New London Architecture

Five minutes with... Tatiana von Preussen

Friday 17 February 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Tatiana Von Preussen

Co-founder
vPPR Architects

David Taylor meets Tatiana von Preussen of vPPR Architects to talk through the challenges and likely impact London’s now approved Highline project will have – as well as its key differences to the New York version.

David Taylor  
Hello Tanya, how are you doing?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Great, thank you!; it's a lovely afternoon!
 
David Taylor  
It's beautiful, isn't it? I wanted to ask you about the Camden Highline first of all, and the planning permission that you have now secured for the project. How was it as a journey getting to this point, and what would you say the scheme will bring to London?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Well, it's been a really fun journey to this point. The client has been brilliant - it is a very small client, in terms of the number of people we're dealing with; it's a very grassroots operation. And working with Field Operations and James Corner has been fantastic. We've got a long-standing relationship because I used to work there. So that was all very smooth as a partnership, which isn't always the case when you're working with another firm. I really enjoyed that process. And in terms of what it's going to bring to the area, I mean, one of the things that's important to me about it is that it's really a very, very local project to where I live and work.
 
David Taylor  
Oh really? Whereabouts are you?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
I'm right within a few 100 meters of the Highline, both my office and my house. So I really know the area well, and I can fully understand the benefits it will bring. It runs through some less loved bits of Camden. And it will also bring access to some quite big housing estates that currently are a bit cut off by the railway line. 
 
David Taylor  
Maiden Lane, is it? 
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Maiden Lane estate, and also to some extent Agar Grove, which is a bit better connected currently, and it's just had a big transformation. But certainly, Maiden Lane estate will...you know, I hope that they feel an ownership of that end of the line. There's been a lot of outreach work with them, and I think when that part of the line comes - that's for a later phase than the one that's just got planning - I think that will be a really important connection. The other thing that's exciting about it is that it will form hopefully a fairly direct connection with the overground station at Camden Road. It might even be that one day you'll be able to walk off the platform straight into the Highline. At the moment, you'd have to go sort of down and up. But it is right next to it.
 
David Taylor  
It always seems rather underused, Camden Road. I lived in Camden, just near Camden Square off Agar Grove ,for a decade. And Camden Road always seemed almost like an afterthought. The entranceway to Camden Road always seemed a sort of forgotten line. So hopefully this will bring that back.
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Absolutely. And that north side of the line, in particular, the side away from Camden Town, currently has a lot of potential, but they are rather unprepossessing spaces at the moment. There's a little triangular space...you can imagine it being a wonderful public square, but it's just used for fly tipping. And then occasionally, there was a little bar that's just closed down in the old public convenience, which had some tables and chairs. It was quite jolly sometimes in the evening, but on the whole, it's pretty bleak.
 
David Taylor  
So, this offers the chance to be a sort of connector, an opener-up of spaces, presumably? 
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Yeah, I think it does several different things. I mean, obviously, on the one hand, it provides more green space. And given how much the green spaces around Camden were used...since the pandemic, really, everything's been much more used than it ever was. The canal gets very, very busy. I think it will take some pressure off other green spaces in the area. It also provides a link from Camden Town proper to King's Cross, which the canal does on some level, but it provides another kind of loop really with the canal through Coal Drops Yard. And then, where it touches down, it's got these four or five ‘feet’, the stairs and lifts, which was what our office was responsible for designing. Where each of those land, I think it will really improve the immediate area around those feet, which are mostly in areas and spaces that I mentioned with the little square outside Camden Road station.

The other is Camden Gardens - also very unloved, and really quite a difficult little park with a lot of pretty horrible crime going on there. I think that, just by way of the traffic of people coming through and the increased surveillance its will really improve those areas and just make them more pleasant and safer for everybody. The other feet will come down in Camley Street, which is a bit of an unknown, because that's a big new development that Camden Council are doing.  And then right on the very end on York Way, again, a sort of rather dusty, windswept bit of York Way on the kind of north side of two bridges from Coal Drops Yard, so it's not an obvious place to try to create a public space, but I think it will be. It'll be behind a wall off the street like a walled garden and I think it will be a very lovely place to kind of get off the road.
 
David Taylor  
So: it will soften what has been quite a quite hard landscape around there as well, presumably?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Very, yeah. And really that north end of Coal Drops yard is still a bit of a building site. It really stops at that South Bridge, and I think it would just pull it up a little bit further up to those buildings and new buildings on the edge of Maiden Lane. And I think it could be a really nice bit, actually, along there. The other entrance that may or may not happen, because it's not officially in the scope, but we think is quite an important connection potentially, is right next to Agar Grove on St Pancras Way. There's a lot of new development happening on St Pancras Way down to the hospital site. I think that would be quite an important place to have a connection as well.
David Taylor  
I was reading just before this phone call on Bloomberg a piece about the Highline. And there was an interesting point in it, where it refers to the prospects for this avoiding the widely criticized fate of the New York version of the highline as a 'vector for gentrification'. I was quite surprised by that. And also, I wondered what it meant (laughs), essentially, because gentrification is often posed as this terrible crime. And sometimes it's actually just making the urban landscape a bit better, as far as I can see. What are your thoughts on that? And also, what do you think you brought from your experience from New York, in a positive sense?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Yeah, I think the gentrification thing is a very thorny issue. But ultimately, if you don't improve public spaces, and these are public spaces for everybody, then it's sort of like saying, “well, we'll leave it all really bleak…
 
David Taylor
(laughs)
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
…and that will keep property prices down”. And that seems to me a really backwards way of thinking about things. I think there's a very big difference with this Camden Highline to the New York Highline. I could talk about this quite a long time, actually, but I'll try and keep it succinct. But the Camden Highline runs through mostly Camden-owned land. And in particular, it runs past the Maiden Lane Estate and Agar Grove. And those estates can't really gentrify in the same way as private land, because there's a cap on the rents that the council can charge on those properties. You know, it is social housing there. So, there is a limitation, and it is within Camden's control, what happens to those properties. Now, we've obviously run through some more well to do parts of Camden, and probably that will increase property prices in those immediate areas in the Camden area.

