Wild at Heart

We meet Spacehub, landscape architects at Mill Harbour.

Abundant greenery and innovative landscaping – complete with full grown forest and stream – makes Mill Harbour unique in the Canary Wharf area. We meet Spacehub, the award-winning studio behind the design.

Words by Hugo Macdonald

Giles Charlton & Tom Smith, Spacehub

Spacehub was founded in 2010 by Giles Charlton and Tom Smith, who oversee a nimble team of just 15 today. The scale of the team certainly belies the ambition and imagination of their work: “If we grow our cities in scale, which we definitely are, then we must be prepared to grow all aspects of them; nature must be amplified too,” explains Smith.

Landscape design has developed rapidly in recent years, reflecting our evolving understanding that ‘green space’ is vital from a social, psychological and environmental perspective.

This realisation is happening at all levels – city government, property developer and society alike – and good landscaping is now seen as far more than aesthetic: it adds value in every sense. “Twenty years ago, no one paid much attention to the role of landscape in urban spaces,” explains Charlton. “Even ten years ago it was a nice to have, but not a necessity. But today, it’s an embedded part of creative and responsible urban development.”

Just off the bustling main drag of Brick Lane in east London, there is a small studio of landscape architects sowing the seeds for some of the city’s most innovative public realm projects.

Spacehub has paved the way here, working on landmark projects in the capital from West Hampstead Square to Westfield Croydon, London Wall Place to Goodluck Hope, scooping up a cabinet of awards in the process. Charlton credits their varied experience for their dexterity; he trained as a furniture designer at the world-renowned Parnham College, while Smith cut his teeth working at global giant Aecom – latterly as creative director of their landscape studio in London, where he oversaw the landscaping for both London and Rio Olympic sites.

Spacehub’s work at Mill Harbour demonstrates this seamless capacity for ingenuity and integrity. Taking the project’s cue as a village, they set about deconstructing how this might manifest in a landscaping scheme that would go beyond the blandly hollow estate agent-speak that blights so many of the capital’s mixed-use developments. “We were very keen to avoid any sense of that old-fashioned vision of luxury that you see on hoardings: people clinking wine glasses and smiling at salads,” Smith says. “So we broke down the idea of ‘the village’ as a place of intimacy, uniqueness and self-containment.”

In amongst the jigsaw of landscape models carefully devised for different parts of the development, Charlton and Smith pause over what looks like a dense patch of forested wilderness that would be more at home on the pages of a fairy tale than on the banks of the Thames. Harbour Forest and The Ephemeral Stream, as it has rather nobly been titled, was inspired by a Dutch Old Master scene and promises to be a jewel in Mill Harbour’s crown.

Covering a generous 85 by 25 square-metre patch of land, around 100 trees will be planted on undulating land. Far from the wasteland of youthful shrubs that typically populate new developments, these will be between 9 and 10 metres tall on planting, forming a dense patch of very real woodland – an opportunity for Mill Harbour dwellers to forest bathe daily.

Mill Fields at Mill Harbour

So-called ‘rewilding’ has become a major movement in recent years, not just in urban planning but across society and culture. Brought to life in the Sunday Times Bestseller ‘Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm’ (2018) by Isabella Tree, the movement is all about reclaiming green spaces to improve our quality of life while offering a haven for animals. As people become more concerned about climate change, and more aware of the health costs that can come with the concrete jungle, the need for expansive green spaces in the city is growing, and rewilding is taking root.

“These are the sort of environments we need to start building in our cities. I grew up playing in the woods – most children today don’t. I’ve even asked the architects if they can include boot scrapers by the front doors at Mill Harbour,” Smith concludes.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in print in the Mill Harbour magazine, if you’d like to receive a copy of the magazine, get in touch.