Greenwich Peninsula is a bit of a shape-shifter. Each time I emerge from North Greenwich tube station, something’s different, but you can never quite put your finger on it. The regeneration of the area got off to a false start with the launch of the Millennium Dome, but the O2 Arena is now one of the biggest and best entertainment venues in the world. The pace of transformation has ramped up in recent years, with Ravensbourne College, a leading digital media college in a RIBA award-winning building, arriving four years ago, and the Emirates Air Line cable car – the jury’s still out on that one – launched in the summer of 2012.
Today, when you emerge from the tube, you’ll see the glistening, seven metre-tall, glass-fronted NOW Gallery on your right. Designed by Marks Barfield architects, the practice behind the London Eye and the Kew Treetop Walkway, the cool new curvy public space is connected by an aluminium-clad canopy to Stevie Parle’s café-roastery, Craft London, and the Greenwich Kitchen next door.
The gallery is part of developer Knight Dragon’s ambitious plan for the area, which includes 10,000 homes, 48 acres of green space, 1.6 miles of waterfront and a commercial district encompassing 3.5million sq ft of shops, hotels, schools and public facilities. It opened in September with Shade, a site-specific immersive installation by Simon Heijdens, and will feature a programme of three-month commissions from both established and emerging artists and designers. Heijdens’ Shade is an intelligent skin applied to the gallery’s glass front that forms a kaleidoscope of light and shadow that responds to the elements outside – effectively, you can see the wind.
‘It feels like Simon’s celebrating the building,’ says gallery curator Jemima Burrill, who previously ran the Great Western Studios in West London and has worked with the Serpentine Gallery and the Arts Council. ‘We use the space as a catalyst. It’s important that artists react to where they are. This is not a white box and you soon realise the possibilities and the difficulties. By putting this wrap around the windows, which reacts to the wind, Simon is reacting to the Peninsula. We have rather a lot of wind here.’
From 30 January, Robert Orchardson takes over the space with his work, Aperture. The installation draws upon a collection of scientific paraphernalia that once belonged to astronomers William and John Herschel, found at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Orchardson has re-imagined these objects through sculptural forms that work in tune with the gallery’s unique curves.
‘What’s fantastic about this piece,’ says Jemima, ‘is that Robert did some research at the Observatory and looked at Herschel’s apparatus and came up with this idea of an exploding telescope. And it can only be here because it will only fit into this space, and it has the connection to Greenwich. Robert understands that Greenwich is synonymous with a desire to look out to sea or the heavens, he sees the Peninsula as being a point of departure and arrival, it’s both things.
‘That’s one of the things I love about being here – we’ve got water all around us. You really feel a connection with that and from over there you can see the Thames Barrier, you can see the ‘exit’. We’re genuinely getting artists who have a quality about them, they’re fantastic and that, I think, is key.’
Building a huge new community from the bottom up, cultural imprint and all, strikes me as an incredibly impressive, rare thing. I thought it was homes and businesses first and culture a happy accident that comes later, initiated by the community itself. But it seems modern masterplans are all-encompassing.
‘There are lots of developers who are aware of how important having the cultural aspect is,’ says Jemima. ‘But I think Knight Dragon are particularly interested in that. They got us in from the very beginning and there are various projects bubbling away that we’re interested in doing beyond the gallery.
‘People want to move in here, there are queues for the apartments. I’m not saying that’s because of us, but if you have something interesting happening, that’s going to encourage people to come here and be part of the community.’
‘It’s important to embed this kind of cultural DNA into a place,’ says Jemima’s colleague Kaia Charles, who curates the gallery’s Friday Lates programme. Kaia has been working with the South London Art Map (SLAM) to form a new Greenwich art hub: ‘Local networks are important to us. We did a big focus on Greenwich Peninsula with SLAM in October with tours from NOW Gallery over to the print studios on Tunnel Avenue and to the Ecology Park. It’s all very well us turning up and opening a gallery, but the Ecology Park has been here since 1999. We have to celebrate what’s already happening here.’