I would argue that that's happening as a process that is happening anyway. And we've already had all of the developments along Hawley Wharf; you've got the new developments along St Pancras Way and Camley Street. And so, you know, those things are happening. And I think with the New York Highline, what I always think gets left out of the conversation is that developers of the West Side, Manhattan, wanted to pull down the elevated train line there. And instead, Friends of the Highline fought to keep it there. So that gentrification was happening anyway. And in fact, what at least was preserved was a piece of public infrastructure, which otherwise would have just not. There would have just been lots of private towers. This is a bit different, because, you know, the viaduct isn't going to be pulled down; it's still got a live train on it. And I don't think it's going to have the same kind of impact as in the New York Highline. The New York Highline was creating green space where there was literally nothing, no space at all.

And this is gentler. It's much more integrated in Camden; it's much more part of a set of existing green pedestrian routes. And I think it's going to be very popular, but I don't think it's necessarily going to have the same kind of impact as the New York Highline. I mean, I think it will be a tourist attraction. And I think it will be an important tourist attraction for London.  I think the other thing is that everything in New York and in Manhattan, in particular, is much...I don't know how to put this...it's much more of a ‘hypey’ city. Everything is extreme there. You know, it's not like a few people go and visit something. Everyone's got to do the latest thing!  London has elements of that, but it's not quite as intense. I think it will be a bit more chilled than the New York Highline and it'll be much more like more part of Camden.
 
David Taylor  
(laughs) We could almost be culturally stereotyping, couldn't we, there, in terms of national characteristics, but we'll leave that one there!
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
(laughs) I don't mind doing that, to be honest…
 
David Taylor  
I just wanted to touch on two other projects, just very quickly, that you're involved with, one of which is the Two Hands Preschool scheme you've done in Shepherds Bush and the other being Idlewild Mews in in Croydon. Could you just very briefly tell us about those? I mean, firstly, with Two Hands, is it safe to say that that is essentially building on research into shapes and colours and natural finishes, in terms of educational aspects?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Yes, and I mean, that's a really exciting project for us. We've just finished three education projects. And they are also our first foray into that sector, including a new build nursery building, as well, within the school grounds. But the Two Hands project is an interior project, where we were really looking at the role of play, and colour and shapes and how children interpret; playing, climbing. We've kind of got these little openings; some of them are circular, and triangles and little windows, steps and things. And they're using them in very different ways, actually, to what I imagined, so the circular holes now become a calm place where they stuck lots of things on the top of the ceiling of the circle, and they lie in kind of a cocoon and look up at the sort of fluffy things on the ceiling. Which is not how I thought they were going to use it.  I thought they were just going to jump up and down on it, or try and climb it. And so there are various things that they've done - I was just there today - that have been interpreted in quite a different way. And I think that, for us was, was a fun way of producing something engaging, that wasn't too one-to-one. It wasn't obviously a pirate ship, or obviously a castle or something. They can choose how to interpret it.

And then Idlewild Mews was a long, long, long time coming. We started that - I think we were in the first or second tranche of the Brick by Brick scheme. And so we've now completed that for Croydon Council. It's eight units on a very tight backland site, and it has quite an important strip of communal space where we're really trying to stitch the different departments together to create shared spaces that are shared just between two flats. So: outdoor space is very important in that even though it's very small.
 
David Taylor  
Well, thank you for that trip around. Camden, New York, Croydon, and Shepherds Bush! One last question for you. When you heard about the 'green light' for the Camden Highline, where were you and how did you celebrate? Were you in the actual meeting?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Yeah, we were in the meeting and - talking about cultural stereotypes - when the councillors voted to approve it, which was a unanimous vote of approval, which was really great for us, the American team were watching, and they were texting me: “did it get approval?” And we said: 'well, yeah. It was just very understated.' (laughs). There was no one punching the air or giving anyone a high five. Everyone just filed out of the room. 
 
David Taylor  
Right!  (laughs)
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
We did have some fun and some nice drinks afterwards. Yeah.
 
David Taylor  
Nice. So they were tuning in, the American side?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Yeah, they were there. It was like a hybrid planning committee and James Corner and Matt Grunbaum from the team in New York were there to answer questions from the counsellors about things like how big the trees were going to be and how they were going to access the Highline to get all the plants up, and that kind of thing. So it was really good to have them.
 
David Taylor  
Well congratulations.  I look forward to walking along its route someday, soon. When will that be, do you think?
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
I think we're hoping in early 2025. 
 
David Taylor  
Great. Nice one. Thanks again.
 
Tatiana von Preussen  
Okay, thank you so much. Bye!


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Tatiana Von Preussen

Co-founder
vPPR Architects



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