Architect's view: 'London City Island is like a kooky futuristic city'

London City Island

London City Island in the Leamouth Peninsula was developed by EcoWorld Ballymore. - Credit: Gordon Shrigley

Architect Gordon Shrigley stumbled across London City Island in the Leamouth Peninsula during lockdown, and has given this newspaper his view of the "kooky" development. 

A Covid-19 lockdown cycle tour of Canning Town found me at the Leamouth Peninsula, which has recently been redesigned from the ground up by Glenn Howells Architects.

To celebrate the reinvention of the peninsula, developer EcoWorld Ballymore has renamed it London City Island - which given it isn’t actually an island and is six miles from the City of London, is a good example of up-marketing.

One can certainly understand, though, how the renaming of the peninsula as an island certainly helps sell the new apartments.

As we are also informed on the sales website, the island represents a fresh start for potential buyers, who it suggests could include young filmmakers, animators, photographers and even ceramics arists.

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These creative types must all be very successful to be able to afford a modestly-sized £600,000 and upwards one-bedroom apartment.

Using creatives to add gloss to a new urban development is nothing new of course, and is part and parcel of the various marketing strategies used to convince us that chaining yourself to a large mortgage is no bad thing.

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What is really interesting and unique about London City Island is the single authorship of the island’s architectural language.

I struggle to think of another example where a single architect has been commissioned to design a whole island. Okay, this island only contains apartments, studios, some cafés and one cultural institution, so it’s certainly not a city in microcosm, but nevertheless, that’s certainly some commission.

You might imagine that such a grand architectural commission would elicit an attempt at stylistic variety.

What is really singular about the architectural language used in this project is that the buildings on London City Island, that range from towers to low-slab like apartment blocks, appear to have all been inspired by the aesthetic world of Lego.

London City Island

London City Island at the Leamouth Peninsula. - Credit: Gordon Shrigley

All the buildings have been built from the same pre-fabricated System-Built building blocks which, apart from minor variations, are almost identical. This creates a very powerful impression of one monolithic architectural language used over all facades.

The System-Built building has been popular among mass builders for some time, as it enables large structures to be built very quickly at low cost. The London City Island buildings were all built from prefabricated insulated brick tile faced panels that were craned into place, complete with window frames and glazing too.

One result of System-Built buildings, though, is a marked tendency to the monolithic, due to the system limitations of what is feasible to prefabricate at a reduced cost.

To avoid the visual banality of this, the architects have chosen to give each building a strikingly bold colour, which when seen from afar, has the effect of making the island look like an over-scaled toytown.

Nevertheless, even considering the aesthetic limitations of prefabricated panel construction, the architectural language of the island, the repeated industrial-sized windows and simple geometric shapes, reminds me of Edward Hopper’s paintings of low-rent industrial buildings in 1930's New York.

It’s as if the island is a grand homage, an ode even to the minor in architecture, which is really quite something, if you think about it.

There is nothing I can discover from the architect’s website that would indicate this. Nevertheless, consciously or not, this has resulted in an impressive work, a critique even, in built form of architectural splendour.

London City Island is then an aesthetic experiment of some depth.

As I explored the island further, I also had the impression of walking around a kooky futuristic city, and that alienation was perhaps the only authentic reaction I should be having.

However, those modernist times are past, and so I just lamented the lack of a takeaway coffee shop, feeling that it was about time for an organic artisan flat white.

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