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London Docklands

Murray Fraser

To be brutally honest, London Docklands has made little impact on architecture or architectural thinking. As in the case of literature, where -– save for a pivotal role in stirring tales by Joseph Conrad -– the swathes of docks along the Thames have provided only the setting for brief cameo roles, housing the exotic creatures of empire, as in a few Sherlock Holmes stories or other instances. In architectural terms, perhaps the problem is that Docklands never existed as a formal physical proposition or aesthetic whole as such, but rather a cut or gash -– or more accurately, a series of cuts or gashes -– in the landscape, as part of the ongoing subjugation of the River Thames by the inhabitants of London.

The architectural history of Docklands, such as it exists, can be split into three phases: evolution and boom; decline and experimentation; and finally, steady obliteration through rebuilding. Taking the first period, an admirably succinct description has been given by Gavin Weightman.[1] Following the pioneering lead set by Liverpool from the early-eighteenth century, in 1802 was opened London’s first protected commercial wet dock: the West India Dock on the northern section of the Isle of Dogs, the epiglottis of the Thames. There soon followed the East India Dock, St Katherine’s Dock and countless others to the east. By the end of the nineteenth century, this enormous dock construction programme –- coupled with the increasingly centrifugal nature of the imperial system –- meant that London had assumed its role as the hegemonic city of the British Empire, and of the world, eclipsing provincial cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow in the process. ‘Though dogged by intense rivalry between the dock companies, London had established itself as the world’s major port by 1890, and with that, gained a position of extraordinary command over the whole British economy’, notes Patricia Garside.[2] And as the imperial capital, London was still easily the largest city in the world, with an estimated population in the 1890s of 4.2 million people -– although, ominously, New York City at 2.7 million was fast catching up. In the emerging battle with its transatlantic rival, the continued excavation of the swathe of docklands was a key part of London’s attempt, right into the twentieth century, not only to prosper but to dominate the globe economically.

Yet from this era of boom, there was almost nothing to set architectural pulses racing. The digging out of St Katherine’s Dock had the useful side function of providing the landfill on which Thomas Cubitt, the great speculative developer, could erect the fine stucco houses of Belgravia. But in terms of what was actually built in St Katherine’s Dock itself, there were a few fine warehouses by Thomas Telford with exposed cast-iron columns on their ground floor arcade –- but absolutely nothing that could remotely rival the stunning designs by Jesse Hartley for the Albert Docks in Liverpool. What was created in London Docklands was the architecture of profit and utility, not of higher cultural aspiration. Far more dramatic were tales such as the building of the SS Great Eastern on the Millwall Docks in the late-1850s. This ship, the masterpiece of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, offered a truly magnificent sight as it arose out of the dock landscape around it. The Great Eastern was quite simply the largest, fastest, and most eagerly anticipated ship ever built; it was said to be four times larger than any predecessor. It measured 213 m in length, weighed nearly 20,000 tons, and could hold up to 3000 people. It relied on steam power — with back-up sails just in case — and its innovative iron double-hull became the prototype for the modern ocean liner. It was also the first of the iron (and later steel) steamships that wrested supremacy in shipbuilding away from the timber yards of the USA to Britain for the remainder of the nineteenth century. Launched in 1860 as part of Brunel’s dream to establish the premier transatlantic link between New York and Bristol, rather than Liverpool, the Great Eastern was never a commercial success as a liner. Instead it went down in history by laying the first underwater telegraph cable across the Atlantic, and then under other oceans to tie together the British Empire.

After the Second World War, with the growth of Tilbury and even larger international rivals such as Rotterdam –- all of which benefited from the move towards containerization of freight shipping – the reign of the London Docklands had come to a close by the 1960s. Thus the active history of London Docklands lasted for just 150 years, a relatively small drip of time in the capital. Following the familiar pattern of urban decline, the docks became a landscape that was empty, decayed and increasingly silent. By the early-1980s just a few small dock businesses were limping on. I myself happened at that time to be selling second-hand imported American jacket in Portobello Road Market, to subsidize life as a student, and still recall vividly driving the van down to the eerily empty West India Dock to pick up the boxed garments. Looking like forgotten rubbish on pallets in the vast dockland shed, it was like gazing sadly on a once-famous person drunk in the gutter.

