Docklands – new and old space

Design Lifestyle Inspiration

Inspired by DOCKLANDS, a furniture line designed for the open office by PearsonLloyd for Bene, this article tracks down the history of an interesting term.

"In the middle of the docklands" – how cool does that sound? They’re called up in an instant: associations of refined architecture, promising start-ups and networked businesses, future-oriented investments and urban visions. Where intellectual communities and creative subcultures show what modern urban living has to offer.

There’s no question – reanimated and revitalised waterfronts typically have very diverse histories. Until well into the 19th century, ships were unloaded in the great sea and river ports at quays located in the middle of the city. Prosperous merchants often lived directly above their warehouses.
The increasing importance of the railways led to the relocation of ports to the periphery, where it was easier to access the railways. There was also more space for warehouses and better protection against theft.

New hypes, however, rarely last all that long. Technical progress in the 20th century brought a decline in international passenger ships as air travel began to become more popular, as well as the construction of highly automated container ports that were located even further from the city centre, which usually meant economic ruin for the old piers. This is why a search began in the USA, as early as the 1960s, for new ways to use deteriorating, squalid port areas. The first attempts at revitalisation took place in Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco with the construction of expensive residential and commercial buildings whose real estate value developed in proportion to their proximity to attractive boardwalks.

Trip to the East End

Europe’s most famous docklands are without a doubt located in London – and not just because Jack the Ripper terrorised the population here. Situated in the eastern part of this city of millions, the docks cross five London districts. Whether Romans, medieval seafaring journeys or industrialisation – the London port has been responsible for a great deal of the city’s economic development since its founding. It was even the largest in the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, with about 60,000 ships loading and unloading their wares each year.

The docks required an enormous number of workers, only a few of whom had highly specialised trades. The majority did not have any schooling at all. Even until 1965, they had to find their way every morning to specific pubs where, if they were lucky, they would be recruited by foremen.

WW II was a decisive moment for London’s maritime trade in the 20th century. After a brief, mighty upswing in the years of the economic miracle, the end came with a crash – between 1960 and 1970, when container ships began to dominate the business. At a stroke, the London docks had become too small to even allow one of these colossal new vessels to dock. The entire port industry moved down river to the sea ports in Tilbury and Felixstowe. All of the docks in London were closed between 1960 and 1980. The unemployment rate was sky-high, the district was impoverished, and the buildings began to fall down.
There were ideas about using the docks for new purposes almost immediately after their closure. However, it took about two decades for the first measures to be actually implemented. The situation was further complicated by the large number of landowners who all wanted to pursue their own interests.

With the help of the government-supported London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) as a central planning body, and the suspension of the property tax, the plan went through. Suddenly investors found the docklands incredibly attractive, resulting in a real estate boom. This led to the construction of Canary Wharf, where Britain’s three highest buildings now stand and where the international finance industry is headquartered.


The future is our business

The number of residents has more than doubled in the twenty years since the beginning of the revitalisation. The docklands have developed into a business centre and an exclusive residential area. Not all of the old warehouses and shipyards were torn down; some of them were converted into apartment houses and shopping centres.

Nonetheless: the transformation of the docklands also had some negative aspects. The steep increase in prices during the real estate boom led to conflicts between new arrivals and the long-established population, the latter of which felt increasing pressure. You only need to take a walk to see the effects: how high-priced apartments butt up against social housing.


The city needs new life

The development of the London docks is symptomatic of several port cities. From a classical centre of trade within historic cities, to gradual industrialisation with the slow segregation of port and city, to the development of modern industrial ports on the periphery, followed by complete de-industrialisation, to the rediscovery of older buildings, often first by creative subcultures and then by city developers motivated by economic interests.

At Spencer Dock in Dublin, one of three docks on the River Liffey, there is one of Ireland’s largest and most ambitious expansion projects, with apartment houses, office buildings, a spacious recreational area, and its own train station. The 200,000 m2 area already houses the Dublin Convention Center, the Bank of Ireland and PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the immediate surroundings, a lively music and festival scene has also established itself, providing events throughout the year with the primary aim of creating new social networks.

Hamburg, Europe’s 2nd largest port city, is of course a completely classic candidate and an exciting case of urban development. After the large shipyards were closed, extensive unused areas emerged in the 1980s in the former heart of the Hamburg port. The municipal planning challenge was approached under the name "HafenCity". A new city district is being built in an area of 155 hectares (including water), with a focus on commerce, offices and residences. Upon completion in 2030, the district will provide space for about 48,000 jobs and residential area for about 12,000 people. The ostensibly most prominent single building in the HafenCity is the Elbphilharmonie, which, due to several construction delays and cost overruns, has been mightily criticised by the press.
For those small and large companies (reputedly already numbering 270) in the new port district, living and working on the water offers creatives, freelancers and individualists from the rather well-off middle class a deeply urban quality with the special atmosphere of a newly emerging city district.


Pas les temps passées

A very similar push towards urban ‘resurrection’ on the waterfront is happening in Paris at Les Docks, a new centre for fashion and design. The former warehouses on the Left Bank of the Seine appear lively and unconventional between Gare d’Austerlitz and the Bibliothèque nationale. The architecture features fluorescent green tubes on the façade, and the Institut Français de la Mode has been in the building since 2008, along with boutiques and showrooms by ambitious fashion designers and designers in a total of 14,000 m² of space. A fitting music and club scene is also in the process of starting up.

Speaking of a revolution: A similar concept has been pursued at Melbourne docks since 2000, after the enormous port facilities had been completely abandoned well into the 1990s, resulting in an urban wasteland. At first, however, an intense rave scene sprang up, which over time attracted interest from start-ups as well as an independent, privately organised cultural scene. The city followed with construction and structural policy commitments. The vision of the current marketer is directed towards a district that is fully equipped with infrastructure and occupied by international banks and corporations, yet offers a balanced cultural milieu in which 20,000 people can call home. An annual volume of 20 million tourists is expected to guarantee income.


Live and let live

What pleases one person is not always what others want. And projects like these are showpieces for the topic of gentrification. Solutions appear to be rare that show how urban ‘upgrade’ processes can be implemented without displacing long-time residential groups for whom neighbourhoods are the centre of their lives, while simultaneously offering new arrivals an opportunity to evolve. Even though waterfronts, docklands and piers seem as though they were created specifically to attract upheaval and new developments. Where else if not this place, where discoverers have always set forth to explore new horizons...



Brigitte Schedl-Richter

Texterin, freie Journalistin,