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Published in The Financial Times, 25/26 Feb 2003 p9.
Compared with Greenwich's most unmistakable construction icon the ill-starred Dome the profile of the Millennium Village barely registers on the national consciousness. Yet it may turn out that the townscape created on this south London peninsula will have far more profound social resonances long-term than its much-lamented neighbour.
The scheme contains a blueprint of a new approach to high-density housing. It was designed for environmental sustainability and shows how architecture can be adapted to changing social patterns. Built on the site of a former gas works part of which was used for the Dome, it was bought by the government-sponsored agency, English Partnerships, which spent £180m cleaning up the landscape and creating a new road infrastructure. The masterplan of late architect veteran Ralph Erskine has sought an "urban web of streets and places" to counteract the isolation which is often a characteristic of suburbia.
Collaborating architect Proctor Matthews describes the design of the village as overlaying sustainable aspirations on the pattern of a traditional town. Critics have compared it with the new towns of the 1960s. Unlike most volume housing schemes in the country, it is a genuine eco-social experiment, but its radical social, environmental and economic agenda has yet to be evaluated. How it will evolve and if it can prove viable are questions for anyone interested in London's future. A new park lies at the heart of the peninsula, designed by landscape architect Robert Rummey, with a network of green corridors entering the Village itself and a natural wetlands area reaching down to the river. The park and its Village transform the once desolate brownfield site. A total of 1,400 new homes will be provided, 20 per cent of which will be available for part-purchase through shared ownership or as affordable housing units.
The houses in 2a, the second phase to be completed, designed by Proctor Matthews, are built in groups around a garden square, overlooked by individual back gardens, each with a gate opening on to the square. "It's important to have a balance of public and private space and give attention to the thresholds between them," says Stephen Proctor. "The Village is deliberately trying to avoid the gated scenario. It's trying to extend the public realm and your interaction with it." The tranquil car-free streetscapes of the Village, their narrower streets evoking an almost medieval quality, invite daily perambulation as well as outdoor play.
The "urban web" idea is supported by the nearby North Greenwich Tube station. Shopping, entertainment and a park are all 10 minutes' walk from most parts of the site. There's a yacht club house, an all-weather sports pitch, and even a cricket pitch, apparently on the wish-list of the Danish architects from the beginning.
A striking community gathering point is Edward Cullinan's unusual timber-clad primary school and health centre. EPR's completed designs for 10-storey apartments (100 units) with an array of brilliant colours and textured facades made of split bricks, are lively although the red outlining the vaulted roofs is unnecessary fussiness. There are no trophy penthouses: the top price for a three-bedroom apartment is £500,000. More convincing overall when it comes to the smaller dwellings is Proctor Matthews phase 2a adjoining the school. The 189 residential units, 114 live/work houses (priced at £115,000-£250,000), and 47 units of social housing, are arranged in three courtyard blocks.
A mixture of apartments of four to eight storeys and terraces of houses up to three storeys in tune in their layout and light industrial aesthetic with Dutch "row" housing, the dwellings use corrugated aluminium, red cedar, primary-coloured panels and bright green natural ventilation chimneys.
The terrace houses have steep, pitched roofs, porch cupboards for home delivery, and a high ceiling in the top bedroom rather than a loft so the addition of a platform bed is feasible. Colour is applied in a positive, almost heraldic way reminiscent of the Festival of Britain's pavilions. The scheme demonstrates the value of prefabrication, common in the 1960s, but carried out with only hard materials and usually done for reasons of speed.
The texture of the materials, lots of timber and render, cladding panels with honeycombed aluminium evolved from aircraft technology lend the surfaces a warm, friendly appearance. At the same time, the off-site prefabrication will save on energy consumption as well as achieving lower construction costs. Floor-to-ceiling windows maximise the light into the interior space and the sense of transparency between interiors and the surrounding environment.
Electricity is generated on site, through small efficient energy centres, not off the National Grid with individual boilers. Comparisons with another, more rural eco-village BedZed the Beddington Zero Energy Development in Sutton, designed by architect Bill Dunster on a disused sewage treatment plant, have been made. BedZed, its housing already completely sold out, is more a full-blown ecology park.
Greenwich is still emerging. By October this year 300 housing units will have been completed at the Village, a milestone for Richard Hodgkinson, the Village's innovations consultant, whose job it is to scrutinise the scheme's sustainability. Will the architecture be sufficiently adaptable? It's not as radical as the new high-density housing in Amsterdam's Eastern docklands where prospective house-buyers can choose their architect. But Stephen Proctor believes "you can't revolutionise housing. You want longevity. People want a sense of ownership, so you can't be too prescriptive, but you can present them with opportunities".
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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