THE days have long gone when hungry dockers queued for the daily ‘call on’ at West India Docks -desperate to secure work and a few pennies to feed themselves and their families.
From its official opening in 1802 — heralding the arrival of ships from across the world bringing sugar, rum, bananas and grain — to the controversial Canary Wharf Tower development, the docks have always been challenging and ground-breaking.
Now there’s a new landmark emerging — the £800million Spire London, designed by HoK architects. It will be the tallest residential tower in western Europe when it’s completed in 2020. The cutting-edge 67-storey (771ft) skyscraper will have 861 one, two and three-bedroom apartments. It will also boast a swimming pool, gym and spa on the 35th floor, a library, a revolutionary lift speed of 19 feet a second and 1,290 bicycle racks.
The design includes prow and bow shapes, inspired by the dock’s maritime history, and is also based on the petals of the orchid.
The building will incorporate glass winter gardens, landscaped roof terraces, public open spaces, and external and internal children’s play areas, with rooms for music and interactive games.
Work started in November, but it’s only when you visit the site that the scale of the challenge faced by developer Greenland Group — which has built three of the world’s ten tallest buildings since 2005 — is revealed. The base footprint is 32,292sq ft. But the deep piles needed to support the tower couldn’t be evenly spread at ground level. They had to be laid in two corridors to accommodate Crossrail’s Elizabeth line, which will run directly under it.
Richard Piggin, project manager for Bachy Soletanche, a specialist geotechnical contractor commissioned for the first, year-long phase of the project, explains: ‘We had to install the concrete weight-bearing piles on two sides of the site, rather like two corridors, because we had to leave room for the tunnel and a 11ft exclusion zone on either side of it. The 66 piles are each 6.8 feet in diameter and run between 131to 220 feet deep. They’re bigger than anything used on the Shard [Britain’s tallest building]. It’s the maximum weight load test for a pile ever carried out in the UK. Each pile will support 108 mega neutrons, or 11,000 tonnes — that’s the weight of 35 jumbo jets, 2,000 elephants, 7,000 family cars or 22 million pints of beer. That’s three times what each pile is expected to carry.’
The elephant reference is not as ridiculous as it might seem: in 1968, though the docks were long past their glory, they moved elephants from Chipperfield’s Circus returning from a tour of South Africa.
The site had other constraints. It has listed structures at three of its four corners: two original parts of the West India Docks wall, and a large replica arch, erected in 2002, which celebrates the dock’s opening. Atop sits a replica of a ship in the fleet of George Hibbert, chairman of the docks till 1831.
Richard shows me the latest developments in securing the footings for this behemoth of a building: 310 concrete piles, 51ft deep, which interlock and have been sunk to 33ft to create an impenetrable, waterproof wall — nearby is North Dock, with a basinful of water.
Next, the team will trim down the tops of the piles and construct a concrete capping beam to run over the top. The 66 support piles will be covered with concrete 13ft thick.
In the centre, they’ll dig down 11 feet to form the basement area, over the Crossrail tunnel, before handing it over to multi-national engineering and construction group AECOM Construction Services. (AECOM, which recently completed the new 1,776ft tall One World Trade Center, will construct the tower).
Structures surrounding the site are being monitored for impact. Nearby is the impressive Ledger Building, once offices for the dockmaster and the Museum of London Docklands, housed in an old warehouse.
‘From a construction point of view, with all these factors it has been challenging,’ Richard concedes, adding that he and his team were delighted the piling work was completed a week ahead of schedule. ‘It’s a pretty small footprint on which to carry out all this work.’
When the tower is completed it’ll feature interiors by Argent Design, an award-winning company which over the past 20 years has created some of the world’s most luxurious homes.
One wonders what the dockers would have made of Spire London, or any of the architectural wonders that have risen in the docks over the past 30 years.
■ Each pile will support 11,000 tonnes — that’s the weight of 37 jumbo jets, 2,000 elephants, 7,000 cars or 22 million pints of beer
Rewriting the history books
SPIRE London will be western Europe’s tallest residential tower, soaring the equivalent of two football pitches into the sky.
It will have the feel of a five-star luxury hotel, boasting a 24-hour concierge, community and children’s play areas, lush roof terraces, covered outdoor areas, a games room and other entertainment facilities.
Inside and outside spaces will be merged with the use of full-height moveable walls. Prices of available units range from £665,000 to £2.23million.