London-based architects Nex— have completed a new riverboat terminal incorporating a large new public space on the Thames, as Royal Wharf Pier welcomes its first passengers. The 130m long pier – the longest, and arguably most distinctive pier on the Thames – is located beside Ballymore and Oxley’s Royal Wharf development in London’s Royal Docks, a 3,385 home new neighbourhood which includes a new high street, primary school, community centre and healthcare facilities.
Project Name: Royal Wharf Pier
Studio Name: Nex—
Project Size: 800 m2
Project Budget: $5450000
Completion Date: 2020
Building Levels: 1
Location: London, United Kingdom
Photography: Gavriil Papadiotis and James Brittain
Marking the practice’s first major venture into infrastructure, the project also sees the creation of floating public space on the Thames for the very first time. Underpinning Nex’s aim to enhance the city with valuable public space, Nex’s design strives to offer a meaningful contribution to Royal Wharf and London’s riverside, addressing the practical requirements of Thames Clippers’ traffic while also providing a memorable and generous new public space that can be enjoyed by the community, Londoners and visitors alike.
Commissioned following an invited competition in 2016, Nex— were selected by Ballymore and Oxley for their innovative, design-led response to the site’s unusual constraints, joining forces with marine engineers Beckett Rankine to replace an existing, derelict jetty with a solution that harnesses infrastructure as an integral part of valuable public realm. The pier was manufactured using ship-building methods in the Netherlands, resulting in 6 individual parts. Delivered to London by barge, each piece was floated down the Thames to its final position, having travelled over 300 miles in the process.
Knitting into the riverside public realm of Royal Wharf, the pier extends the development’s newly landscaped River Walk with a public promenade, a fixed element of the structure which is publicly accessible year-round. Stretching 40m into the Thames, the generous linear open space is reminiscent of traditional British seaside piers, framing long, straight views towards the horizon. The edges of the promenade are lined with diagonal aluminium battens, concealing the external structural truss and conveying a sense of continuity and dynamism; a public space seemingly hovering on the Thames’ surface.
At the heart of the pier, a 162sqm viewing platform offers a generous and peaceful space that invites people to linger, relax and admire the unique views up and down the Thames. Featuring elegantly integrated bench seating at its centre, the platform benefits from a comfortable sense of spaciousness, enhancing the pier’s striking views through the unobstructed ultra-clear glass balustrades enveloping the platform.
The viewing platform also separates the public promenade from the floating gangway and pontoon of the Thames Clippers terminal through distinct angles in the pier’s design, making this appear seemingly infinite from the river edge. The 65m long floating walkway rises and falls with the Thames’ 7m tidal movement to enable the pier to tolerate the full tidal range of the river. In seeking to create a sense of cohesion, the patterned aluminium and timber balustrades used in the public promenade are replicated here, extending above handrail height to create a semi-enclosed space that provides commuters with shelter form the elements.
Arriving at the pontoon, the skewed plan form demonstrates a contemporary take on traditional pier design, building upon the angles established by the pier’s path into the river, and focusing views towards the towers of Canary Wharf and the City. The layout creates increased open space around the shelter, allowing boats to dock easily and providing ample space for passengers as the service continues to increase in popularity. Offering a striking silhouette from Clippers service as it travels down the river, the shelter showcases a playful response to its setting, and the construction of the pier itself. With cut and folded elevations defining its geometry, these have also been designed to conceal the large structural elements supporting the pier, enhancing an impression of weightless floating.
This is reflected in the cut back roofline which slopes down towards the water, angled to take advantage of direct views down the river towards Canary Wharf and The O2 while also intuitively ushering passengers into the sheltered area to optimise circulation. Featuring a large glass façade to allow a good overview of incoming traffic and impressive views, the sheltered waiting area offers integrated seating enclosed within this metal shell, providing warmth and protection from the elements. Looking to the practicalities of the river boat services, the design was developed with stakeholder and commuter feedback, leading to integrated timetable/display options, easily installed ticket barriers and storage provisions.
Throughout the pier, a consistent material palette speaks to both the practical needs and maritime setting of the scheme. Building upon the ship-building processes used to manufacture the pier, the primary structure is steel, painted dark grey to offer a contemporary look that weathers well. This complemented with the use of durable marine grade hardwood to create a sense of cohesion throughout the pier, providing warm finishes that enhance user experience in both the interior and external spaces on the pier. These high-quality finishes are gently emphasised with carefully integrated lighting. Nestled within the balustrades and lining the edges of the outdoor timber seating, the pier’s softly lit details create a welcoming and safe environment, while lending keen consideration to minimising light pollution and their impact on views or residents.
Royal Wharf Pier is part of the Royal Wharf development by Ballymore and Oxley. This new neighbourhood for London will comprise 3,385 riverside properties housing around 10,000 residents and stands within the £3.5bn Royal Docks regeneration area. Its townhouses, duplexes, apartments and suites are inspired by the classical heritage of London’s great squares and neighbourhoods and are focused around Sovereign Place – a new market square filled with shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. 45% of the 40-acre development is devoted to outside space, including a 500m riverfront promenade.