Ten minutes with Glenn Howells Architects


Ten minutes with director David Henderson from London and Birmingham based Glenn Howells Architects 

London’s relationship with the Thames has changed
Awareness of the Thames moved from being a functional entity (dock, wharf, sewer etc) to an urban treasure sometime around the 80’s when people started to think twice before infilling docks and then developed masterplans orientated explicitly towards the river. Our project in Leamouth is part of the next generation of development looking to revive the tributaries and lost rivers by getting them out of culverts and activating their edges. The dramatic meander of the Lea just before it joins the Thames was much too great an opportunity to ignore and it is a much more significant driver for the geometry of City Island than just imposing a grid over the land.

My Thames

Crossing the bridges, especially from Waterloo Bridge to London Bridge is still as thrilling as when I first worked in London in the 80’s. On numerous occasions, I might suddenly catch an amazing quality of light or stunning sunset. We might have been living and working in the fringes but any journey from north to south and back was an instant reminder that we were citizens of a proper world city and it was all laid out for us from the top deck of the bus.

Royal Wharf is an entire new neighbourhood along the riverfront

Probably the biggest challenge was to avoid two common pitfalls of developing a whole district on this scale, i.e avoiding the monotony of having every block look alike or conversely, having it become an architectural zoo of competing architectural styles. Working with a small number of like-minded architects and a limited palette of materials, housing typologies and approach to elements like windows and balconies, we wanted to achieve the right kind of background architecture, punctuated by taller scale blocks and a variety of different open spaces. 

The site extends quite a long way back from the river to the DLR. Rather than just propose linear blocks of housing, perpendicular to the river in the hope that they could all claim a river view, we proposed a boulevard parallel to the river to give the “inland” blocks their own focus. This links diagonally back to the river via an urban square which provides orientation within the neighbourhood and an awareness of the river without it having to try and become the main event.

Things in the UK have changed

Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool are certainly all being driven forward by a great deal of confidence, energy and vision. I think this is more of a characteristic than a particular regional style or architectural direction. At one time, Birmingham and Manchester were probably viewed from London as provincial outposts and the feeling may have been that one had to come to London to get exposed to the top projects. This has definitely changed.

London City Island homes are being built with Dutch prefabricated panels
Prefabrication at scale requires a supply chain with technical design expertise backed up by the appropriate manufacturing environment. I don’t know too much detail about the post war housing crisis but the technical failings of the prefabricated blocks clearly left a huge black mark against the whole idea of offsite construction and so perhaps the UK just didn’t get a chance to scale up. Other European countries seemed to encounter less of the technical and social failings associated with large scale prefabrication and so developed and maintained expertise. The fact of another housing crisis has forced a re-evaluation in the UK in order to achieve the numbers. 

At City Island, a big proportion of the first phase of development had either been presold or was to deliver some of the affordable housing component and so speed of construction became a major driver. The other obvious benefits were that build quality was very good and that, on a restricted site, elements could be delivered on a just in time basis and craned more or less directly into place.

We are a studio that sketch

When we are presenting projects in the studio or at design reviews, we often take time to remind each other, especially if someone has done a great sketch, that there is a judgement to be made about what tool is appropriate at any particular time to use in presenting ideas. Very often, this means unplugging the mouse and picking up a pen. We work in open plan studios in both Birmingham and London and have large tables where people are continually sketching, both loosely and to scale and so it creates an environment where everyone is constantly aware that it is an essential part of how we do our jobs. We have held organised structured sketching lessons within the studio occasionally and sketching technique has also been a part of our own in house CPD sessions held on Friday mornings.