With a view to a change

A simple, sparely designed rooftop studio in south-east London is a telling example of small-scale architecture spawned by property booms.
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The Independent Online

Bermondsey Street, which runs south from London Bridge station, is considerably less than half a mile long, but to amble down it with a considerate eye is to absorb a potent essay in fulminating change. Unlike the Dome, this is a genuinely millennial experience, a street whose thousand years of history is today rubbing up against the latest property boom - and modern architecture in particular - to produce flurries of strange sparks, the kind so familiar to Robin Greenwood at number 175.

Bermondsey Street, which runs south from London Bridge station, is considerably less than half a mile long, but to amble down it with a considerate eye is to absorb a potent essay in fulminating change. Unlike the Dome, this is a genuinely millennial experience, a street whose thousand years of history is today rubbing up against the latest property boom - and modern architecture in particular - to produce flurries of strange sparks, the kind so familiar to Robin Greenwood at number 175.

He came to Bermondsey five years ago from Brixton ("less interesting place, more interesting people") to further his metalworking and metal sculpture business, and was immediately struck by the street he'd pitched up in. It's certainly hard not to be sucked into its atmosphere.

Left out of London Bridge, right along Tooley Street, first right at the Great Wall Chinese restaurant, and into the charred, amber-lit gloom of the railway tunnel, then into the light again at the Crucifix Lane junction with St Thomas Street, where the 74 buses turn north.

Across the junction and curving away gradually to the right is the narrow lane that is the potent part of Bermondsey Street: mostly low frontages, archways into courtyards, and sudden sludgy maws where building work is proceeding apace. Here are the ghosts of rough places where Pepys, for one, would not have risked dallying with his accommodating inamorata, Mrs Knipp. Tyers Gate, Black Swan Yard, White's Grounds - palimpsests of the mazes of water which, in the 12th century, leaked inland from the Thames, making the area a kind of islet and giving it its name: Beornmund's Ey. And then other street names from the 18th and 19th centuries: Tanner Street, Leathermarket Street, Morocco Street.

There are two time-warps going on in this most atmospheric of cuts, a feeling of stepping through grimy veils into distant pasts, and of entering a kind of interzone where futures are being whacked up, bish-bosh, like stage sets. The wool and leather has gone; developers and pastel-tinted postmodernism sont arrivés, like cheap and cheerful beaujolais. Thirty years ago, lengthy fight reports from Bermondsey Baths appeared regularly in Ring magazine; the only thing being fought for now, in this suddenly savoury knuckle-end of south London, is profitable mixed-use redevelopment.

Robin Greenwood's metal box is a perfect example. He lives and works in a stolid three-storey brick building tucked away just off Bermondsey Street in Newhams Row. His metalworks is on the ground floor, with two floors of office and living space above. Two years ago, he decided he wanted to go up in the world, to a place where he could sit in a calmly ordered space and look out over the capital's skyline.

And what a corking view. From the pot-planted balau tropical hardwood deck of his steel, aluminium and glass rooftop living-room, it's easy to pick out Big Ben, the London Eye, Centre Point, the bonce of the Post Office Tower, the Barbican, the Lloyd's building and Tower Bridge.

And in the same way that London's skyline is changing around him, there is something implicitly transient about the studio's structure, founded in the plain detailing and use of a gently arched two-layer corrugated aluminium metal roofing system that requires no support across its span. It turns out that this built-in transience was deliberately sought by Greenwood's accomplices, Blauel Architects.

Their approach - to deliver something temporarily permanent, or permanently temporary - could not have been simpler: steel frame bolted to structural concrete beams in the building's existing flat roof; curved roof bolted, under flexing tension, to the frame; two tension tie-rods fixed across the span internally; and an X of tie-rods across the two end walls. The south-facing long wall is protected by a galvanised brise soleil - made by Greenwood - whose slats are only slightly angled. The result: summer sun mostly blocked, low winter sun allowed through.

The rest of the construction follows this path of least resistance: the three other walls - some sections slide - are fully exposed, but their outer faces are like venetian blinds, ribbed with down-sloping metal slats which allow air to seep in and out of the wall sections, but exclude rain. The wall sections themselves are formed of wooden studs and lattice bracing, packed with insulation, and their inner faces are of plywood. The only momentarily surprising detail is the dinky swing-out crane fixed to the west end of the structure, which was used to haul up building materials during construction.

The effects of these no-fuss details are interesting. From the courtyard below, only the south-facing side of the studio can be seen. It looks like nothing more than a giant ventilator unit. Walking up into the studio from the third floor produces something else: a light-filled, uncluttered space, and a quite unexpected feeling of cosiness; unexpected because the white-painted wall panels, the glass and the metal should in theory add up to something else - a kind of stark coldness, perhaps. That they don't is to do with the expressed structural methods used: it's easy to see how the space is held together, so that this most lightweight of rooms feels secure, if not rock-solid.

