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Modern architecture to savour in Docklands.

by Andrea on January 26, 2011

The Docklands Light Railway is an appropriate way to make your entry into the rather surreal parallel universe of Docklands

Back in Victorian days, and in the early twentieth century, the Port of London was a booming centre of commerce.  Ships brought cargoes from the furthest reaches of the Empire; Chinese and Indian sailors could be seen on the streets (some of the Chinese settled in Limehouse and are still there); huge warehouses swallowed spices, textiles, and luxury goods.

But by the 1980s there was nothing left.  Port activities had moved downstream, and World War Two bombing raids had laid waste much of the docklands.  Docklands was a tabula rasa – a blank slate on which modern architects could inscribe whatever they wanted.

Planning laws were loosened.  Some architects created works of startling innovation and beauty.  Others made Lego-like buildings with no imagination or style.  But Docklands is an amazing twentieth-century townscape, whatever the quality of its constituent parts.

Canary Wharf with its huge towers is very much the focal point of Docklands.  Originally, there was only one tower and I still miss the simplicity of that skyline, now lost as other towers have grown up around it.  That original tower was by Argentine-American architect Cesare Pelli and looks as if it would be more at home in Manhattan than London.

The interplay of water, metal, glass and light makes Docklands a unique cityscape and somehow detached from the rest of London (Image credit below)

But Canary Wharf extends downwards, too.  The DLR station (by Foster & Partners) is an amazing sight, using the same gleaming metal and glass as the towers, but with a marvellous interplay of curves and grids instead of the stark rectilinearity of the towers.

Cascades is the building that made Piers Gough’s name and one of the most distinctive residential buildings in the area.  It’s an interesting concept, with a slanted, asymmetrical outline and jagged balconies.  While by no means one of London’s ugliest buildings I’m not sure I really like it.

Still, at least it marked a step away from the rectangular block or slab that was all the 60s and 70s had to offer when it was built in 1988.  But I prefer the smaller structures to be found around some of the old docks – there are some almost zen-like little houses in the shadow of Canary Wharf, in a very different though recognisably modern style. It really does seem that that authorities ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ for just a few years here.

While most Docklands architecture has an office or residential function, my favourite is rather specialised.   John Outram’s Isle of Dogs pumping station can only be described as funky, with its post-modern take on classical architecture, bright colours, big columns and the huge ventilation fan naughtily promoted as a sort of central rosette for the pediment.  I can hardly stop myself laughing out loud when I see it; for all its ponderous weight and monumental feeling, it also has a cheeky sense of humour.

The Isle of Dogs Pumping Station: good for an architectural giggle (Image credit below)

There’s also an intriguing new industrial building: Nicholas Grimshaw’s Financial Times print works.  It’s a gleaming glass and aluminium shell and you can see the presses working through the glass wall.  This glitter and reflection is a central theme in Docklands – perhaps the dour post-industrial landscape and frequent overcast weather made architects long for something shinier and more dazzling?

That’s only scratched the surface of Docklands. Fortunately for architecture aficionados, most of these sites are easily accessible from the Docklands Light Railway, which runs high above ground on old railway arches for much of its length and affords good views of the buildings.

The Hilton London Docklands Riverside is the right place to stay to get the full measure of Docklands, with views over the Thames and Canary Wharf – even though it’s the other side of the river in Rotherhithe.   However, its sister the Hilton Canary Wharf gets much better reviews on TripAdvisor and is consistently ranked as one of the best Hiltons in London.

Check the best rate for Hilton Canary Wharf from 30+ hotel booking sites

Hilton Canary Wharf is one of two London Hiltons that rank very highly on TripAdvisor

Hilton Canary Wharf currently ranks within the top 50 on TripAdvisor

Canary Wharf also has other decent hotels including the Four Seasons Canary Wharf and the Radisson Blu Edwardian New Providence Hotel.  You could also stay in one of the best East London hotels and jet in on the DLR.

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Photo credits: Hilton Canary Wharf, Jim Linwood’s photostream, stevecadman’s photostream.

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