But the period of decline in London Docklands from the 1960s also opened a cultural space that allowed pockets of architectural experimentation – especially from innovative architects now looking to the USA as the natural homeland of modernism. Cedric Price was one theorist who dreamed of architecture as a socialist activity that could use lateral design thinking to improve the lives of those with less power and wealth. His design for a flexible, multi-purpose mass entertainment centre known as the Fun Palace came from an idea conceived by Joan Littlewood, a militant left-wing British actress, social activist and theatrical impresario. Their joint plan, circulating from 1962-66, was originally intended to be sited on the Isle of Dogs to redress social dereliction there. The Fun Palace sought to release the personal creativity of the working classes of London, encouraging greater feelings of self-fulfillment; in this regard, it formed part of a contemporary myth based on the philosophical concept of ‘homo ludens’, which praised the liberated condition of mankind at play, enriched by free-form leisure activities. The Fun Palace was designed specifically to anticipate the social changes in post-war Britain created by new technology, higher levels of productivity, and shorter working hours; as one symptom, the working week fell from an average of 48 hours in 1945 to 42 hours in 1965. However, the feel of the Fun Palace was also Americanized in terms of its unashamed — indeed brash — emphasis on an instantaneous, pleasurable and consumerized notion of leisure. Indeed, even the title for the project was decided while over in Manhattan in September 1962. ‘As far as it can be ascertained, the phrase “Fun Palace” was coined, and applied to the project Cedric Price was designing for Joan Littlewood, on the sidewalk in 42nd Street during a visit they paid to New York in that year,’ recalled an architectural colleague.[3]

In the strategy devised by Cedric Price for the Fun Palace, cybernetic controls in the form of the latest computerized punch-cards were to allow the building to regulate itself, by transforming the internal arrangement as required in response to user demands. Price saw cybernetics as the means to progress beyond the static, physical limitations of architecture, and away from an obsession with aesthetic styles. Each element in the Fun Palace was designed to be moveable and interchangeable, as if it were a vast mechanical facility or a giant construction toy which allowed infinite changes in program. In this sense, the Fun Palace was conceived as a ‘happening’, but one always disposed for the enjoyment and entertainment of London’s less wealthy citizens. The vivid phrase used by Littlewood was that it would be a ‘university of the streets’. The Fun Palace intended to put on stage plays and musical events, host lectures and debates, encourage arts and handicrafts, enable scientific research, or act as a giant playground, whatever was wanted. Architecturally, the Fun Palace was conceptualized as an adaptable volume, not a building as such. Price said he wanted to create ‘a large, mechanized shipyard in which various structures could be built from above by means of gantries, travelling cranes, and intermediate beams; and that these structures would contain the activities as shown, simple in themselves, but would, through their design, be capable of being altered while the building was being occupied … So one was using a tight, carefully designed technology to achieve a loose, free-will social patterning.’[4] But after trenchant local opposition to the idea from local groups on the Isle of Dogs, who clearly resented being experimented upon in any such fashion, the idea for the Fun Palace was moved to the empty lower reaches of the Lea Valley, where despite a great deal of publicity for the proposal –- featuring on the BBC’s Monitor arts programme amongst others –- it never stood a chance of being built.

Far more of a realist was Norman Foster, fresh back from studying and working in the USA in the early-1960s. Immediately after the collapse of his first practice – Team 4, which he ran with Richard Rogers, subsequently his great rival – a Norwegian shipping company called the Fred Olsen Line asked Foster to design some new offices. Keen to bring American standards of technological innovation to Britain, Foster designed on Millwall Dock the first entirely glazed wall in British architecture. The scheme was built in 1968-69. Realizing that suitable technology was not available in his native land, Foster took a massive gamble and spontaneously paid for himself to fly over to Pittsburgh and Dayton, Ohio. As he later noted, ‘we could not have possibly designed and prototyped the glazed curtain wall that we wanted in the time available. And so I went on a research trip to the States and brought back a sophisticated system, which used brand new products such as heat-and-light reflective glass.’[5] While over there, he worked on the building details alongside the design engineers of an American company, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. For its two glazed end walls, the project introduced a special mirror glass held in place by neoprene gaskets in a sleek aluminium frame – all supplied by the Pittsburgh firm. Inside, the building had a deep-plan, air-conditioned open office space with an eye-popping apple-green carpet and the latest US-style desk units. Foster and the client promoted the building as representing a new, democratic form of office for the decaying Docklands area, while others spotted a more sinister Americanizing influence, in the sense that it was the backdrop to the Fred Olsen Company’s policies of union-busting and casualized employment policies. The project gained fame when painted in super-realistic fashion, complete with rippling reflections, in a canvas by Ben Johnson entitled Dock Reflections (1971); it was the first of several Foster buildings to be painted by this artist.

