BY RUTH SLAVID, Editor
Gillespies’ design for the landscape at NEO Bankside in central London has an ambition that is virtually unrestricted by budget. But the scheme, which has picked up several awards, also has lessons for more modest endeavours.
here is an immense concentration of input in a tiny space in the landscape at NEO Bankside – a lot of ideas, a lot of materials, a lot of planting and, more than anything, a lot of money. Gillespies designed the landscape as the setting for Native Land and Grosvenor’s upmarket housing development with architect Rogers Stirk Harbour. Not only did it have to create an appropriate setting for the apartments: it also needed to provide routes through to its neighbour Tate Modern, one of London’s top tourist attractions.
The landscape is certainly attractive. It is green even in the middle of winter; it is rich and graphic and dynamic and looks good both from ground level and from the flats above. But since nobody but the developer of another fancy housing scheme will ever be able to afford to replicate it, does it have any relevance beyond its own existence?
Stephen Richards, partner in charge of the project at Gillespies, believes that it does. ‘There is a rigour to the planning that we can certainly use in other projects that have that aspiration,’ he said. ‘And we have learnt about certain associations of planting that we want to take through to other projects.’
In many ways this is a text-book example of how a landscape architect’s involvement should work. Gillespies was appointed very early, and so was involved from the beginning – a collaboration that was assisted by the fact that it had worked with the architect before at One Hyde Park and even on Rogers Stirk Harbour director Graham Stirk’s own house.
‘We became involved pre-concept,’ explained Richards. ‘RSH approached Native Land to say we need a landscape architect.’ The planning authority, Southwark, stated that any development needed to facilitate public movement. Once the last block is complete, two routes will lead directly from Southwark Street, a major access road from public transport, to Tate Modern. ‘We had long discussions with Native Land,’ Richards said, ‘about the fact that we wanted to use the landscape to define the edges.’ It was a bold step by the developer to dispense with any gates or security beyond the receptions to the individual blocks.
The through routes are very definitely through ways. This is an ambiguous definition of space, in that it is private space which the public is free to use – but where it is not invited to linger. There are certainly no public benches or litter bins. ‘We saw it as a place to encourage you on a journey through,’ Richards said. The planting discourages most opportunities to stray off the path although when I went through it on a quiet day in the middle of winter, a security guard was keen to be helpful when I ‘accidentally’ strayed off the main path. He was scrupulously polite, but the implication was clear; if I didn’t stick to the main path I must be either lost or trespassing.
But the contribution should not be dismissed because of this. A permeable space is far more appealing than a fortress, and the design offers a level of interest that is not available nearby. It fits with the concept of the Bankside Urban Forest, a strategy that architect Witherford Watson Mann drew up for Southwark.
The word ‘forest’ is really a romantic one. The aspiration is to green the area, and to do so in an interesting manner. While there are specific projects within the forest strategy, the overall aspiration to achieve a network of green spaces is evidently served by projects such as NEO Bankside.
Creating the landscape would have been far more difficult if it had had to surround a monolithic urban block. But RSH always knew that it wanted a number of pavilions in the landscape, and it worked alongside Gillespies to create a rhythm of different height blocks that had the best orientations for environmental performance and for views, and that could also form the edges of the through routes.
The amount of money that has been spent would obviously not be justified purely on the basis of public good. It also needed to serve the needs of the residents. What do people who pay several million pounds for a flat in the heart of the capital want? Certainly not a vision of rus in urbe, since they probably own a bit of real countryside, either elsewhere in the UK or overseas. This is not the place for a bit of artless planting and some charming dilapidation.
But do they care at all? One of the selling points of the apartments is that they come with ‘winter gardens’, effectively large rooms with big windows which both modulate the environment and provide a sun-space in mid-season. I would have expected that residents would lead rather hermetic lives, relishing their position in the heart of London, but once at home either concentrating on their own concerns or gazing out over the skyline.
Richards says however that it is not like that. ‘When I visited as people were moving in last summer,’ he said, ‘there were residents sitting and reading in the garden. They said it was an oasis, that they enjoyed a sense of connection with a lush landscape.’ The way that the development is marketed has also evolved as the client has come to realise the draw that the landscape offers. ‘Initially it was all about being near to the Thames,’ Richard says. ‘But now there is a more of a sense of being part of a rich garden.’
The Thames is not far away, just the other side of Tate Modern, but only visible from the upper floors. At ground level one’s impression is of the bulk of Tate Modern and, from Southwark Street, of a tough albeit interesting urban environment. Allies & Morrison’s Blue Fin Building is one of the near neighbours to NEO Bankside, pierced by through routes – a permeability which Southwark considers crucial and which NEO Bankside has not only emulated but exceeded. ‘The planners scrutinised how the landscape design was developing,’ said Richards. ‘It was quite pressurised.’
