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Billie Lee on new Canary Wharf icon, Newfoundland

FOR BILLIE LEE, DIRECTOR OF HCL ARCHITECTS, ARCHITECTURE IS A LANGUAGE - ONE SPOKEN, NOT IN WORDS, BUT THROUGH DRAWINGS.

He tears off another sheet of paper. Before long, three sides of A4 are covered in detailed cross-sections. He looks up, “sometimes things just fall off the pencil, you know? That’s how buildings are born.”

Billie Lee on new Canary Wharf icon, Newfoundland

Here’s what makes Newfoundland a true 21st Century icon, how the unique design of its apartments makes the most of uninterrupted views east and west, and what Mies van der Rohe has to do with beach shorts.

“Our brief was to go as high as possible. We were able to achieve the final 58 storeys because of the unique qualities of the diagrid structural design. In fact, it came to define Newfoundland’s diamond-like personality and helps create generous open spaces in the apartments.”

Billie Lee, Director at HCL Architects

AF / Talk us through how the project started and where the first inspiration came from?

BL / Do you know why it’s called Newfoundland? After 30 years of building, this piece of land at the western end of Middle Dock hadn’t been touched. Slightly tongue-in-cheek, we named this newly ‘discovered’ place New-Found-Land in honour of the Canadian company responsible for the first phases of Canary Wharf architecture.

Our natural instinct was to centre the building on the dock so you had an epic first impression as you emerged from the station. But it also needed to have a close-range sense of material and detail; to look smooth and refined.

 

AF / Newfoundland was Richard Horden’s project before he sadly passed away in 2018. What was his vision?

BL / Richard loved to see Architecture and Engineering as one. The design we developed together with Kamran Moazami achieved this – both disciplines informing each other to produce a seamless, efficient and elegant design.

Richard couldn’t be at the topping out, so we had him sign a piece of gold metal which we then affixed to the final beam as it went up. His DNA is literally there in the building.

Our brief was ‘to go as high as possible’. We were able to achieve the final 58 storeys because of the unique qualities of the diagrid structural design. In fact, it came to define Newfoundland, its diamond-like appearance bringing an emphatic new piece of Canary Wharf architecture to London. It also helps create generous open spaces in the apartments. It’s very special when the architecture and engineering marry up so well. Newfoundland now counts itself among some of the best architecture in London. 

 

AF / People often forget that architecture is an artform just as much as music, film or photography. What makes it art for you?

BL / The strange thing about our work is that so much of it goes unseen: the initial investigations and ideas, solving the technical challenges, documenting and delivering the building. It all requires a great deal of human input. And yet, if we do our job well, the finished building becomes an example of the best modern architecture.

The process is a language, but one expressed through drawing and then continued in the making of the building itself.

People assume you have an idea and then you draw it to make it real. In fact, the ideas reveal themselves through the act of drawing. As Richard would say, “sometimes things just fall off the pencil.”

 

AF / Is it too early to talk about Newfoundland as a new icon? What puts it up there with some of the best architecture in London?

BL / It was thought of as iconic from the start because of its position at the western gateway to the Estate. We’ve actually entered it for the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Awards – two acclaimed awards recognising some of the best architectural design in London and the world - and it was prize-winning in the 200-299m high building category.

A true icon really comes down to a few key things. Firstly, the building has to be a joy to use. Secondly, the design should be classic, ideally with a bottom, middle and a top (this is Newfoundland’s elegant tripartite arrangement). Lastly, it must have a very clear long-range identity and a close-range quality of material. In other words, uniquely identifiable from a distance and inviting close up.

I saw it from Primrose Hill recently – you can even make out the diamonds – and some have even seen it from Kensington Gardens.

 

AF / It’s interesting the way you’ve used colour to differentiate Newfoundland. What was the thinking behind this?

 BL / The sun is very good at giving buildings colour, so we chose a warm silvery grey that best modelled the natural sunlight. Cool morning light makes Newfoundland look fresh and silvery, while warmer evening light makes it golden. Look next time we get a really deep pink sunset and you’ll see it reflected in the building. It’s quite extraordinary.

 

AF / “In an architect’s ideal world, the indoors and outdoors should be separated as little as possible.” How have you addressed this?

BL / Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson – pioneers of the modern movement – explored the blurring of the inside and outside. It’s that really human thing of wanting to live in nature. We like to minimise the fabric we need because it’s nicer to be barefoot on the beach in shorts than sat in the car with a coat on.

That’s why we’ve made Newfoundland as glassy as possible, to let people enjoy the views and feel a closer connection with what’s outside.

 

AF / Newfoundland raises the bar for Vertus all over again. What more will residents get living here?

BL / It has to be the views. There are no buildings in front of you to the west or the east, making them uninterrupted, and Newfoundland’s design makes the most of this. It’s very generous, with spacious, well-planned apartments, their radial layouts angling them in such a way as to widen the rooms towards the perimeter, maximising light and views.

 

AF / Is there a kudos that comes with designing Canary Wharf architecture?

BL / Absolutely. There’s real provenance here. I think this has come from how Canary Wharf Group is intimately involved in everything from the first encounter to, well, forever.

When you live above the shop you take real pride in it, and you can see this shine through in everything they do, from their incredible sustainability credentials to the landscaping in the public green spaces.

 

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