But despite these isolated examples of innovation, the predominant story of the Docklands from the late-1960s was one of impasse and inertia. A toothless body called the Joint Docklands Action Committee, set up in 1974 and involving trade unionists, local authorities and local community groups, issued various reports and suggestions, but with little real vision and no access to adequate funds. After this period of drift, it proved to be the Thatcher Government and more specifically the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 that offered the solution, even if the physical results were not to many people’s liking. Weightman has written:

Then in a bold and controversial move Margaret Thatcher’s Government, in 1981, created a new authority, the Docklands Development Corporation, and offered any investors prepared to risk their capital out on the Isle of Dogs a fantastic deal –- a chance to develop land free of planning controls and commercial rates, with capital investments written off against tax. Soon the tugs which once took sugar in to the West India Docks … [were] carrying materials for he building of huge tower blocks, most of them, like Canary Wharf, funded by foreign investment.[6]

The enriching of pockets within London’s former docklands district served only to entrench social deprivation in the boroughs it impinged on, many of which remain amongst the poorest areas in Britain. Such concerns were never likely to trouble Margaret Thatcher or the unelected London Dockland Development Corporation (LDDC), a body set up in July 1981 to execute this exercise in laissez-faire urban regeneration. As has been pointed out, the notion of an ‘enterprise zone’ did not actually originate in America –- as often assumed — but instead was first voiced by figures like Peter Hall, a leading town planner, who had called for the setting up of ‘free ports’ in Britain along the lines of the colony in Hong Kong. But equally, there was no doubt that the concept of the ‘enterprise zone’ had come to be implemented first, and with greatest vengeance, in US cities such as New York. It was certainly from that country that the Thatcher Government caught the bug. As one American analyst observed at the time:

Curiously, the LDDC draws much of its inspiration from the United States. It is a public development corporation, capable of acquiring land, investing it with infrastructure and services, and putting it up for sale or lease. It is run by a board of directors and organized so that it can deal rapidly in the marketplace … and is subvented by a hefty government grant. Given this support, the Tory Government expected that the LDDC would behave like its American forbears, boldly developing the land, quickly selling it off, and buoying the area with post-industrial investment.[7]

The LDDC met these expectations, at least initially. Its chief executive and top officials flew regularly across the Atlantic in the 1980s to investigate what was happening in similar ‘enterprise zones’ in US cities. Significantly, for a while its offices were in the Fred Olsen Amenity Centre (before being demolished in 1988), as designed by Norman Foster using imported American technology back in the late-1960s. Proceeding without any cohesive urban plan, the LDDC operated energetically across a territory that covered the Isle of Dogs peninsula, along with a swathe of the land to the north and a small foothold on the other bank of the Thames in Southwark. In total its area of influence covered almost 2040 hectares, although most of the LDDC’s attention was from the outset concentrated on a special 192-hectare ‘enterprise zone’ in the middle of the Isle of Dogs, designated as such in 1982. Altogether during the 1980s the LDDC received grants-in-aid from the Thatcher Government of just over £1 billion. Developers in the ‘enterprise zone’ were offered tax breaks and exemption from planning controls, both in terms of land-use and the aesthetic properties of the projects. Such incentives helped to attract private capital to a total of almost six times the level of state subsidy, meaning that the London Docklands area –- in its entirety — saw a financial investment well in excess of £7 billion. ‘Docklands was a one-off chance for the piranha fish in the London market, and they all went in,’ observed one of the developers involved.[8] Almost anything was possible, at least in theory. The aura of transatlantic greed was satirized in a superb film, The Long Good Friday (1980), in which a London gang boss attempts to form a transatlantic syndicate with the New Jersey Mafia to exploit the development of the Docklands area. In the real world, the deregulation of the play of international capital in the City of London was to be matched in projects such as Canary Wharf and elsewhere by an equivalent freedom in urban planning. New jobs, housing and leisure facilities were aimed squarely at ‘white-collar’ financial and information technology workers with high disposable incomes. With what seemed like condescension, a small amount of cash from the LDDC spilled over into the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Southwark to refurbish council housing and fund a few token social projects; this was only done to soften the opposition of local boroughs.

