Southwark: Britain's hippest borough

As an exhibition celebrates Southwark's regeneration, Zoe Dare Hall reports on how a bland London borough became such a stylish address. And, he architect Piers Gough picks his favourite local landmarks
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The Independent Online

Shakespeare must have had an eye for town planning. After all, he spotted Southwark's potential as a dynamic location for his Globe theatre more than 400 years before Bankside became the buzzing strip of galleries and warehouse wine bars it is today. But although many visitors do not venture far into the London Borough of Southwark that stretches east to Rotherhithe and south to Dulwich, perhaps the house-hunters among them should - some wonderful homes have arrived in the past few years. Now London's oldest borough is finally proving itself as the most architecturally pioneering too, as documented in The Southwark Effect, a new exhibition that starts tomorrow as part of the London Architectural Biennale.

Bankside, the area known best for its resident gallery, Tate Modern, has been a recent focus of architectural innovation, a natural spillover from the development of Docklands. Few understand the changes as well as Piers Gough, the leading British architect whose Bankside Studios and award-winning Bankside Lofts (pictured on this week's cover) paved the way for converting disused factories into chic, riverside loft-living. "The borough was so rundown," he says. "Now it has run up and made the most of the great potential of being close to the river and close to Borough Market." Until 1995, it was the site of a Victorian cocoa mill and an office block. Today, it will cost you £695,000 if you want to join the likes of Carol Thatcher and own one of his open-plan, two-bedroom lofts with double-height ceilings, available through Stirling Ackroyd.

The 1980s saw Southwark's turnaround, says Gough, of the architecture practice CZWG. "The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) kick-started regeneration in the borough," he says. "They greenlit a lot of buildings that other councils wouldn't. They allowed and encouraged interesting architecture and made available some great sites around Butlers Wharf. Lots of us got the chance to do something exciting there. Now the cappuccino froth on the river has been done and the good design is heading further back into the hinterland," he adds, praising the towering glass 300,000sq ft Palestra building - designed by Will Alsop and soon to be home to the London Development Agency opposite Southwark Tube station - as an example.

"We're beginning to herald a regeneration away from the river towards the next layers, such as Camberwell and Peckham," says Gough. "There's a lot of ugly industrial land left to work on and lots still to do."

Another architect, Julian Hakes, lives and runs his practice, Hakes Associates, in a loft in the Jam Factory, once the HQ of Hartley's. Since he bought his shell two years ago, equipped at the time with nothing more than a gas meter and mains water, the price has doubled and now a two-bedroom warehouse conversion in the Jam Factory costs £475,000 through Acorn.

"There are lots of big factories in the area that provide good, solid building stock and flexible open-plan floor space which are perfect to live and work in," says Hakes. "It's the perfect urban compact living with a great sense of community. It's also an eco-friendly way of living as you use less energy and don't need a car. It is how cities should work, allowing people to operate in a more dynamic and flexible fashion. And when you renovate old buildings like the Jam Factory, it acts as a little catalyst for the neighbouring streets, with all their little shops and cafés, to regenerate too."

Hakes also sees Southwark as a massive opportunity for creative urban renewal. "There are still so many opportunities between Shad Thames and Westminster, and this borough has had the vision to get architects like Will Alsop involved in creating something like Peckham library, so that it's more than just a library."

At that, Hakes walks downstairs from his sofa to his office, where he is designing a penthouse in the Jam Factory for an actor who wants a home that "feels like living in an iPod". Oh, it's just so Southwark.

Walking through the hinterland, you enter the world of former factories converted into huge, trendy live/works lofts, mainly owned by creative types who, tongue in cheek, refer to the area in local estate agentese as SoBo (South of Bermondsey). For centuries it was dismissed as London's backyard, a place for unseemly activities - theatre, for one. Southwark began to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, along with the development of the docks. The first trickles of re-invention appeared the best part of a century ago. From the post-First World War "homes fit for heroes" on Herne Hill's Sunray estate to the 1930s Modernist triumphs such as Dulwich's Six Pillars house, ambitious 1960s municipal housing in Elephant & Castle and the riverside revolution in the 1990s, the borough's architecture has made a statement, whether social or purely designer.

