Supporter's Column: Darryl Chen

Knotty, complicated sites often yield extraordinary results because of the constraints placed on the new development.

No Clean Slate: How to create richness out of complexity


Knotty, complicated sites often yield extraordinary results because of the constraints placed on the new development.

Think of the most memorable places you know in a city. How often were they the result of preserving layers of the site? Our eyes light up when we see the messy stuff, because that’s what forms the ingredients for unique, characterful, and high value places. We are seeing this intuitive understanding translating into real development value for our clients, as tenants and residents demonstrate not just a flight to quality, but a flight to quality places. In an age of needing to make the most of what we’ve got, let’s interrogate sites to uncover, keep, amplify and repurpose the multiple resources that can enrich a new urban neighbourhood.

Here are five different ways at Hawkins\Brown we’ve utilised complex site conditions to make unique places.

The Earls Court site is a classic London puzzle – skirted by high street shops, mansion blocks, housing estates and tall buildings. The site itself is a complex accumulation of legacy structures related to the site’s former exhibition use at the convergence of three rail lines. Our masterplan framework accepts these complex conditions to create special places. A concrete tunnel becomes a new elevated park at the heart of the site. An existing train depot will be repurposed as a cultural destination. The no-build zones above live tube lines become crescent-shaped streets. Existing foundations and levels are made accessible through a continuous public landscape. Earls Court will emerge as a rich mosaic of attractions, landscapes, homes and workplaces, not from a clean slate, but out of the messy stuff of London.

At first sight Begbroke is a series of flat agricultural fields. But a closer look reveals a subtle topography forming part of a wider system of local waterways that has been shaped over millennia. This observation unlocks the key masterplan driver – to allow urban form to follow nature. Watersheds determine the structure of three neighbourhoods. ‘Green arteries’, following the natural path of water, have priority over continuous carriageways, and provide social and restorative landscapes. ‘Living streets’ introduce considerably more biodiversity into residential neighbourhoods than in traditional tarmac-dominated suburban layouts. The masterplan eschews generic street geometries in favour of ones that follow the lay of the land, thereby creating a framework of more varied, more characterful and more resilient places.

Located where central Oxford meets the Thames, Oxpens is a highly constrained site due to the river breaching its banks at increasing frequency. Oxford’s historic co-existence with its waterways is formative to the city’s character and rituals. Our masterplan framework resolves not just the ‘dynamic hydrology’, but also addresses the competing need to provide more space for Oxford’s wide range of users. Our flagship public space, the Oxpens Amphitheatre, is designed to accept flood water with resilient planting, drainage, and finishes. Water is brought dramatically into the heart of the site, accepting that we must get used to being closer to the forces of nature. And that this can meaningfully drive the character of a place.

Located on the edge of London’s old city gates, Smithfield is exemplary of a place that has built up over time, layer upon layer. The site’s many histories from livestock markets to railway cuttings are embedded in myriad textures and materials. Soon to be a new cultural district, Smithfield shouldn’t hide its material legacy under a unified paving treatment, but allow its stories – past, present and future – to be told. Excavated cobblestones will be reclaimed, substructures highlighted, found objects exhibited, and waste materials recycled as part of a wider circular economy strategy. Smithfield will be an inclusive public space that assertively defines culture as a public project.

Respecting what’s survived on a site shouldn’t result in creating static monuments to a particular version of history. We ought to be making rich ‘future context’ that creates a continuity between what is to come and what has been. Often it’s about seeing opportunities out of legacy structures, infrastructure, site geometries, and social histories. It challenges current development models, but the sooner the better to shift mindsets from ‘minimising the abnormals’ to ‘maximising the novel’.


This article was written by Darryl Chen, the Urban Design and Masterplanning Lead at Hawkins\Brown.