Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Paddington Waterside

That ‘Paddington Waterside’ is the developer’s name for two adjacent areas that used to be called Paddington basin and Paddington goods yard explains how this new piece of London has appeared, apparently from nowhere. It was made possible by yet another withdrawal of large-scale industry from the capital, just as at Canary Wharf and in the rest of dockland, other rail termini and the 2012 Olympic site. The name change was simply the cosmetic touch deemed necessary for marketing purposes to erase any memory of the area’s previous unclean function, in the same way that Surrey Docks tube station quietly became Surrey Quays. Acres of commercial waterway and associated warehousing have now become a place of crisp new offices, high-rise apartments and the inevitable hotel, retail and fitness club.

But is this really an identikit, anonymous development that could just as easily be in Frankfurt or Barcelona? Does it have a heart, or a soul? The answers are rather surprising, and have as much to do with the unique layering over time of transport infrastructure as with the emerging architecture.

A 1756 act of parliament created the ‘New Road from Paddington to Islington’ at the instigation of Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Grafton. Laid out from 1757 as a toll road across the largely virgin fields of what was then the outskirts of London, the New Road was intended to provide a means of moving livestock across the capital without the need to navigate – or, perhaps, spoil – the developing residential districts around Oxford Street and Holborn, the principal west/east route at the time.

The Road proved highly successful, effectively becoming London’s first by-pass, and this prompted the owners of the Grand Junction Canal to petition for a new branch to run from Hayes to Paddington and terminate in a basin that would lie usefully alongside the westernmost end of the Road. The extension received parliamentary approval in 1795 and was completed in 1801. As the period’s canalmania took hold, the Regent’s Canal, a separate venture begun a few years later which passed to the north of the new basin on its way to join the Thames at Limehouse, made its own connection to the Grand Junction further west at Little Venice.

The railway was the next transport technology to arrive at Paddington. Brunel’s Great Western Railway opened its London passenger rail terminus in 1838, but this was replaced fifteen years later with a new building on a slightly different site. The obvious convenience of the original station’s proximity to canal and road, however, saw a goods yard develop in its place. This gave rise to further architectural interventions simply to keep the yard operating. The first line of the London Underground began at Paddington in 1863.

The growth of road transport trumped both canal and mainline rail, of course, especially in the post-war years. By the early 1970s many canal basins had closed and only a handful of pleasure barges kept the system alive. At Paddington, whose waterways were by then owned by a unified Grand Union Canal, construction of the elevated Westway in the late 1960s as part of the forcible insertion of a motorway into west London turned the already declining basin into a closed-off backwater. The goods yard followed, closing in the late 1980s. It found use in the years after as a police car pound and taxi parking area.

By the late 1990s British Waterways, the nationalised successor to the canal companies, and British Rail, its equivalent for railways, were sitting on a large patch of derelict land close to central London but of seemingly limited value. A hint as to a possible solution might have been detectable in the successive extensions of the sixties-built Hilton London Metropole Hotel that ultimately yielded a massive conference suite that sat on a strip of canalside between the Westway flyover and the basin, but it was not until the turn of the millennium that a coherent way forward for the entire site was found.

A group of developers bought-out British Waterways’ interests in 1998, also acquiring the redundant goods yard, and a massive though phased office-led, mixed-use scheme was planned. It would take advantage of the waterside setting, the established neighbourhood of quality headquarter tenants which had grown up around the west end of the New Road (now Marylebone and Euston Roads) and, especially, the superb local transport nexus that such a history of innovation had left the area. By that point this included the fast Heathrow Express link between Paddington station and the city’s principal airport and the Jubilee Line tube extension accessible from nearby Baker Street.

Beginning within a couple of years and still continuing after more than ten, the site is coming alive once more.

Paddington Waterside occupies an approximately triangular site bordered by the Westway to the north, Eastbourne Terrace to the south and Praed Street to the east. With the basin at its core, this splits the scheme into three broad sections. They are best explored anti-clockwise beginning at the eastern tip, adjacent to the Metropole Hotel. Its elegant Seifert slimness and position as one of the four towers of Westminster City Council’s ambitious 1960s ‘gateway’ concept (along with Paddington Green police station, Century House and Burne House telecommunications centre) are not always obvious thanks to those clumsy extensions.

Just behind the hotel, and forming the most obvious component of the new development, are West End Quay and Balmoral Apartments, by Broadway Malyan. Completed in 2004 they are, in truth, as uninspired as most contemporary residential blocks, not helped by a dark, muddy reddish-brown plaster colouring to the lower stories. The curved upper sections, set back a little and finished in bare brick in memory of the warehouses which once stood here, are rather more successful. A covered way at ground level passes through these buildings to dramatically reveal the entire expanse of the long narrow basin itself, fortunately never dewatered and providing an ever-changing backdrop, sometimes mirror, sometimes solid.

