Veronica Simpson reports

How do you make something of a non-place; what does it take to persuade people to gather and dwell in those interstitial pockets of urban nothingness? To do it well it takes a lot more than throwing down a few benches and some planters.

In 2015, DSDHA was invited to pitch for the job of animating the bleak corporate public realm between British Land’s Broadgate buildings, in the heart of London’s financial district. But before they put pen to paper, they took a closer look at how people used these spaces.

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Before
 

Research is something that underpins the practice’s approach, says co-founder and director Deborah Saunt – a companion tool deployed alongside their architecture, public realm, and masterplanning projects, to enrich both the design process and its outcomes. So, together with Roberta Marcaccio, head of research and communications, and associate director Tom Grenall, Saunt co-ordinated a team from the office to spend time in Broadgate’s public spaces, observing and interviewing people and analysing pedestrian movement and pathways into and across the site – ‘grounded research’, as Marcaccio calls it. They also looked at hours of CCTV footage. Says Marcaccio: ‘We wanted to see how people move, at different times of the day and in different seasons.’  

Their resulting (successful) proposal - called Time Based Urban Tactics - was about transforming the three public zones in question into an al fresco resource ‘where people can work, rest and socialise seven days a week and at all times of the day’. A key part of their strategy was to reinforce through landscaping, planting and furniture a sense of the character of each area, seeing them as distinct ‘Biomes’ each with its own micro-climate and site-specific vegetation.

Broadgate Circle was the first in this phased, year-long revitalisation programme, and its character identified as a potential ‘Mediterranean Garden’. Formerly a largely uninhabited piazza, DSDHA saw its southern aspect and sheltered situation as ideal for hot climate plants. Conceiving it as a ‘romantic ruin’ they disrupted the circle with sculptural seating or perching units – ‘enigmatic structures’ - made of stacked timber elements which evoke both rock formations and the crumbling remains of an ancient edifice. These are arranged to ‘create intimacy but also allow movement,’ says Saunt. Within them DSDHA has planted typically Mediterranean trees such as oak and olive, deliberately choosing the older, more wonky specimens to enhance that sense of an established, ‘found’ landscape. Says Saunt: ‘We worked with James Fox, a wonderful plantsman, who helped us to find all the rejects at the back of the nursery.’ These planting/seating structures are all mobile, to facilitate events and seasonal festivals.

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After
 

The space now feels more intimate and welcoming, giving rise to far greater occupation during the week, as well as at the weekends. ‘The busiest day of the week is now Saturday,’ says Saunt, thanks to people discovering ‘how much children enjoy climbing on these structures.’

FInsbury Avenue Square was next – a rather darker space, surrounded by tall buildings, including the austere 1 Finsbury Avenue. This Nordic aspect DSDHA identified has been softened with modular, slatted timber units clustered into three stepped landscapes. The practice also designed inhabitable hoardings for the base of 1 Finsbury Avenue – currently being refurbished by AHMM – which could be temporarily occupied by pop up shops or food outlets. It has also attracted new audiences at weekends; social media (instagram and twitter in particular) reveals how popular this space is for picnics, yoga or photo-shoots.

Broadgate Plaza was the bleakest of the three original sites, under the shadow of SOM’s huge, noughties, glass and steel office block with its massive ‘fallen tree trunk’ steel beams leaning across the space. DSDHA decided to work with this association, devising a forest treatment, with curvacious timber seating islands thickly planted with bamboo. Suddenly, an intimidating wind tunnel becomes an oasis of calm; a place for retreat. The resulting shift in occupation sees Broadgate Plaza now popular for spontaneous gatherings and group exercise – yoga and Tai-chi happen regularly – as well as providing a new, more enticing route between Bishopsgate and neighbouring Shoreditch or Old Street. Acknowledging the need for recharging of all kinds, the seats also feature integral power points.

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After
 

These new schemes have galvanized tired pieces of city, drawing out the richer mixture of professionals who now inhabit the areas in and around this formerly stuffy financial and legal district – Shoreditch and Old Street are hubs for London’s tech and creative sectors.

They have also won DSDHA another major piece of public realm on the site for British Land: their Exchange Square proposal is due to be submitted for planning at the end of 2018 – a meandering landscape above the tracks of Liverpool Street. Says Saunt: ‘We are bringing a lush East Anglian landscape into the city.’

Saunt hopes these spaces will all have a positive impact on worker wellbeing. She says: ‘People are using the outside as part of their working environment much more than they used to. Wellbeing for us was really important. We wanted to give people as much opportunity to be outside as possible.’