A bewildering range of building types and styles came to occupy London’s Docklands, the vast majority of which were critically panned — particularly those in the ‘enterprise zone’ in the Isle of Dogs. ‘In their vulgarity and their insensitivity to place and to each other, the buildings of the enterprise zone epitomize Thatcher’s Britain in all its philistinism and selfishness,’ sneered one reviewer, and there was plenty more in this vein.[9] And there was never any doubt as to where the finger of blame should ultimately be pointed, given that many of the developers now operating in Docklands were also flying over in droves to visit US cities such as Baltimore, Boston and New York, where waterfront regeneration had first been piloted. Hence an openly American spirit pervaded the resulting buildings in London’s Docklands. Easily the most prestigious and most Americanized development was Canary Wharf, a massive 28-acre complex located in the disused East India Dock, which became the LDDC’s flagship. Canary Wharf aimed at the creation of an office concentration large enough to challenge the dominance of the old City of London –- a new financial district on its own. To do so, it needed to tempt financially well-endowed tenants away from renting space in the City of London. The founding idea for Canary Wharf came from two Americans. The first was the chairman of Credit Suisse/First Bank of Boston, a Bostonian called Michael von Clemm – he was an American financier circling hungrily over the London markets – and the second a charismatic property consultant named G. Ware Travelstead, an advisor to First Boston on property investments. Initially the project was secretly dubbed ‘Star Wars’. It was Travelstead who worked up a proposal from February 1985 to July 1987, in which an envisaged 1.15 million m2 of offices were to be provided in three office towers of 250 m in height. Soon another major American bank, Morgan Stanley International, came on board. Travelstead commissioned a team of top American architects to do the design, led by Bruce Graham from the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings Merrill; they envisaged their scheme as creating ‘a mini-Manhattan on the Thames’. Travelstead’s ideas gained a lot of publicity, and he and Bruce Graham even met several times with Margaret Thatcher to discuss the scheme. Despite her support, the necessary money was not raised in time, and Travelstead was forced out in mid-1987. The project was eventually implemented by Olympia & York, a Canadian-American developer which had only just come to note for building the gigantic office complex linked to the Battery Park City landfill extension in south-west Manhattan in the 1980s. ‘Olympia & York had already shifted the balance of Wall Street by developing the hugely successful World Financial Center on New York’s riverfront,’ noted one journalist. ‘London Docklands seemed an ideal location for repeating the exercise.’ D. Lawson, ‘Back in business’, London Docklands: the end of the beginning, London: Builder Group, 1998, p. 47 -– See also D. Kynaston, The City of London – Volume 4: A Club No More, 1945-2000, London/Sydney/Auckland: Pimlico, 2002, pp. 614-615,701] Paul Reichmann was the prime director, assisted by his two brothers, and he displayed near-missionary zeal in rectifying a situation in which London by the mid-1980s possessed only 16 million m2 of office space, slightly over half of that in New York and just two-fifths of that in Tokyo. Given the generous subsidies on offer from the British taxpayer through the LDDC, and the friendly encouragement shown by Margaret Thatcher to the Reichmann brothers, Olympia & York invested £190 million in buying the site and another £2 billion or so in building the first phase at Canary Wharf. It was to deliver the promised 1.15 million m2 of offices, enough to accommodate 46,000 workers, who would also be suitably pampered with retail and leisure facilities.

