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Density and the City: Aedas on Learning from the East

As Aedas opens a dedicated office in London, its chairman Keith Griffiths reflects on how Far East style urbanisation might enrich the European city

Aedas has more than 1,400 staff around the world and runs 12 offices. It has now relocated its London office. That is not as cheeky as it might sound given that the practice from which it has split is based in England, because Aedas has a global vision and reckons it has the mindset to work with global clients with some of whom it is already well acquainted.

Aedas is led by a truly global board composed of seven directors, assisted by 42 design directors based across its office network in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. Keith Griffiths is Aedas’s chairman. A Welshman, he is based in Hong Kong. Internationalist by temperament, his vision is not so much skewed by long exposure to the East as transformed by its breadth and scale. It is from a different perspective that he surveys the current state of London, which people who live there sometimes forget is one of the great cities of the world.

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A sketch by Keith Griffiths compares a randomly densified urban texture with the long travel distances this brings to focused urban hubs that offer direct access to transport.

For all its global significance it is confronting a series of issues. It is undergoing contortions about high-rise development, it anguishes lengthily over infrastructure upgrades such as HS2 and the Third Runway. And on the fringes it is threatened by a vague and patronising Skyline campaign from the usual well-meaning suspects. Griffiths says, ‘A siloed-approach to these issues will not bring the required benefits to London. We need a much more coherent strategy that will bring the benefits of large mixed-use schemes, such as those that are becoming prevalent in the Middle East and Asia, to be realised here in London. We only have to look to the Middle East and Asia to see how a similar approach is helping to meet the demands of rapidly urbanising economies,’ he says.

Griffiths has deep-rooted knowledge of the politics and performance of urbanisation because his practice has done more than 100 million square feet of it in 100 projects for developers and city planners from Dubai to Beijing via Singapore and Chengdu. His critics will point out that London is not the Middle East and China. But he is not so sure that is as true as it was a decade ago. London, he says, has been urbanising and consolidating, densifying if you prefer, for a couple of centuries.

Map Sequence

Sequence of sketches showing how cities evolve from villages and how the idea of the dense urban node can reinvent a sense of place and animation

The current and urgent momentum of its urbanisation is ineluctable. In fact central London’s density is now, he argues, much the same as Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong Island. Which means that the lessons of Chinese and Middle Eastern cities may not be so irrelevant because London is beginning to face the same kinds of issues with which Griffiths has grappled in so many urbanisations. At the moment it faces a slew of ad hoc high-rise development that pays limited attention to the way buildings relate to each other and almost none to the realisation of the urban potential of any given area. If London is to maintain its status as a leading and highly efficient global centre, he says, there needs to be much better consideration of the overall form that its development should take. For him that means the development of clusters of intense and often very tall building centred around major transport nodes. If the Asian experience is anything to go on, that translates as mixed-use developments.

Griffiths identifies a major social change that increases the importance of transport hubs. It is that with the Chinese one child per family policy and a diminution of fertility in the West, the birth rate has dropped noticeably and the family unit is no longer the determinant of city life. Young people have become career orientated and choose to put their jobs before their families. That is to say there is less appetite for long journeys to work when the possibility exists of living in the city with minimal journey times. So there is a change in people’s expectations of where they want to live, how close that should be to their work, and what are daily trip times. He says, ‘It may be because of the diminishing size of families that people are more prepared to compromise. But we now live in an international city where time is of the essence and accessibility is key.’

‘If London is to maintain its status as a leading and highly efficient global centre, there needs to be much better consideration of the overall form that its development should take’

Griffiths’s focus on transport nodes is entirely pragmatic. The city is a commercial, social and entertainment smorgasbord with a distinct heartbeat. If its denizens are to be happy they need to be able to access it easily. He adds a note of realism: ‘It’s of course going to be a lot easier to develop manageable tracts of land around transport interchanges at high density than it would be to spread medium density across the entire city. It’s happened to some extent in Stratford due to the Olympics and it will happen in places such as Tottenham Court Road due to Crossrail 1 and possibly Old Oak Common with HS2.’

For Griffiths, urbanisation in practice means that you carry out mixed commercial residential development where, within a relatively small site, you have the building types that are necessary for everyday living: workplaces, recreational, leisure and retail spaces. Crucially, these need to be developed where there is either a transport infrastructure already in place, or where the potential exists to upgrade them in response to local population pressure.

Griffiths is at pains to emphasise that it’s not about architects simply transplanting a popular building type from China to the centre of London. He says, ‘We need to provide a tailored solution, based on our knowledge of these building types combined with the understanding of this market and the demands of the local population. So my thesis is that London needs to look at its natural transport nodes − the Underground, road, rail − and work out how these can become the focus of development whose aim is to diminish trip times and support the live-work-play equation.’

Sketch2

A sketch by Keith Griffiths compares a development model of seperate elements with a more integrated mixed-use hub, employed in projects such as the Alibaba ‘A’ development shown below

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The Alibaba ‘A’ Community Development in Chengdu by Andrew Bromberg of Aedas integrates overlapping office, residential and retail components

How is Griffiths’s vision to be implemented? He points out that the UK has a very powerful compulsory purchase mechanism. He recognises that its most efficient use is not in imposing blanket solutions but in sorting out the untidy ends of private enterprise purchases and property amalgamation. And the private sector has been and is deploying in London’s real world at King’s Cross, Canary Wharf, Paddington Basin, and to an extent London Bridge.

The Aedas board has opened its relocated London office to focus on pitching for international mixed-use projects. Its targets are overseas investors and developers who are active in the London market. Griffiths says, ‘The recent influx of Asian developers and investors such as Greenland and Vanke has created an opportunity for specialised architects to deliver the type of schemes these developers are keen to create. They are not going to want to build the one-off pencil-tower developments currently being approved in London. They understand mixed-use development and can see the commercial opportunity that it presents. But that means we need a coherent growth strategy and one which comprehends the value of mixed use.’

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