Perimeter blockSlab, point-access
Millennium Village
Erskine, Ralph, Johannes Tovatt, Hunt Tomposon Associates | London, England | 2002
Image of Millennium...
Facade facing the lake of the ecology park

ProjectMillennium Village
ArchitectErskine, Ralph, Johannes Tovatt, Hunt Tomposon Associates
AddressGreenwich Peninsula, near Millennium Dome
Building TypePerimeter block
Slab, point-access
Number of Dwellings450
Date Built2002
Dwelling Types1, 2, 3, BR flats and maisonettes
No. Floors4-13
Section Typeflats & maisonettes, skip stop
Exterior Finish
concrete, plaster, metal panels, brick, glass, steel
Construction TypeConcrete
Ancillary Servicessome shops, school, health center, offices, parking, ecology park

The change to container shipping that occurred in the 1960’s left obsolete and derelict warehouses and industrial areas along the waterfronts of many cities worldwide as new port facilities were constructed to service container vessels. In London, this district of intensive maritime activity was called the Docklands and extended east from the center of the city along both sides of the Thames River. By the late 1960’s most of the former warehouses, docks, and supporting industrial buildings had been either vacated or demolished leaving vast areas of empty land in prime waterfront sites. In 1981, the Docklands Development Corporation was created to manage the redevelopment of the waterfront areas and by the early 1990’s, over 13,000 new dwellings had been built on numerous different sites, a huge new commercial center had been constructed at Canary Wharf on a central site on the Isle of Dogs, and the infrastructure of the city had been extended to service this new construction including the Docklands Light Railway and the building of a new extension to the Underground system, the Jubilee Line. A new City Airport had also been built on part of the Royal Docks in the most easterly of the Docklands areas.

During the 1990’s construction continued on various sites along the eastern Thames with the exception of the Greenwich Peninsula. This was one of the most prominent open sites along the river. Resulting from the removal of a gas works here that was owned by British Gas, the site was left a polluted marshland (“brownfield ”) surrounded by water on three sides. In 1996 The Richard Rogers Partnership won a competition for the master planning of a new sustainable community on the peninsula. The Rogers’ plan was based on the concept of a new central business district at the tip of the peninsula connecting to a linear parkland and transportation corridor extending for 2 km down the spine of the peninsula. With zones of a redundant pattern of clustered residential neighborhoods to either side, the new community was to be built as a sustainable mixed used use urban quarter connecting to the Underground system with an extension of the Jubilee Line and the London Transport Interchange to the river. Later in 1996, Rogers designed a new exhibition hall to be built on the tip of the peninsula. Called the Millennium Dome, the new hall was a version of similar domed structure proposed by Rogers as part of the development proposed for the eastern end of the Royal Docks. Modeled after earlier British Exhibitions such as the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain built 100 years later, this huge masted/fabric/tension structure, 320 meters in diameter and 50 meters high, was opened January 1, 2001 as part of the Millennium celebration. A new station for the Jubilee Line connected the Dome to the underground system. Since opening, this dominant architectural landmark, built with funds from the National Lottery, has been left largely unused, a sad reminder of grandiose plans gone awry.

Rogers’s concept of the linear parkland corridor down the spine of the peninsula, however, persisted as the model of how this area should develop. In 1997, Ralph Erskine in collaboration with Hunt Thompson Associates won a design competition for the peninsula with a plan that followed the concept of a linear, landscaped corridor connecting to the Dome, but modified to form a pattern of smaller defined courtyard blocks and a meandering pattern of connecting streets. The first stage was to be built around a larger park area facing the river about midway along the ecological corridor. To be built in several stages the Erskine/HTA proposal was designed as an example of sustainable development that included schools, a health center, shopping, offices, and car parks in addition to about 1300 apartments. Sustainable features included both the restoration of marshland refuge areas, creation of a new ecological area around a lake as well as advanced building technology. The plan called for an 80 % reduction of energy through improved insulation and building systems, energy efficient devices in the apartments, the use of local power generation (CHP, combined heat and power), use of a gray-water cycling system, stored rainwater, building waste recycling and the extensive use of green materials in the construction of the buildings. Thus, the new Millennium Village was to be a model of ecologically sensitive, sustainable architecture.

Ralph Erskine was well known for his work applying similar climate and sustainable principles in other earlier projects and thus was invited at the age lf 83 to participate in the competition with Taylor Woodrow and the developer Countryside Properties. The Erskine master plan covered 72 acres and was to be built in stages. The first stage of 450 apartments designed by Erskine Tovatt Architects included the ecology park in the center of the site with a large artificial lake and the School and Health Center designed by Edward Cullinan. Proctor and Matthews designed the next stages of housing that were still under construction in late 2003.