Organized along a Beaux-Arts axis that leads from a circus to a public square arranged on either side of a large central tower, the tone of Canary Wharf is defiantly that of the American corporate city. As in Travelstead’s original proposal, the design for Canary Wharf featured office blocks by US practices, many of whom had been in from the start, such as Skidmore Owings Merrill. There was a nominal British presence in the first phase via the firm of Troughton McAslan, whose partners had met while working for Richard Rogers prior to establishing their own practice. But such nuances were uncommon amongst the Canary Wharf blocks. A raft of architectural critics rose up as one to denounce its ‘vulgar’ Americanized aesthetics and spatial qualities.[10] The construction process used throughout was of the fast-track American method. First, a steel frame was erected quickly, and steel decking was laid in sheets over the floor beams and topped off with concrete screed. Next a lightweight stone and glass cladding system was clipped onto the exterior, with several of the Canary Wharf blocks resorting to the historicized aesthetic of ‘Chicago School’ skyscrapers from the late-nineteenth century, at least in external appearance. Finally, the services and fixtures were installed. Indeed, a great many of the cutting-edge electrical and air-conditioning technologies streamed from the USA into these latest blocks. As a technology expert observed:

When Olympia & York dropped a little piece of North America on to the British landscape, it was not confined to the appearance and scale of its Canary Wharf development. Behind the scenes, it brought the no-nonsense American style of specifying and installing building services and information technology in what amounted to a cultural challenge to indigenous expertise.[11]

In this manner, the use of computers and advanced telecommunications — those leitmotifs of Americanized office development — took full hold in Britain in the late-1980s with the advanced services provision at Canary Wharf. To show the Brits how it ought to be done, specialist engineers and subcontractors were flown over from the United States. ‘The building has become part of the telecommunications budget’, was the witticism of the Economist in March 1988 when talking about the reality of office construction. And as a consequence, the Canary Wharf towers rose at a much faster pace than anything seen before in British office construction, aided by project managers imported from America.

In the layout of the office blocks on either side of the landscaped axis, the design for the Canary Wharf development was undistinguished. Much of the design effort involved sorting out a hidden system of roads needed to bring cars into the 6500 underground parking spaces. The Canary Wharf blocks themselves seemed to be trying to compete stylistically with each other, but with little effect. The centrepiece was by Cesar Pelli, an architect who had performed a similar grandstanding job for Olympia & York at Battery Park City in Manhattan. Hence his crescendo at Canary Wharf again took the form of a 237 m high office tower with pyramidal top. It had 50 floors above ground level, including a 46-floor office tower section that sat over a multi-level reception and retail zone, and three floors of servicing below that. Erected from mid-1988 to mid-1991, the tall central tower by itself offered 108,000 m2 of lettable office space, which was six times more than Centre Point had provided in 1966, and four times the National Westminster Bank in 1980. Contrary to its massive silhouette form, it was architecture made out of sticks and skin. Deyan Sudjic has noted:

Designed three thousand miles away in Chicago and New York at the height of enthusiasm for post-modernism among self-consciously up-to-date developers, Canary Wharf aspires to town making in the grand manner. But as the cranes winched wafer-thin slivers of masonry and steel up into position at the rate of three floors a week, they unwittingly betrayed its apparently massive walls as no more solid than the icing on a cake.[12]

A shimmering external effect was achieved in Pelli’s tower by sheathing it in stainless steel, which along with the glazing -– there were almost 4,000 sealed windows panes –- means it glints in the sun. Prince Charles is reported to have asked Pelli, faux-naïf fashion, why the tower needed to be so tall. But in fact it was a relatively low-rise design by American standards that was sent over to be executed in London.

