Ten minutes with Alex Ely


Ten minutes with Alex Ely, founder and director of Mae, one of London’s leading public housing architects, on why the Thames is crucial to the city’s transport challenges and why he designs homes with ‘exo-skeletons’

The Thames, then and now 
It’s hard to remember just how off-limits much of the Thames was as recently as the 1990s. Today however, you can walk from Lambeth Bridge all along the way to the Tate, then Tower Bridge barely deviating from the river. More London, the privately-run development where City Hall is based, gives more public access to the river and as we head westwards huge stretches of the Thames are being developed with new housing by major developers.

Back to front buildings
What’s interesting about how London has been transformed in recent years is that somewhere like the National Theatre, which was originally designed with its service yard to the river, turning its back on the Thames - now has opened up and enjoys riverside frontage. When the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall were built, in the 50s and 60s the river there was not part of a public promenade. That both buildings work well ‘in the round’ is a bonus.

The blue line
Despite the changes wrought on the riverbanks, there’s still a shortfall of good river transport to get Londoners (and visitors) from one part of the Thames  - and the city -  to another. For the Thames to become more central to city’s holistic rhythms it needs to play a stronger role as public infrastructure.

My Thames
I live really close to the river – it’s a ten minute walk to St Pauls and the Millennium Bridge from my Barbican home. What I love about the Thames more than anything, is that it’s one of the few parts of London (unless you’re on a hill) where you can get long views of the city. The sense of freedom is wonderful – a genuine foil to the sometimes claustrophobic streets.

Mae’s housing at Royal Wharf
In some ways our work at Royal Wharf is an anomaly in our portfolio as most of our work is public sector housing yet our scheme for client Ballymore – a 14-storey tower with over 100 apartments (and a restaurant at its base) – draws upon themes that are familiar to much of our housing design. It's part of a 40 acre masterplan by Glenn Howells Architects. The Local authority Newham however, felt the scale of the development merited more variety and we were competitively selected to design the key building that sits at the end of the park. 

Exoskeletons and deep facades
With our housing designs, we aim to extend the relationship between indoors and outdoors. At Royal Wharf our tower has a deep façade with an exo-skeleton that supports large balconies. As well as affording more climate control, it allows residents to increase the personalisation of their space. It allows the life of the occupants to take over. And in terms of aesthetics, by building the balconies into the fabric of the housing, they don’t look like they’re stuck on.

How can we build more homes?
Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) can play a role in speeding up the housing supply in London (and further afield). At Royal Wharf the entire façade of our tower was prefabricated off site. Diversity is crucial too, both in the type of housing and also in the range of developers building housing. Increasingly we are seeing local authorities building again, which is great news.


Photo Courtesy of http://www.mae.co.uk