Turning to look back at the apartments shows how they wrap around the eastern-most end of the basin and how the Balmoral block pushes forward a stack of deep metal-sheathed balconies.

Ground floor retail at the foot of the Kalyvides Partnership’s 4 Merchant Square (Waterline House) supports a mix of housing types in a block which presents an over-fussy sheer façade to the basin but a U-shaped private courtyard to Harbet Road, beyond. This curious shunning of the water reappears in another new block, as will be seen. Number 5 Merchant Square (Mossession & Partners, 2010) enlivens its facades whilst keeping a degree of control, deploying three levels of relief and three module widths. A completely transparent glass ‘wedge’ effect on the ground floor opens views.

The remainder of Merchant Square has been masterplanned by Robin Partington Architects and will – ironically – close the basin in to north once more. Its most notable component is, at the time of writing, a 40-storey tower containing a hotel, residential area, bar and terrace. Its varying circular planform has given rise to the nickname of ‘the cucumber’ and current studies show vertical fins in white ceramic on the exterior with a feature skyline. Such a tower in such a location is announced as “a sentinel rather than part of a cluster of tall buildings”, an interesting comparison to the earlier gateway of lower towers.

Penetrations through the new blocks to the south align with existing side streets, helping to knit the new scheme into the existing street grain, though sadly the same attention to detail has not been extended to some bleak public space dotted with bland sculptural pieces. Revealing one common dilemma for all former industrial sites, information boards indicate a few barges left moored as rather self-consciously ‘heritage’ nods to the past, kitted out as restaurants and so on. In fact a small section of the basin does still provide for narrow boats to tie up, but they are awkward when seen against clean steel and concrete.

A perambulation around the basin encounters a number of new crossing points including a glazed tube and a skeletal metal cable-stayed structure.

Next along to the north is Paddington Basin, the commercial core of the scheme and the first part to be built. It contains two blocks by architects of distinctly separate persuasions but which are surprisingly undifferentiated. Each was intended for a major anchor tenant though only one, Marks and Spencer, actually occupied its new home.

The Point, designed by Terry Farrell and Partners between 2000 and 2003 for Orange, is a shield shape in plan with the tip marking the angle made by the basin and its outlet to the canal proper. Brises soleil mark the facades. Waterside House, now 35 North Wharf Road, is by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and from 1999-2004. It comprises two conjoined glazed wedges centred around a small inlet of the basin; Thomas Heatherwick’s acclaimed hydraulically-operated bridge spans its far end, curled up like a snail when not in use. The expected external service towers animate the northern façade, quite successfully, though this decision plus a pair of below-grade concrete amphitheatres that face the building and not the water again raise the question of why such an attractive setting is not exploited.

A walk out of the basin towards the next part of the development passes remnants of the area’s active past, present in a number of well-worn industrial buildings along the canal towpath. This parallels the railway cutting, just the other side of a high wall, and continuing along it is instructive for the evidence it yields of how a previous generation of architects have tackled this strip of harsh urban area.

The wonderful discovery that is Bridge House, a building of uncertain purpose, date and authorship but powerful form, appears first. With its carefully-graduated use of board-marked concrete, exposed brick and pebble-finished concrete panels, it appears toughened against the acoustic onslaught of the nearby road and railway but is also astonishingly sharp and clean and not at all overbearing. The section overlooking Bishop’s Bridge Road has continuous strip windows with the thinnest of metal frames giving the illusion of mitred corners. Structural columns with square mushroom heads stand half-buried in exterior walls like pilasters and proudly on show inside. The brick and concrete envelope of an internal staircase protrudes below a cantilevered overhang next to the canal, whist pedestrians and bargemen alike pass under a right-angled wing that crosses the canal, is supported on concrete legs. Warehousing and office use is supposed, and any further information welcomed.

Under construction here is an entrance to Paddington station through a newly-made cut in the wall. The exposed steel ‘trees’ that will support a roof are a very current design trope, but one fully in line with the aesthetic of Brunel’s station. Joining canal and station unites both forms of transport in a manner Brunel would surely have admired.

A little further on, under the Westway and tucked brilliantly up against it, is Hamilton and Bicknell’s sublimely daring Paddington British Rail Maintenance Depot, built in 1968 to provide engineering

  ...contd

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Exterior and interior faces of West End Quay and Balmoral Apartments, by Broadway Malyan, and the view from them looking west

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An unusual but intelligible facade, by Mossession & Partners, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners' 35 North Wharf Road, away from the basin

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The principal wing of the magnificent but mysterious Bridge House. Note the exposed stair on the left

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