Opening in the early-1990s just when Americanized financial speculation was failing spectacularly because of Wall Street collapses, Canary Wharf at first appeared a white elephant. But with the revival of the global markets and the arrival of a proper transport link in 1996 in the form of the Jubilee Line Extension — including a magnificently vaulted station at Canary Wharf by Foster & Partners — the scheme prospered. Paul Reichmann even returned with a financial consortium to buy his old company out of administration in the mid-1990s, at a knockdown price of £800 million. Despite a dramatic IRA bombing on South Quay in 1996, the reformulated Canary Wharf Group PLC embarked on a second phase of expansion. Now the fast-track construction methods were pushed to their limits, with the foundations for new towers being put into the ground even before being awarded to architects to design, on the assumption that the structural framework would be the same in every block. The result was that even American office design specialists began to declare that Canary Wharf had reached the optimum US standards for commercial architecture. Today many of the major international investment banks in London have offices in this new urban quarter, as do newspaper companies, legal firms and such like. There are about 80,000 people working at Canary Wharf, and it continues to attract new tenants given the average rent of around £30 per m2 is still significantly less than the £50-60 per m2 common in the City of London, plus its latest blocks are easily the most up-to-date in terms of computer services. The longer term target is for 100,000 workers, which would give Canary Wharf a population larger than most British towns. Total investment by private finance in Canary Wharf since its inception, if one includes the latest phases, is estimated at a staggering £10 billion — on top of which there has been £4 billion or so from state investment through tax breaks or transport links. It makes Canary Wharf the largest ever office development in Britain, and one of the biggest anywhere in the world. It has even become a test laboratory for those involved in waterside regeneration projects in other countries to come over and study. Thus the Canary Wharf scheme, once a ghost town and a standing joke, is now vibrant and booming — even if its shops, restaurants and other facilities are the same bland chain outlets found in any western mall. Even those who detest it agree there is a US level of vibrancy. Terence Conran, the interior design guru, says: ‘I don’t like the architectural concept of Canary Wharf. It’s an American idea transported to a British city, but I am thrilled by the energy and enthusiasm in Docklands.’[13]

Canary Wharf rises above its surroundings like a castle -– a key protected fort of global capitalism -– displaying its power over the poverty stricken areas of Tower Hamlets that surround it. It offers a visible symbol of the social discontinuity between Canary Wharf and the surrounding areas in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Even by its own admission, less than 10 per cent of those who work in Canary Wharf live in Tower Hamlets, and most of those that do are either involved in construction work or in the cleaning and security functions for the office blocks -– and not in the better paid financial sector jobs. Unemployment in Tower Hamlets (at 9000 people) is twice the rate for London as a whole, and even this figure is artificially low because a large proportion of local woman are made economically inactive due to social habits amongst ethnic minority groups. ‘Although Tower Hamlets now has the second-highest average income in the UK [due to Canary Wharf], the famed “trickle-down” effect to other parts of the borough and to Newham is hardly evident,’ writes one journalist.[14] But it is a social disparity that seems to have been accepted without conflict. Nor does there seem any prospect of a halt on growth. Given that the LDDC and its ‘enterprise zone’ no longer exists, in early-2003 the Canary Wharf company had for the first time to submit a planning application for a third phase of development. This included yet more office towers, which together will provide nearly 400,000 m2 of lettable office space, as well as other facilities. Notably, the developers involved are desperate to stress that the area is no longer just about offices. ‘You don’t have to work at Canary Wharf to appreciate the benefits of living here,’ runs an advertisement for a local apartment block with a private pool and gym, with prices from £440,000 upwards. And now that the scheme is perceived as a business success, the pay-offs are immense. In 2003, the Canary Wharf Group led by Paul Reichmann was floated publicly, and soon became the subject of predatory take-over bids. After a bitter struggle, Reichmann was bought out by an American syndicate for the region of £1.8 billion.

Canary Wharf is a shining emblem of the transformation and obliteration of London Docklands, yet it is one that commentators find it hard to deal with, whether they hate it or love it. Iain Sinclair, so loquacious and insightful when investigating the psycho-geography of other parts of London, lapsed into ideological grunts when he came to describe Canary Wharf in his much praised book, Lights Out for the Territory:

The towers of Manhattan rising out of the swampland. Unlimited, on-line credit. A city of electricity. A giant slot machine with clouds in every window. An inverted centre. A conceptual city. A centre that could be anywhere and nowhere. The definitive repudiation of the discredited philosophy of place … Canary Wharf had the vulgarity to climb off the drawing-board.[15]

In the opposite corner stood Joel Garreau, an American journalist famed for promoting the rapidly emerging suburbanizing phenomena outside US cities which he terms ‘edge cities’. Garreau adopted a very different but equally misguided approach, clearly failing to understand the cultural mixture of the project:

The Canary Wharf area on the Isle of Dogs in the Docklands has demonstrated once again that the Europeans can produce new urban environments that are every bit as hard, sterile, and contrived as Americans’. Not only that, but they do it in a place where they don’t even try to move cars! Quite an accomplishment.[16]

Given that the complex was financed by a Canadian-American developer, masterplanned by architects in Chicago and London, had a showpiece central tower designed by a US-based superstar and blocks designed mainly by American commercial architects –- and was so obviously an importation of a United States model of commercial development — it is amazing how Garreau can dupe himself into believing it is ‘European’. And how he managed to miss that the pedestrian precinct at Canary Wharf sits above an extensive network of roads also begs belief.

