‘It’s been a disaster’: How Boris Johnson’s Docks business center became a ghost town | Architecture

meBoris Johnson heralded it as a dazzling “beacon for Asian investors”: a £1.7bn seaside office complex that would become “London’s third largest business area” after the City and Canary Wharf. As mayor of London in 2013, he promised it would be a vibrant, 24-hour “city within a city”, with Asian companies drawn here by tax breaks working on Beijing time and breathing new life into a stretch of city. abandoned for a long time. Royal Docks of East London.

Nearly a decade since Johnson signed the deal with Chinese developer ABP (Advanced Business Parks) to build his waterfront fantasy, the area is a ghost town. About a tenth of the project has been done: a row of pristine office blocks abandoned in a sea of ​​tarmac and overgrown bushland, with no tenants in sight. Last week, after years of uncertainty and missed deadlines, the Greater London Authority finally expelled the developer from the project, citing a lack of progress on the scheme, leaving the future of the 14-hectare (35-acre) site up in the air.

Visiting the site today feels like walking through a computer-generated image of a correctional facility. It has the air of a bleak open-air prison for white-collar criminals sentenced to purgatory in a haunted business park. An endless grid of identical windows straddles Mandarin Street, the district’s central thoroughfare, dotting the 200-meter-long, unforgiving gray brick facades. A row of spindly trees accentuates the desolate scene as a lone security guard glides back and forth in an electric golf cart, stopping occasionally to sweep up an errant leaf, keeping the pavement spotless for its community of imagined occupants.

There is not a single office tenant here. Photography: Oliver Wainwright

“There is not a single office tenant here,” he says. “Not one. They were trying to rent them out, then the pandemic happened and poof – we got ourselves a ghost town. A job center finally opened here a few months ago, so at least I have some company now.”

The project was conceived at the heady pinnacle of Sino-British relations, described as the beginning of a “golden age” when the deal was unveiled in a lavish Mansion House ceremony in 2015 by then-Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese President Xi Jinping. . Chinese money was flooding London at a knot rate, funding Thames-side towers that offered “a new level of luxury,” with five-star room service and en-suite karaoke rooms. Some of those projects have since been halted as a result of the collapse of the Chinese property market, coupled with Brexit and the pandemic. Construction work on the Royal Albert Dock stopped in 2019.

“I used to be a billionaire,” ABP founder Xu Weiping told The Guardian in 2020, “but not anymore. The virus is just one of the reasons. Brexit has caused many of my UK assets to depreciate.” Documents filed with Companies House in December last year show that ABP made a loss of £13.2m in 2020, more than 10 times more than in 2019, and had financial liabilities of £14.5m.

Struggling to attract Chinese tenants with the onset of the pandemic, Xu launched a last-minute plan to convert the 21 offices he had built so far into 2,000 self-contained, Covid-proof microcapsules. “Inside this cube, the person can do their work but also rest and relax,” he said. “Each cube is equipped with a multifunctional wall, which includes a coffee maker, a mini fridge and a chaise longue”, designed so that workers never have to leave their 3m x 3m capsule.

Unfortunately, my requests to visit the brave new future of capsule work were never granted, and GLA sent a final termination notice to ABP last summer. Its parent company, Dauphin Holdings, registered in the Isle of Man, assumed the obligations of the agreement, but a new termination notice was sent to Dauphin in March this year. ABP has now collapsed into liquidation after a series of requests for liquidation from creditors.

'A chimera from a London street, lost in digital translation.'
‘A chimera from a London street, lost in digital translation.’ Photography: Oliver Wainwright

Today, the place has a Ballardian air. At lunchtime on a sunny weekday, a topless muscular man is the sole inhabitant of the district’s central plaza, doing push-ups on the manicured lawn and admiring his reflection in the empty glass windows. After a long time walking along the blocks, trying doors and pressing bells in search of life, he finds another man sitting on a sidewalk drinking coffee. An office worker, finally?

“We’re shooting a commercial for Marks & Spencer,” he tells me. “It is an ideal place because there are never people around. If we are careful with the shots, we can make it look like a normal place.”

The haunting quality of the film set comes in part from the way it was built. To save time, the development was designed entirely in BIM (Building Information Modelling), so that the buildings could be made in a factory in modular components and quickly assembled on site. The seamless computer-generated look of the brickwork comes from the fact that these are not brick walls, but thin “slides” of brick affixed to 9m x 4m concrete panels, which were then placed here and hoisted into place. place at a speed of 10 panels. per day. Look closely and you’ll see telltale seams of caulking where the panels meet, like a flaw in the matrix.

The intention of Farrells, who were the master planners and architects of the buildings, was to create a “new quayside typology” inspired by both the quayside warehouses and the Georgian terrace. Which sounds pretty sensible. But the resulting place has been whitewashed of all character and nuance, as if designed on a schematic scale and simply printed on a production line: a pipe dream of a London street, lost in digital translation.

empty office blocks
Photography: Oliver Wainwright

The collapse of the project will not surprise anyone who has followed this problematic scheme from the beginning. Like the nearby empty cable car, the leaking ArcelorMittal Orbit, the overheated Routemaster bus and the ill-fated Garden Bridge, the Royal Albert Dock plan had all the hallmarks of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty: an overblown vanity project built on foundations unstable. .

When the deal was first announced in 2013, Johnson promised that London was in a “no-lose position”, claiming that the scheme was “backed by the Bank of China” and that numerous tenants had already signed up, not just for rent, but also to buy the buildings. However, a Channel 4 News investigation the following year raised key concerns about ABP’s track record and its “comfortable” relationships with those involved in the bidding process. It alleged that ABP and its partners in Chinese local government were involved in the forcible removal of residents from their homes at the site of its only complete development in Beijing. Amateur video footage appeared to show demolition teams tearing down a family’s home with all their possessions inside. Johnson told Channel 4 that he was not aware of this, but that ABP’s human rights record in China was “not relevant to the bidding process”. ABP has strongly denied any connection to the evictions, saying development had already been completed by the time the footage was shot.

The investigation also revealed that ABP shared an office in Beijing with London & Partners, the mayor’s agency for attracting foreign investment, which was an “interested party” in the acquisition process. London & Partners confirmed that it shared offices for a period with ABP, but said this was purely for logistical reasons and denied having a role in deciding who won the Royal Albert Dock contract. ABP disputed any claims of impropriety, saying it went through a “robust and comprehensive” bidding process.

The logos are depicted on builders' billboards outside a joint commercial development at the redeveloped Royal Albert Dock
Everything has been a disaster. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Furthermore, according to the report, the Chinese-born wife of a junior minister at the Interior Ministry appears to have played a role in supporting the bid, while at the same time donating considerable sums to the Conservative Party. The program said that Xuelin Bates, a real estate developer who married Tory Lord (Michael) Bates in 2012, had talks in 2008 with Xu Weiping and made at least one trip to China paid for by the Chinese company. He also formed a company called London China ABP but dissolved it before the accounts were filed and has donated more than £206,000 to the Conservatives since 2010. Lady Bates said the donations she made were purely personal and that London China ABP had no connection with the Chinese firm, which also denied any knowledge or involvement in its actions.

“Everything has been a disaster,” says the owner of a nearby cafe, who was looking forward to more people in the new offices. “I don’t see anyone taking on the project for at least another decade.” In the meantime, at least London has the perfect deserted set to shoot the next zombie office apocalypse.

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