Planung fur Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve in Ost-London, Grossbritannien: architekt Peter Beard, London

Stara, Alexandra (2010) Planung fur Rainham Marshes Nature Reserve in Ost-London, Grossbritannien: architekt Peter Beard, London. Bauwelt, 43(10), p. 34. ISSN (print) 0005-6855


The area of Rainham is part of the East London Green Grid, a major initiative of various public bodies to develop the green infrastructure in the eastern part of Greater London. Although largely defined as a landscape project, the scope and ambition of the ELGG have required it to also comprise urban design and architecture, confirming the tenuousness of such distinctions. Rainham village is adjacent to the expanse of Rainham marshes, divided by railway lines and roads – a blight fragmenting the area and a key theme for the entire ELGG. The adjacency of the two projects discussed here, however, is almost circumstantial to their nomination as ‘best of UK’. What links them more essentially is the shared sensibility and attitude towards the design of places for living, urban or natural. Rainham itself, a historic small town with a few distinguished conservation-grade buildings, was subsumed by the suburban expansion of London in the mid-20th century, and has lingered in a social and architectural limbo ever since. Rainham Masterplan, by Stephen Taylor Architects, proposed a regeneration of the settlement by tightening the urban grain while giving a clearer identity to the open spaces, and overall presenting a larger and denser, yet better integrated and more generous whole. In constant dialogue with the existing fabric and landscape, through a process less like ‘master-planning’ in the modernist sense of tabula rasa and more like the creative stitching of a tailor (no pun intended…) the project makes sense out of non-sense, disorder and haphazardness. The project’s appreciation of historical continuity is prominent and sophisticated, not simply preserving the existing historic fabric, but carefully transposing appropriate structures from similar places, in order to intensify and strengthen the urban character and sense of place. This is neither revivalist gesture nor postmodern pastiche as it is less about morphology, which remains distinctly pared down and modern, and more about volume, materiality and spatial relationships – that is, a proper understanding of typology. In the architect’s words: ‘the intention was to create architecture that provides a background for urban life similar in quality to the clear urban setting provided by London’s traditional fabric of 18th & 19th c. terraces’. Density, for Stephen Taylor, is a civilising aspect of society and through it his practice enhances the role of architecture as a social art. The eschewing of ‘master-planning’ and the practice of design as a process of discovery is even more evident in Peter Beard_Landroom’s projects in Rainham Marshes. This is an expansive, elemental landscape of marshland, which used to host military firing ranges and depots, secluded from the rest of the area through an assortment of landfill sites, storage yards, roads and rails. The aim of the development – comprising a series of commissions in different phases – was equally to preserve the ecosystem of the marshes and to improve public accessibility and overall integration with the area. Although the most prominent part of Beard_Landroom’s interventions is a series of small buildings for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (observation shelter, classroom etc), the overall design includes extensive boardwalks, seating, bridges, as well as the overall strategy for the area, in consultation with the relevant specialists. The remarkable aspect of such a potentially disparate series of gestures in the landscape is their coherence, which is paradoxically the result of a resistance to over-designing. Peter Beard talks about the necessity of espousing happenstance, concealment and degeneration alongside the instances of clarity and order associated with regeneration. The simple, often rough, yet inspired use of materials and detailing (in situ concrete paving, timber clad metal containers, weathering-grade steel, etc) befits the post-industrial character of the project, yet the whole is composed with the poetic sensibility of an age-old landscape tradition. Both about forgetting and the persistence of memory, Rainham Marshes is a sedimentation of traces composing a tentative, latent order for the contemporary world. The project is picturesque in Robert Smithson’s sense – where grit and romance, beauty and disaffection, clarity and ambiguity coincide; but it also draws from the other Smithsons, Peter & Alison, and their idea of the ‘as found’ as a basis for design. Exceptional in their depth of engagement with site, quality of design and exquisite detail, both these projects share an understanding of architecture – landscape, urban or otherwise – as a kind of inspired ethnography, an ongoing process of translation through inhabitation.

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