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When urban waterways are turned into riverside idylls

Peter Cook

On living on water

Why do we so often want to be by the water − even away from the season when many actually want to be in the water? I sit pondering this in an Australian city called Gold Coast where the first generation who escaped into the sun away from Melbourne and Sydney were attracted by the surf and the beach. But as they continued to come in their tens of thousands, they became willing players in another game of ‘hug the water’, only this time along a series of inland lagoons fashioned out of a pliant river delta, where they could have a landing stage and a boat (pity about the sharks).

Florida was, I guess, the model. Even in locations where the sea is a constant threat, such as the Netherlands, a town such as Delft enjoys the tartan of narrow streets and little canals that actually feel so sweet and unthreatening. Then try to imagine Venice on land and so think of Cadiz − charming though its slivers of streets may be − but in the end lacking that watery something.

Nowadays in London, we are becoming quite used to the mysterious upswing of districts that I can remember as being dingy and smelly but which now find themselves unfolding their towpaths and dry white wine decks onto whatever piece of the Grand Union Canal still remains up for grabs.

‘At which point you open up your mind to a few propositions: look at a kilometre of the Thames estuary called ‘Two Tree Island’ and ask why some smart developer hasn’t planted a new miniature garden city on it?’

At which point you open up your mind to a few propositions: look at a kilometre of the Thames estuary called ‘Two Tree Island’ and ask why some smart developer hasn’t planted a new miniature garden city on it? After all in the hippy ’70s there was Eel Pie Island, far upstream, whose winsome cottages and air of mystery hold a place in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. So far though, the other just sits there with its two trees. No fun in that.

When teaching in Frankfurt in the ’80s I was constantly dangling in front of my students the site of the Westhafen (in the River Main), that simply hosted a few nondescript warehouses and further along a tiny island that sits astride an old bridge. My ‘sniff’ can’t have been so far off, for in the intervening years the punters and their architects have planted upmarket apartment blocks (in the typically German ‘villa’ mode) along the river and built a somewhat Gothic pavilion by the bridge that plays a similar role to London’s ‘Serpentine’ Gallery. Art feels so, so much more meaningful on an island does it not?

Whatever machinations it goes through with its concert hall, Hamburg’s port has turned out to be a smart location for small office blocks fashioned by a round-up of likely German architects. So other harbours watch out, for a certain generic harbourside formula seems to run thus: first convert some warehouses into ‘lofts’ and stick at least one Italian restaurant in them. Then hire Calatrava for a bridge (though Wilkinson Eyre are a suitable alternative). Then make sure there is a marker (Pelli in the case of Canary Wharf, Buenos Aires or Santiago − and probably some other places I don’t know). If he’s busy, KPF will do fine. Smaller cities will use the locals: whether Ipswich, Münster or Bordeaux.

‘The tower is the marker, the bridge brings a feeling of involvement and the Italian restaurant can’t go too far wrong.’

The tower is the marker, the bridge brings a feeling of involvement and the Italian restaurant can’t go too far wrong. So back to propositions: why not divert a watercourse, create a lake, replicate a suggestion that there might have been a harbour, once. Insist on a high marker-tower, bridge and new restaurant − maybe Swedish or Vietnamese to be a bit more exotic? For soon we will run out of exploitable old ports. So, in a fit of lateral thinking that derives from hearing Beethoven played well on a portable Yamaha in a Melbourne alley (or was it the Shiraz?), I ask myself, if opera can be staged in a field in the English Midlands, why not a complete faux harbour (waiting for the inevitable kit of features as described); using a bit of after-the-event creativity and the dear old Grand Union Canal again …maybe somewhere just short of Wolverhampton?

Seriously though, digging a canal or two in a new housing development might, in the long run, be as economic as landscaping the forecourts. Everybody can then boast a waterside residence.

The reflective ripples on the ceiling, the odd duck passing by, the odd tethered boat, a feeling of release that the unmown lawn or the unswept courtyard cannot provide. And in this meandering, or ‘floaty’, train of thought I haven’t even got onto the subject of houseboats.

Where I am now has a district called ‘Surfer’s Paradise’ but I am dreaming of another: let’s call it ‘Punter’s Paradise’ … you can take that one any way you like.

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