An interview with YOU&ME Architecture

YOU &ME architecture recently won the London Festival of Architecture competition for new creative workspace and improved connections beneath and around the Silvertown flyover, in the Royal Docks area of Newham, east London.

Together with 3Space, Greenlab and Mott Macdonald, the practice overcame the competition of 52 other applicants with their proposal “Greenline Flyover Testbed.”  

We sat down with co- founder Iris Papadatou to find out how she did it and what inspired the project.

What inspired your “Greenline Flyover Testbed” proposal?

The brief for the Silvertown Flyover project is extremely interesting, as it is looking to re-invigorate the Royal Docks, an area of huge historic and social significance. In our practice at YOU&ME, we have been very interested in the past, present and future life of the Royal Docks and so we were very excited to see that a competition was launched by the LFA and GLA.

Our initial reaction to the brief was that the new Silvertown Flyover development would need to support and enhance the existing stakeholders and activities, as well as create new employment opportunities for local Newham residents. It also needed to provide different types of facilities which add to the existing and the new developments coming soon to the area. We see this project as a test bed for ‘growth’ in many senses – the ecological as well as social.

Can you explain to me a little bit about the ‘green lung’ part of your proposal and why you decided to include it?

The ‘green lung’ lies in the centre of our ‘Greenline Flyover Testbed’ proposal. It is a bioremediation testbed - a specific experiment for flyovers which could be replicated across the world as an example of how to reduce air and water pollution generated from the flyover. Using reed beds to filter water run-off from the flyover for leafy greens, or carbon based systems to detoxify the air this would be a pilot concept with a view to creating a scalable process for other sites. Once the air is cleaned, the green lung will be used to grow food via hydroponic methods, filtering the air which is then pumped into the sealed growing ‘green lung’ space and using reed beds to filter water run-off from the flyover. Once cleaned, the water will be used to water the crops, either in the indoor growing area and adjacent outdoor allotments.

Alongside the horticultural and growing aspect, the scheme also provides a multitude of social spaces. An indoor market area where Greenline products can be sold in retail and restaurant spaces, as well as spaces for exercise and healthy living activities, such as a skate park and gym and a variety of office and co-working spaces.

You worked alongside 3Space, Greenlab and Mott Macdonald to come up with your design. Why did you decide to work with   them?

YOU&ME is a collaborative platform so we always try to do projects as part of a wider design team in order to instigate creative dialogue.

We approached 3Space for this project as they share our interest in re-enlivening vacant spaces and getting more out of buildings, giving them new purpose and making them work for local communities. They work with corporates, government and developers to unlock and maximise under-utilised or surplus commercial property, as affordable creative workspaces for local innovation, which is ideal for the Silvertown Flyover project.

GreenLab is a social enterprise and permaculture lab focused on developing sustainable food systems and urban agriculture initiatives by bringing together food related startups. A lot of the ‘green lung’ aspect of the project will be driven by them

Mott MacDonald is a quantity surveyor firm with experience working in regeneration and public projects. We have been working with them on our Thornton Heath High Street Regeneration project in Croydon.

How do you feel about winning the competition?

We are absolutely thrilled to have won this competition and be part of such an exciting regeneration project at Silvertown. 

This project is very relevant to our interests in the practice, as we get involved in public realm, community and high street regeneration projects. We work on public projects with local authorities, the GLA, museums, cultural institutions and other organisations. We are actively involve the local community and stakeholders, to improve urban public realms, provide new high street environments that people can enjoy and rehabilitate vacant and disused public spaces as permanent community spaces.

Why did you feel it was important to include space for creative start ups?

There is a natural synergy between creative and educational activities and economic development. Creative start ups are ideal for reaching out to the local art, craft and design communities and involving local stakeholders to the scheme as well as bridging them with larger creative and arts institutions which have an interest in the area, such as V&A East, Open School East etc.

The spaces for the creatives and artist studios have flexible and adaptable design based on demand. To stimulate demand we would find one or two artist to use the area as a base initially and offer discounted rent. We believe big open spaces would attract installation artists (including set builders etc) or sculpture artists so this could be a way to reduce fit-out costs and offer the spaces more as a blank canvas. They could operate as ‘artist in residence’ who would also show their work in the exhibition spaces and contribute to public art for the space. There are huge possibilities on the site in terms of creative enterprise, one of the ideas is to organise an arts festival and events either to tie with existing programmes eg. WakeUP,  Excel events etc or new events which create a temporary destination eg. London Festival of Architecture.

We also wanted to address Newham Council’s high unemployment and low skills demographic. The scheme has potential for apprenticeship and training programmes. The artists’ studios could be an outpost for the nearby Building Craft College in Stratford to train up local residents so that they could learn the skills to work on many of the new developments being built in the area over the next 20 years.

What challenges did you face coming up with a proposal for the flyover?

Understanding the complexity of the brief and coming up with a strategy which was specific to the site constraints and incorporating social and demographic issues of the area was key. The site is vast and feels very disconnected, so the main challenge was how we could come up with a proposal that introduced a more human scale, ensuring that we always maintained or improved connections and way finding.

The underside of the flyover is a very difficult space, as it is very dark in areas and also heavily polluted. The mix of uses we proposed was carefully considered to give a financially viable scheme, maximising rentable space to areas which have most light and best connection to public realm whilst using darker spaces adjacent to the road for workshops, storage and more enclosed event spaces. The ‘green lung’ element was introduced as a way to clean up the pollution and rehabilitate the site and surrounding area.

We also wanted our proposal to have a strong legacy aspect, as further phases (Caxton works, Silvertown way and Carlsberg Tetley Building) could be linked with animated public realm interventions and clusters of creative workspaces. These could be extended further to the vacant spaces of the elevated DLR of North Woolwich Road. They would be tested within the site and then further expand and develop within 2, 5, 10 years plus of the project so that they can be adapted and fine-tuned as needed, focusing on affordable, sustainable, arts and creative uses. I think that this legacy aspect is the crux of the project and will be an on-going challenge for everyone involved.

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