"The story of Southwark over the last century is dramatically reflected in an extraordinary range of buildings," says the architecture writer Ken Powell, who has contributed to The Southwark Effect. "The regeneration campaign that began in the early 1980s has generated jobs, created a better environment for local people and brought in millions of tourists," he adds.

But why Southwark, long an overlooked urban niche on the "wrong" side of the river? Well, wartime bombing was a mixed blessing, it seems. It left half of Southwark's population homeless, but it also forced a blank canvas on which London's more visionary planners could experiment with some bold designs.

"It has always been a borough of change, with its pioneering reputation beginning in the 1930s with the Modern Movement buildings, and the war damage meant Southwark became a major focus for redevelopment," says John East, head of planning and regeneration at Southwark Council, who is co-curator of The Southwark Effect with Liz Stretch of Stretch PR. East points to Peckham's Pioneer Health Centre, an initiative to encourage the poor to view their health differently, and Maxwell Fry's Sassoon House, which provided low-income housing from the 1930s, as typically innovative.

Some of Southwark's residential projects - Dawson's Heights in East Dulwich was described by Pevsner as "one of the most dramatic features of the Southwark horizon" - have become architectural icons. Some have failed to last the test of time, such as Elephant & Castle's Heygate estate, which is due for demolition as part of the area's £1.5bn transformation.

But such architectural icons aren't just to be admired; they are to be lived in. Six Pillars house in Dulwich, at first glance an understated, concrete white box, is a prime example of Modernist architecture with its flat roof, plain façade, wide windows and multi-level terraces. For sale through The Modern House estate agents for £1.35m, it was commissioned in 1932 by the headmaster of Dulwich prep school, and designed by Valentine Harding, a protégé of Berthold Lubetkin at Tecton. Hinting at the state of the headmaster's marriage, the house is split into two wings with identical halves.

"Modernism completely shook up architecture and enabled it to start with a clean slate," says Albert Hill from The Modern House. "This house is all about the avant-garde exterior, while inside there are lots of influences from Le Corbusier." Interest in the house has been considerable, especially - unsurprisingly - among architects. "People almost treat it as a sculpture," says Hill, "but it's a great family house with lots of space. There's also a large garden whose flower beds still have the original 1930s planting."

And the rush of exciting housing stock will continue. "Next we're looking to Surrey Quays," says Gough. "It's on the Jubilee Line, but it's where the LDDC went suburban rather than urban, and right now it doesn't feel like London. But many of us are looking at projects there. I'm working on a library." And even Elephant & Castle is set to be renewed. "Elephant & Castle needs such a boost, and we're involved with a project there and it will get its own regeneration."

The Southwark Effect, The Ragged School, 47 Union St, London SE1, Saturday-June 25, 020-7407 0116, Sat/Sun 12-6pm, Mon-Fri 10am-6pm; London Architecture Biennale, June 16-25, see www.londonbiennale.org.uk Ticket booking 0870 247 1207.

The Modern House, www.themodernhouse.co.uk, 01420 520805

Acorn, www.acorn.ltd.uk, 020-7089 6565.

Stirling Ackroyd, www.stirlingackroyd.com, 0207 940 3888

1. Palestra Building, Blackfriars Rd

"This is one of Will Alsop's buildings. I love the big, dramatic cantilever at the front. There's so much glass, you can see inside to the beautiful entrance hall. It's funky enough to be in Southwark."

2. Victor Wharf, Clink Street, SE1

"My own practice designed this development. It's a new build, consisting of a restaurant and flats with great curved wooden windows. It's jammed into this narrow street, and works as an extension of the South Bank perambulation. It makes the street come alive."

3. Horsleydown Square, SE1

"This was designed by Julian Wickham in the mid-1980s, and it's worth going to - you can easily miss it. It's a nice mix of shops and residential. You don't often get a private developer creating a nice public space, but you do here."

4. Steedman Street, SE17

"Another of ours, this time in the Elephant and Castle. It's a zinging green residential building that looks pleated, like a piece of Issey Miyake clothing. The straps of balconies look almost like elastic."

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