ planners mandated a bad landscape design because of the South Bank type crowds they were anticipating?

11 thoughts on “Hermitage Wharf, Joseph Conrad, Norman Foster and the River Thames Landscape

  1. Christine

    I am wondering whether these spaces really have had any input by landscape architects? Are we being too tough on them?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      So far as I know, these spaces have not been influenced by landscape architects – but I think they would be better spaces if they had been!
      Having looked at some more photos of Hermitage Wharf, and comparing it with Albion Wharf, I think the detail design of Albion Wharf is better but I would rather live at Hermitage Wharf with a sunny balcony. The photograph from Tower Bridge is a little too flattering, so I have added a photo from the other bank of the river. It still shows a nautical character but the design looks clumsier and has some resonance with the superstructure on an aircraft carrier.

  2. Christine

    The difference between Hermitage Wharf and Albion Wharf (despite what you say about the liveability of Hermitage Wharf) is the quality of the architecture. Liveability is an issue too, but it is different from design quality.

    It was the case that so called ‘new world’ looked to the ‘old world’ for architectural inspiration and leadership. However, it seems the new London is largely being designed and constructed to a quality that the developed ‘new world’ would find prosaic, uninspiring and of a similar or lesser architectural quality than the usual ‘new world’ project.

    I am not sure whether this is because historically there were few new build opportunities in London and when they occurred so did high quality, exemplary and cutting edge architecture?

    This is having an impact on the character of London: taking it from being ‘somewhere’ to ‘anywhere’. This should concern the city fathers and mothers, planners and all the design professionals greatly.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      One might compare Albion Wharf to the Microsoft Surface RT tablet. The hardware had a very high design quality but the machine did not meet user needs (for software reasons). The cheap Chromebooks are the other way about: the hardware is disappointing but the software meets user needs. Applying this analogy to Albion Wharf, I would say that the hardware (=building envelope and within) is very good but the software (=external relations of the building) are bad, or perhaps ‘very bad’.
      Re London: it is packed with good designers of every kind but there is a shortage of good clients and the planning/local government is terrible. So the environment is controlled by developers who must put all their effort into assembling projects (land+money+permission) and local government which just thinks that anything which generates revenue must be good. At a wider level the problem is that UK government was designed for running an empire and has not adjusted to running a country. Control is highly centralised and governments are excessively interested in influencing other people’s countries. Despite all this, there is a great building boom underway in London.

  3. Christine

    Perhaps the reason the software does not meet the users needs through the external relations of the building is that Foster won renown for his commercial buildings rather than for residential design? This reputation was built in the era of high tech, when the comfort of environments was controlled by mechanical and electrical design rather than passive design?

    Sigh, about the building boom. Yes, this can be positive for optimism and a sense of economic prosperity – but if it is not matched by quality building (as it was in the gold rush in Melbourne) [ http://museumvictoria.com.au/marvellous/gold/architecture.asp ] – then the quality heritage of the past can be demolished and not replaced by anything of like or better quality.

    The question is how can architects and designers inspire clients to be civic minded? How can councils be encouraged to be brave in framing their guidelines and offering advice on appropriate design standards?

    For example, it is always the best principle in planning terms that something replacing something else should be an improvement on the situation that existed previously.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The Glen Murcutt interview reads as a very nice talk with a very nice man. It’s a pity his work has caused him endless anxiety but maybe that can’t be avoided – or maybe it could if he had not given up making models! I think that was a mistake – but if the models exist in his head perhaps they are not necessary. One point I disagree with him about is ‘style’. As Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon wrote Le style c’est l’homme même(The style is the man himself) and I guess that someone familiar with his work could recognize a new ‘Glen Murcutt building’.
      Re objects and places, I wonder if the distinction runs parallel to that between a ‘details guy’ and a ‘big picture guy’, both of whom should know that both approaches are essential.

  4. Christine

    Yes it is very easy to recognise a Glen Murcutt building. What is more amazing is that it is very easy to recognise the very many buildings that have subsequently been built around the world in the style of Glen Murcutt!

    What he is intending to say about style is that – you can copy an aesthetic – but to create one takes more than a focus on appearances. It takes a commitment to thinking in a particular way and to having the aesthetic emerge from that way of thinking.

    Yes, the ‘details guy’ and the ‘big picture guy’ are both necessary/essential approaches. But it is interesting that expertise is not uniform in all areas and that architects often focus on one aspect more than another. Is this equally true in landscape architecture?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I agree with Glen Murcutt, and you, about style.
      Re landscape architecture, I am sure it is true about different people having different skills but because the skills are spread rather thinly across the globe (ie a low number of landscape architects/1000 people) collecting the evidence is less-easy.


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