ELIS, HERALD STREET, LONDON
24 August 2010
Riya Patel and Karen Eyre
The premise is exciting enough - an impressive 17 different uses packed into one dense urban plot and propelled skyward for 23 storeys offering views of both the impressive Docklands skyline and the much anticipated Stratford 2012 Olympic site. Luxury apartments, retail units, a polyclinic, gym, multi-faith chaplaincy, student accommodation, social housing, all age academy, lifelong learning zone and outreach dance theatre all rub shoulders within this weighty tower whose bulk sits tentatively over the former Herald Street Gallery on slender struts as if not to offend the streetscape below.
The exterior treatment is torn straight from a page in the Allford Hall Monaghan Morris rule-book. Wrapped in apparently seamless cladding, two vast building blocks sit atop a monstrous extrusion dressed with facades of cedar board, Trespa panels, Velfac windows, swathes of engineering brick and random panels of coloured glass. Functioning like a built catalogue of modern materials and methods of construction, the strange beauty of this building lies entirely in its ‘graphical skin’. Miniscule balconies that hatch an alternating pattern across the south facade give the only real clue as to the presence of occupiers within.
Completing a trio of high-rise residential developments in this corner of London and setting the precedent for inevitably similar mixed-use schemes to come, the familiarity of ELIS’ scale and outward appearance is no coincidence. The superficial aesthetic of bold graphics and bright colours, championed by enormously successful practices like AHMM has so far gone unchallenged as the chosen visual language to express current values, both political and architectural. Green-lit by the government organisation CABE, the humble tile, brick, fin or font style has come to tangibly represent the New Labour ideals of inclusivity and diversity.
To peel back ELIS’ alluring exterior (and all its branding hype) reveals a sad non-place in fact disconnected from the city below and around. Like many multi-use buildings, the ‘cramming in’ of so many amenities has an isolating effect on the community within as warned of in Anna Minton’s recent polemic ‘Ground Control’. There are subtle nods to the idyllic aspirations of its architects, but these are few and far between. Filtering processes of commercial demands, rigid planning procedures and legislation - such as the government’s Section 106 agreement in which the inclusion of public infrastructure can smooth the way for developers’ schemes to get the go-ahead - clearly hold a legacy here.
You can’t deny ELIS’ presence or sheer ambition. Emerging from strict economic constraints, it still manages to present a powerful image of regeneration today but architects hoping to adopt this low-budget aesthetic as a kind of short-hand for everything that is cool and contemporary should proceed with caution. Used unimaginatively, the result could see our ‘regenerated’ urban landscapes become a scrambled, slapdash and monotonous mess punctuated with an architecture that subscribes to the correct dress code but carries little of the thought.
ELIS makes no secret of the fact that it has arrived. As a brave attempt to assert its identity amid the hotch-potch of East London’s architecture, its name is proudly emblazoned in super-graphics across one facade. Spelt out in an arresting palette of lime green, acid yellow and deep turquoise, it is the emblem of yet another multi-functional monolith that aims to express itself as regenerative, aspirational and, above all, super-contemporary.
CHRIS HILDREY(COMPUTER RENDERING) AND FOXALL ASSOCIATES