Too often, a new development can come across as generic and sterile. It rarely acknowledges the history and context of a place, or does so in ham-fisted, superficial ways that lack substance. Keybridge, a hybrid housing project in South East London by Allies and Morrison, escapes that pitfall by relating very specifically and materially to its history and setting.
“We wanted to be part of this,” says Alfredo Caraballo, project lead and a partner at the firm, as he shows me around. He points to a handsome place of worship (St Anne and All Saints Church) and a series of Victorian red-brick terraced shops on South Lambeth Road to distinguish these from a rather motley cluster of new skyscrapers on the other side and to the north of the plot. This doesn’t mean the architects eschewed high-rises — far from it — but they treated the development’s tall buildings the way they treated its other structures: thoughtfully and with people and surroundings in mind.
The most striking thing about Keybridge is the diversity of typologies it encapsulates on its tight 1.2-hectare site. These include towers, mansion blocks, shops and cafés, as well as an extension building for a neighbouring primary school that is defined by its arched facades. All of this marks a big change from the mammoth 1970s brutalist podium-and-tower complex that previously stood here, which was used as a telephone exchange by British Telecom (BT). The practice initially proposed various schemes to keep one or both of the buildings, but that ended up being too complicated; the tower’s core was awkwardly situated, and both the podium and the tower featured unusually tall floor-to-floor heights (4.7 metres) and very deep floor plates, explains Caraballo. “The podium was raised 1.5 metres, so we couldn’t have had shops or active uses at pedestrian level either.” Like many buildings of its time, he concludes, the block was “introverted and showed a certain disregard for its context.”
The context is undoubtedly interesting, with its low-rise vintage stock and sky-high towers. The scheme responds to these different streetscapes by arranging buildings by height; the structures get progressively taller from the southern end to the northern part. Those that face south are articulated and stepped and boast terraces and cut-outs; the taller towers facing the railways, where most new development is happening, are more solid. All are clad in brick — but three different types, explains Caraballo: The mansion blocks are in a dark red, while the four maisonettes on Wyvil Road, which reinstate the previously missing streetscape next door to a pretty Victorian pub, use a yellow “London” variety. The high-rises are also red, but of an orangey tint.
In total, there are some 598 homes on the site, including 10 affordable apartments in the maisonettes and 11 white terracotta-clad duplexes built atop the mansion blocks. There are also retail stores, as well as a workspace and leisure complex and the primary school expansion, which constituted a late addition; these latter two structures benefit from the gigantic mega-basement of the BT building, which the architects and developers (BT and Mount Anvil) opted to keep in the end, “as it was just too much concrete to demolish.” Maintaining it, however, was very complicated, says Caraballo, who likens the undertaking to surgery. Linking all these different buildings, the public area covers a generous third of the overall site with numerous access points that create a meandering journey.
The buildings themselves are designed for constant discovery. “While the buildings are rectangular and relatively simple, their sides aren’t parallel or perpendicular,” notes Caraballo. “They are always oblique, gently directing and moving you around in an imperceptible way. These are the quiet tricks we used in the composition.” Caraballo talks about the urban “picturesque” as a recurring leitmotif in the project. “It’s about taking that notion of the landscape tradition of the picturesque to architecture — and the way in which spaces are composed and experienced by people.”
Indeed, the project even reimagines how we experience high-rises. The tallest, which comes in at 36 storeys (the shortest is 18), is stepped on the side that faces the church, moving inward and around in relation to the church and mansion blocks, and then twice again before it reaches its full height, in order to achieve a more slender profile on the skyline. “They’re not just extrusions of a simple form but are carved to create spaces in between, which are almost as important as the buildings themselves,” explains Caraballo. The aim is to bring light to the site and the housing, creating more dual-aspect units, but it’s also (and always) about the experience of living here and passing through the area.
Also unique are the duplexes on top of the mansion blocks. “They are real houses set back from the rest of the building,” says Caraballo. “So you come out on the top floor and then there’s an alley leading to your front door.” The architects were inspired by a late-19th, early-20th century typology that can be found in many parts of London where brick is used for the first three or four floors of a building and then gives way to white render at the top. The fact that they are set back also contributes to breaking down the scale.
Ultimately, this is a project that shows that high density, tall buildings and dramatic change can be a good thing if done carefully and sensitively.
Here comes the neighbourhood. Keybridge, a London development built from the ground up, is a lesson in scale, texture and diversity of building styles.