"It's very much in the spirit of our work," says Bernhard Blauel. "We're not bricks-and-mortar people. We like to use materials in new ways. We were one of the first practices in the UK to use steel mesh, for example. The idea is that buildings in our time should be no different to the production of anything else. We're capable of taking on the technology from the automotive or aeronautical sectors.

"I feel we no longer have the need for old practices. So I subscribe to taming technology for any domestic or environmental purposes. It's for us to test these things - and if we find enlightened clients, and if it works, others will follow."

And he suggests that transience as a core issue in architecture is unavoidable "because I think our lifestyles and our daily changes through technology demand that we adjust our lives and work practices. We just can't have static environments any more".

Greenwood knows this first-hand. The view around him is changing almost by the month. A distinctly unpleasant, colour-collaged apartment block looms above his deck to the east; foundations are being struck on two sides of Newhams Row. "I may have to put another storey on top of this," he muses. "I was thinking of an observation deck. Or maybe not. Maybe I won't like being here when all this...", he gestures at the work going on below in the yard, "...is finished. Maybe I'll have to move."

If so, it will be in the run of things in Bermondsey Street - part of the temporary permanence of its history and therefore its architecture. Turning left out of Newhams Row, the walker will find a low, pleasantly proportioned building carrying the words Time and Talents Settlement in raised relief above its lintels. A hundred years ago, young Christian women came here to be organised by Miller Gollock's organisation to do charitable work. And there were thousands to choose from in Bermondsey alone, hard-working girls from small local factories turning out processed foodstuffs such as Pink's Jam and Sarson's Vinegar.

A few metres along from the old Time and Talents Settlement is St Mary Magdalen Church, a rather splayed, eerie-looking object which Pevsner decreed was "gimcrack but charming a wholly and scholarly Gothic revival". The church is a vague echo from the 11th century, when the Catholic Cluniac order established Bermondsey Abbey nearby. It was a hugely significant place: thanks to its Rood of Grace - thought to be a kind of cross - it was a place of both pilgrimage and ceremony.

As the centuries passed, Bermondsey Street became a ribbon of buildings, courtyards and lanes. By the 15th century, it was an avenue of pubs - the Woolsack and the King's Arms and Hand were two of the best known. Two centuries later, the leatherworking and wool-stapling industries - which in the days of Bermond's Eye had depended on water from the streams and pools - had truly ensconced themselves; the first warehouses appeared in the 1830s.

It was in that time, too, that the street became known for its pugilists. Tom Causer, an habitué of the Anchor and Eight Bells pub, was famous throughout the land, and boxing was taught to likely lads under the archways in the street, which often smelled of the biscuity emanations from Peak Frean's establishment.

And so, heading back towards London Bridge, time, place and architecture become part of a rapid transit system of both subtle modulation and stark change - an elasticated Powell and Pressburger moment, a frayed reminder of their surreally ancient-cum-modern A Canterbury Tale, perhaps.

Robin Greenwood's metal machine-for-living-in is a fine and plainly honest expression of an unreadable future, a room with a view which may become one without prospect quite soon. Other developments in and just off the street may be less than cognisant of the historical density around them.

Tanner Street, for example, has become a kind of PoMo gulch. But Zandra Rhodes' fashion and textile museum, currently under construction at the top end of Bermondsey Street, almost opposite the Delfina "studio café" and a block or two up from the Honest Cabbage restaurant, is probably Exhibit A in this respect. The building is straight from the set of Miami Vice, and its cuboid pink and orange presence puts Ground Zero at 2000 and counting, and wants no link with the past.

And who can the architect be, this bold purveyor of blocky, happy-clappy blancmange? The lone workman grins and gets off the step. "Yeah, he's foreign, mate," he says. "Can't remember his name. I'll show you, yeah? It's on the wall." He pulls back a sheet of plywood and reveals a large plasticised nameplate: Legoretta Architectos, Mexico City. "That's him," says the chippy. "He's a top architect in Mexico." He pauses and decides to elaborate. "Yeah, they reckon he's the best architect in Mexico. The top one." The denizens of Bermondsey Street can obviously rest easy.

It seems that Bernhard Blauel has a point: we just can't have static environments any more. In his delightfully insubstantial metal eyrie, Robin Greenwood lives out these kaleidoscopic realities in Bermondsey Street every day. And in this accelerating centrifuge of change, Tom Causer's ham-fisted shade must be bobbing and weaving like a good'un, parched and aching for a pint at the Anchor and Eight Bells.