Tate Modern is just opposite the new development (and its extension will bring it even nearer). It hides Dieter Kienast’s plantation of silver birch trees, which is set between the museum and the river. NEO Bankside also uses trees more than one would expect. ‘We looked at a similar idea of dense tree planting to Kienast’s,’ said Richards. ‘But we said we can afford to use planting more.’ Nevertheless, oaks shield the listed almshouses that are to one side of the development, and elsewhere there are trees with relatively light foliage – birch and aspens.
Initially the client was unsure about having trees close to the widows of apartments. It felt that potential residents would feel closed in. ‘We showed them that the filtered view through the foliage is desirable,’ Richards said. ‘We did thin out some of the trees near the windows.’
The way that the trees are planted shows how Gillespies has used a mix of design flair and practical sense. The trees are in strips, providing both barriers alongside the paths and having the optimal planting conditions. ‘It is better to plant in strips than in tree pits,’ said Richards. ‘Few of the trees that we plant in this country have tap roots. Instead they need room for their roots to spread out.’ The soil depth is 1.5m, allowing plenty of space for a root zone that is typically 750mm.
The strips are raised to allow a greater planting depth. As is usual with such projects, there is an underground car park across the whole site. Digging basements is expensive, and the deeper they are the more costly. Even on a project like NEO Bankside the budgets are not limitless – particularly not for elements like excavation which will not add value to the project. By raising the rows of trees, there was no need to deepen the basement. The raised strips add visual interest. Without thinking hard, visitors are unlikely to realise why the change of level exists, but at some level the fact that there is a reason for it prevents it seeming arbitrary.
Paving is predominantly with granite. Richards is aware that the use of materials and design has to be in harmony with the design approach of the architect on the buildings. The NEO Bankside buildings are sharp and crisp, and Richards wanted a similar effect with the paving. One would expect to see natural stone rather than reconstituted or a concrete product on a project of this prestige, but Richards believes that it also performs better in ways that one might not expect. ‘You can cut it much more crisply than concrete,’ he said. ‘You get much sharper joints and arrises.’
On the edges of the site, where the project has provided new public paving, the colour is relatively dark to be in keeping with Southwark’s standard palette. But towards the centre, on the paths through, it becomes lighter. This also allows it to reflect the light, which is a quality that Richards thinks enhances the appearance.
Another advantage of granite is that chewing gum doesn’t soak in. This means that it can be frozen off without leaving a stain. For a high-quality development which may see a lot of footfall this is an important consideration.
The paving is somewhat ‘disaggregated’ with elements breaking away from the central path and creating interesting patterns, particularly from above. This is an important consideration, since the views of those looking down need to be enjoyable, as well as those wandering among the plants. Planting has been designed to be interesting all year round. In addition to the plentiful winter foliage, there are plants designed to bring colour changes throughout the summer.
Biodiversity is another consideration. There are bat boxes and beehives, the latter managed by the London Beekeepers Association. And the design is intended to encourage insect life. ‘There is a sink of good stuff, of plant material and habitats,’ Richards said. ‘It’s about providing some shade and spaces for insects to be.’
The other environmental aspect to the approach is the strategy for rainwater harvesting. This is becoming standard now, but here the approach is more sophisticated than most. Gillespies worked with engineer Hoare Lea on a scheme that made rainwater harvesting central to the basement design and construction. Water retention boards (reservoirs) were laid over the structural slab to provide a reserve of water to maintain soil saturation and consequently limit the amount of irrigation water required.
In many of its projects, Gillespies carries out its own planting design, but at NEO Bankside it felt that the demands were so complex that, after producing an initial outline, it worked with specialist Growth Industry to test and develop it. ‘We felt we needed that,’ said Richards. ‘The landscape needed to do so much.’
In stark contrast to many municipal schemes there is an absolute commitment to maintenance. Already, as is normal on a scheme of this kind, there have been plants that have not thrived and will have to be replaced. Longer term the scheme will need thinning out – first for shrubs and perennials and then of trees. ‘I have taken horticulturalists to see it, and they have commented “what a lot of plants”,’ Richards said. The point of course is that a landscape like this may change over time, but it cannot be allowed to evolve from a simple level. It has to be exciting from the start.
Some of that excitement comes from the deliberately slightly mannered approach. Yes, there are foxgloves and geraniums in the summer. There is also an apple orchard and a herb garden, which residents are free to exploit. But there is a slightly oriental feel as well (Richards shies away from the use of the word Japanese since none of that garden philosophy has been applied) with the geometric arrangement of plants, cloud pruning of pines, and the fractured pattern of paving.
It is surprising that such a harmonious effect can be created with so many elements. About the only one that is missing is water. Richards says this was a deliberate omission because the Thames is so near. Also water may just be too attractive – heaven forbid if some passer-by were driven to paddle, or just stand entranced for too long.
There is a fine balance between satisfying the residents and not drawing in the public. There are deliberately private areas where Richards is confident that the public will just feel too embarrassed to trespass – and if they do then the polite but insistent security staff should sort them out. But where he does believe that the landscape will act as an attractor is to the retail units. And as the trees mature, the lower apartments, that look out on the canopy, may prove to be just as popular as the upper ones that survey the changing skyline of London.