New London Architecture

Five Minutes with...Elie Gamburg

Tuesday 07 June 2022

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

David Taylor  
Hello, is that Elie?
 
Elie Gamburg  
Hey yeah, this is he! How are you?
 
David Taylor  
I'm very well, thank you. And actually, it's beautifully timed, this conversation, because you've just secured planning consent for your Vinegar Yard development, today, I think! So first of all, I wanted to get your reaction to that. It's been a long process, I think, this one? But also I wanted to touch on your expertise in life sciences generally, and lessons that you've brought over from your background from other cities. Big opening question!
 
Elie Gamburg  
That is a very big opening question! But I think, starting off, myself and my colleagues, John Bushell and others at KPF are incredibly excited. We're excited about, obviously, Vinegar Yard getting approval, but also what it means. Because this is going to be one of the first key pieces of a new emerging innovation district, SC1, within Southwark and Lambeth. And, you know, this idea that there is a way to sensitively insert a high spec lab into very sensitive contexts in ways that can energize future development, make place, get the support of community, and really kind of drive innovation forward, I think, is something we're really, really excited about. We view Vinegar Yard very much as a kind of model; a prototype for something that could definitely be happening a lot more across London, and certainly the UK.
 
David Taylor  
Why do such projects need their own 'districts', as it were?
 
Elie Gamburg  
I think whenever we talk about innovation, it's important to subdivide between general research and the notion of districts that create innovation. I think research can happen anywhere and it has been for a very long time. I think the idea behind innovation districts ought to be, or can be, really twofold. One is that there's a way of bringing different kinds of people and uses together that actually creates new kinds of knowledge that wouldn't otherwise happen. The second thing is this idea that there's something about creating a kind of critical density that can not only encourage more opportunity within a particular sector, whether it's life science or technology or others, but also that there's a way to more directly engage community. So the benefits that come out of innovation are more widely spread. I think good innovation districts have characteristics of both of those. With the example of life science, when you really want innovation, what that means is you want people that would not otherwise meet, doing different kinds of research or with areas of expertise that wouldn't otherwise know each other, to meet and do something interesting. And so, in order for that to happen, you need a couple of things. One, you need the space for these people to be working, to be in close proximity. Two, you need the opportunity and the programming that's going to give these people, that wouldn't otherwise meet, a chance to actually cross paths. And ideally, the more different those people are to begin with, the better. So that's where the aspects of quality of life programming really are important. And it’s what's really critical about London and is a big draw is the city itself. That also allows innovation districts to feel this sort of other responsibility, which is, the great neighborhoods of London have a lot to offer, in terms of the kind of quality of life but also the sort of people that will drive innovation forward. And vice versa, the more that these things are integrated with the city is an opportunity for them to directly benefit the neighborhoods and the communities around them. 
 
David Taylor  
So: to borrow from chemistry, you're in a sense creating a Petri dish, aren't you, which allows cultures to sort of grow and flourish. Is that a good analogy?
 
Elie Gamburg  
I think so. And I'll layer in, I guess, a second chemistry term, which I think architects managed to co-opt a while ago, which is this idea of catalysts. At the end of the day, we are not, policy makers, or the research scientists or anybody else. We're architects, and that's actually a very important role to have. The buildings that we do, the plans that we make actually can be catalysts for the greater socially desired goals of innovation and community development. So I think, in the case of Vinegar Yard, a very important part of this was the creation of areas of public space that are going to be amenitized, with pop-up food markets and food trucks, a park for a bit of the community that didn't really have one, the idea of affordable and innovative workspace, incubation space, preservation of an existing small warehouse adjacent to a neighborhood pub that can actually be programmed as a space for various different kinds of events. That is both for Guys and St. Thomas as a hospital, King's College as an institution, obviously, the tenants within the building, but also for the neighborhood. And so, we can use the tools of design – whether it's pedestrian arcades, the reshaping of the building footprint – to open up more public realm, the mixture of preservation, retention and new construction. To actually act as catalysts that can enable the sort of engagement and mixing that we want in order to drive both innovation and community growth and community improvement and integration.
 