Instead, a more useful and balanced view is to see Canary Wharf as simply the most Americanized of the myriad of Americanized spaces that exist in Britain today. It genuinely is the only part of a British city that might have been cut-and-pasted by Photoshop out of the central business district in a prosperous business city such as Chicago. But now with the emergence of Canary Wharf and the wider London Docklands as a crucial site and supporting infrastructure for the inroads of global financial capitalism in the city, what is going to be the future of this sprawling area? And for how long can it be possible to continue to refer to the area generally as Docklands, given that its old use now lies so far away from its actual function? If we look at say Kensington, the brick-making district for much of the growth of early-modern London –- and over a longer period than the Docklands were active — we do not try to refer to Kensington as ‘bricklands’. So what will happen to the ethos of Docklands now that docking is no longer a reality? Far more likely is that the area will slip into that generic, unspecific quasi-suburbia that shapes so much of the London region. The ultimate fate of Docklands would seem that it will be absorbed into the poorly thought-out ideas for the ‘Thames Gateway’ region, offering land for miserly housing for the cheap labour supply needed to sustain the City of London and the Isle of Dogs as global hotspots of capitalism.


[1] G. Weightman, London River: the Thames Story, London: Collins & Brown, 1990; G. Weightman, London’s Thames, London: John Murray, 2004.

[2] P. L. Garside, ‘West End, East End: London, 1890-1940’, in A. Sutcliffe (ed.), Metropolis 1890-1940, London: Mansell, 1983, p. 229.

[3] R. Banham, Megastructures: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, London: Thames & Hudson, 1976, p. 84.

[4] C. Price, ‘Technology is the answer, but what is the question?’, quote taken from Cedric Price, London: Pidgeon Audio Visual/World Microfilms, 1979.

[5] Y. Futugawa, ‘Interview with Norman Foster’ in Global Architecture Extra special issue (1998), reprinted in D. Jenkins (ed.), On Foster … Foster On, Munich/London/New York: Prestel, 2000, p. 757.

[6] G. Weightman, London’s Thames, pp. 65-66.

[7] H.V. Savitch, Post-Industrial Cities: Politics and Planning in New York, Paris and London, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 224-226 – See also S. Brownhill, Developing London’s Docklands: Another Great Planning Disaster?, London: Paul Chapman, 1990; J. Bird, ‘Dystopia on the Thames’, in J. Bird et al (eds.), Mapping the Futures: Local Culture, Global Changes, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 120-135; J. Foster, Docklands: Cultures in Conflict, Worlds in Collision, London: UCL Press, 1999; M. Keith & S. Pile, ‘The politics of place’, in M. Keith & S. Pile (eds.), Place and the Politics of Identity, London & New York: Routledge, 1993.

[8] Quote from Ian Rowberry of Rosehaugh Co-partnerships in R. Milne, ‘Plandemonium!’, in London Docklands: the end of the beginning, London: Builder Group, 1998, p. 25.

[9] P. Davey, ‘What to do in the Docks’, Architectural Review, April 1989, p. 27.

[10] R.J. Williams, The Anxious City: English Urbanism in the late twentieth century, London/New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 162-166.

[11] M. Faithful, ‘IT was fine, but what about M&E’, in London Docklands: the end of the beginning, London: Builder Group, 1998, p. 50.

[12] D. Sudjic, The Hundred Mile City, London: Andre Deutsch, 1992, p. 33.

[13] Quote from Terence Conran in London Docklands, p. 79.

[14] J. Grigsby, ‘The Docklands legacy’, in London Docklands, p. 87.

[15] I. Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory: Nine Excursions in the Secret History of London, London: Granta, 1997, p.221.

[16] J. Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, New York: Doubleday, 1991, p. 236.

To Cite This Article:

Murray Fraser, ‘London Docklands’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 5 Number 1 (March 2007). Online at Accessed on [date of access].