The design for Millennium Village is modeled on previous Erskine designs for similar projects in Sweden, Finland, and England. Reoccurring themes typical to these projects and are used here: the concept of a high perimeter wall of housing along one side to provide protection from harsh winter winds, and the notion of small residential communities 2-3 stories high built around shared, landscaped courtyards built on the south-facing windward side of the wall. The idea of a high perimeter wall is derived from similar perimeter houisng at Kiruna (1961), Svappavara (1963-64), the Byker wall in Newcastle (1969-1980), and Myrstugu (Stockholm, 1985-88). (Search Erskine for other case studies.) Designed to provide protection from cold winter winds, these wall-buildings incorporate several distinct design features. They step in plan and section to avoid the stark contrast typical of modernist slab housing forms. Usually closed with small windows and the look of a dense wall on the north side, the south sides open to the sun with expansive windows, covered galleries, and balconies. The shaped roofs of the stepping wall act as an airfoil to deflect the wind up and over the building, providing a protected area on the south side. The “weeping roofs” in Erskine’s architectonic lexicon are a dominant feature usually involving several of the upper floors in an undulating, overhanging, dark, cornice element recalling a Nordic vernacular tradition of black slate roofs. Finally, Erskine’s walls are rendered as a rich collage of materials, textures and colors—brick applied in varied patterns, colors, and textures, plaster, rough-sawn wood, sheet metal, balconies and balustrades in wood and metal, windows in various sizes-- which, along the stepping form of the building help domesticate the scale of the huge wall surfaces.

The second building type takes the form of a small complex of lower one to three-story buildings grouped around small landscaped courtyards in the south-facing protected windward side of the perimeter walls. Derived from Erskine’s concepts about discrete residential settlements, the courtyard complex also has a long pedigree in the architect’s oeuvre in projects in Scandinavia and England: Brittgarden (1960-62), Esperanza (1969-70, Bruket (1973-78), at Byker (1969-80), and in more recent projects in Sweden (Mugustu, in Stockholm, 1985-88), and Finland (Malminkartano, in Helskinki, 1985-87).

The perimeter wall at Greenwich wraps the site on three sides, stepping from 6 to 13 stories at the northwest corner. This high undulating, stepping wall faces the tidal marshlands of the Thames along the north side, opens to a new nature preserve and lake on the east and defines two inner courtyards. Organized as skip-stop, point-access segments, the wall contains a mix of flats and maisonettes that vary in size from 1-4 bedroom types. Most dwellings have balconies or connect to terraces and some have two-story high interiors. Townhouse dwellings occupy most of the ground floor a zone that is defined with different building materials and low walls or fences that enclose small patios. Like other Erskine prototypes, the upper wall is rendered in a variety of materials, colors, textures, and planes; plaster, concrete, wood, glass balustrades, and a large assortment of window types. The original competition design used typical Erskine roofs that formed a continuous undulating zone of glass and overhanging eves that also functioned as wind deflectors and solariums on the south side of the building, and provided glazed winter conservatories in the upper floors overlooking the Thames as well as partially glazed roofs on the south side. These features were replaced with the vaulted system of the built version, an apparent concession to the use of industrial buildings systems and overall building economy. The vaults do provide an articulated zone at the top of the wall, but are less of a deep, continuous horizontal cornice. The stark difference between north and south-facing typical of earlier Erskine perimeter wall schemes is greatly reduced here partly because there are apartments facing to each side of the wall, but also because of the spectacular views of the Thames landscape available to the north and east. The typical landscaped courts suggested in the original competition drawings have been significantly altered in the built version. The perimeter wall now encloses the courts on three sides so the exposure is quite different. Rather than 1-3 story buildings around a central garden, the court buildings here are 4-8 floors high that are treated as freestanding elements so that the small courtyard form is hardly perceptible. Phase 2 of Millennium Village designed by Proctor and Matthews that is currently under construction more closely follows the Erskine courtyard paradigm. Here the courtyards are smaller, the building height and density lower, and a viable hierarchy is maintained between public and private space.

In its present isolated state, the high walls of Millennium Village looks much like many of the other new spec housing along the Thames. While the future of the Millennium Dome is uncertain at best, the overall plan to develop the Greenwich Peninsula as a new sustainable residential community is one of the most provocative projects in the 25-year history of the Docklands redevelopment. Even though some obvious compromises have been made to the Erskine concepts for residential communities and the jury is still out on how the rest of the site develops, Millennium Village still holds out great promise as a model of sustainable, ecologically sensitive building on a prominent urban site.

Hardingham, Samantha, London; A Guide to Recent Architecture, B.T. Batsford, London, 2002, pp. 310-14.

Colquhoun, Ian, RIBA Book of 20th Century British Housing, Butterworth Heinmann, Oxford, 1999, pp. 73-5.

Architect's Journal, Feb. 26, 1998, pp. 10-15.

Architectural Design, Nov. 1999, pp. 48-51.

Architectural Review, Jan, 2002, pp. 40-45.

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