David Taylor  
All of that sounds like simple, good, city-making in a sense. I mean, it all sounds very positive. But my struggle is to differentiate that from any other good civic building or good civic areas.
 
Elie Gamburg  
It's a really good question. You're absolutely right, that it is good city-making. And for many, many years, there was this idea that things like labs and like science, were incongruous with cities...
 
David Taylor  
Right…
 
Elie Gamburg  
…They had to take place in research parks very far from city centres. And there were a number of reasons why that was thought at the time. I mean, number one, it was thought that scientists were disinterested in the intricacies and interests of everyday urban life. Turns out, you know, as one of my good friends and good clients, likes to joke: scientists are people too! 
 
David Taylor  
Yeah!
 
Elie Gamburg  
But the second thing is that the mechanical systems and infrastructure, and space requirements of these buildings was somehow incompatible with the finer grain of urban texture. And if you think about that, I guess this also situates, a little bit why we at KPF have been so interested in this program over the last couple of years. You know, 10 years ago, there was this idea that technology companies and people who worked for technology companies like Google and Facebook would never be in cities. They should all be working in some office park, out in the suburbs. And before that, it was the idea that Fortune 500 corporations or banks had all moved out to be in the sort of outer periphery and suburbs of cities. And in turn, with each wave, there's been this realization that, actually, urban vitality is a really important part of what makes people happy and interested, which is a good thing, then, for employees and for people, for cities. That each of these building types, thought of in their purest form, were these big blocks that in a way were profoundly anti-urban. But that actually there was nothing necessarily specific about the building type that couldn't be adapted for urban vitality. So I think over the last 30 years in each of these types moving from commercial office through to technology office now into life science, the idea that we can think very carefully about how these buildings really need to work, but actually that we can break them down in scale and in treatment into a way that reconciles the needs of the program type and the needs of the urban context in a way that's actually mutually reinforcing, rather than, you know, incongruous.
 
David Taylor  
Now, we're slightly running out of time, but I wondered if you could just mention your other key lab project over in Canary Wharf? Could you tell us a little bit about that, please?
 
Elie Gamburg  
Yeah,  that's one we're really excited to be working on. That's with Canary Wharf and Kadans and it recently got announced that it will be the largest commercial lab building in Europe, and is really part of the broader Canary Wharf move to becoming a centre for life science and innovation. I think one of the things that's very interesting is just watching some of the work that we're doing in places like Boston. And the transition that's happened over the years as the city has evolved from being really primarily driven by academics into this idea of applied science and applied research, and seeing what lessons are applicable at a place like Canary Wharf. I think, for us, it's this idea of both within the building, but also within the greater urban cluster, how can buildings like this create community? You know, foster communication and collaboration across a lot of different disciplines and different neighborhoods and people, and then really bring that up, even into something like a high rise? That's something we're really excited to explore on this project and others that we're working on at the moment.
 
David Taylor  
And final question, where do you think London stands in terms of this particular sector, in a sort of ‘world league table’?
 
Elie Gamburg  
I think the fascinating thing about London is there's so much research happening; there's so many people who want to be here. There are so many incredible universities, like King's and Imperial and UCL and others doing incredible research, and there are amazing hospitals. And there's just the desire, I think, among people in the sector to be in the city. The question right now is: does the city have the space, and also offer the kind of ecosystem that allows for these things to actually be moved from pure academic research into commercialization? And so I think the role that we all have within the design community, but also within the planning community, is to really create the spaces and opportunities that are going to allow that to happen, because, especially post-COVID, I think we can all agree that not just London, but the world really needs it.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah! Brilliant. Well, congratulations again on Vinegar. And I look forward to seeing it emerge. So, thank you for your time.
 
Elie Gamburg  
Oh, thank you very, very much. 
 
David Taylor  
Thanks a lot. Cheers. Bye.

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

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David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly



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