Royal Docks Custom House

Ash Sakula was one of five teams selected for a charrette at the Excel Convention Centre in London's East End aimed at re-making connections between Excel and its neighbour, the neighbourhood of Custom House. The coming of Crossrail's Elizabeth Line has exacerbated the divide originally caused by the Docklands Light Railway line, sundering the Custom House community from its traditional place of livelihood, the waterside of the Royal Docks. The charrette was set up as a co-design event bringing together urban designers and architects, along with stakeholders including representatives from Crossrail and the local community.

The public realm works carried out in connection with Crossrail are functional and austere. Our team made the physical and social connectivity across the railways more enjoyable and easy to use, to promote a coming together of the two neighbourhoods on either side. We proposed a new pedestrian boulevard running from a revitalised dockside, past Excel and across the railway where it ramps gently down into the heart of Custom House.

All along the new route are reasons for Excel visitors to visit Custom House, and for the Custom House community to pop over to the dockside. These cues ranged from new open spaces, cafés and restaurants on the Custom House side, to piers and leisure activities inhabiting the waterside in place of the loading and unloading of cargoes in earlier years.

We made a short movie illustrating our proposal, and on presentation night it was winner for Meaningful Engagement as well as winning the Public Vote.

Awards at the Royal Docks Charrette

Jury Award for Meaningful Engagement with Local Communities, Context and Identity

People's Choice Award

Plan of northern half of proposals: Coming from Excel, kiosks with shops, cafees and bars line your approach to the station platforms. If you continue straight on over the bridge you arrive effortlessly into Custom House and can progress down a gently sloping pedestrian boulevard, lined on either side with open squares, cafés and restaurants.

The boulevard parallels Freemason's Road and leads down to a central square lined with shops.

One of the electricity pylons is painted fluorescent pink, a landmark for Custom House.

Plan of southern half of proposals: from the bridge crossing the railways, the existing walkway to Excel's entrance is lined with kiosks, and its roof awning is removed. the route continues past the entrance, ramping dowen to the dockside, where the old piers serving shipping are recreated as pleasure piers. Parts of Excel's vast car park area is repurposed as quayside restaurants and cafés.

In front of Excel's main entrance, a gently sloping piazza leads down to Royal Victoria with its hotels and shops. Restaurants and boats add interest and steps lead down to a taxi drop off point.

Millions of split-second decisions drive footfall in the city, determining the fate of a neighbourhood and its economy. At Custom House, global wealth is pouring into a new area of city. Alongside it is an established community whose young people need new opportunities.

Our proposal leapfrogs some fairly small physical barriers to build a more inclusive flowing city. This will help the Royal Docks to become an authentic, joined-up piece of London, and enable Custom House to draw on old skills and build new ones.

It brings some of Excel’s prosperity across the tracks, and gives the dockside an injection of city life from local people coming to play at the water’s edge, where rebuilt piers and dockside restaurants draws in locals and visitors.

In place of the meanest possible link bridge, our proposal creates a seamless connectivity across the railways. There is a proper, generous approach down into Custom House, and up to the stations and the dockside. A new ground floats people across the tracks, lined with kiosks serving the themes of Excel’s exhibitions, mixed in with lively, experimental pop-ups and well-loved regular pit stops.

The urbanism of the new Freemasons Quarter is fine-grained, with plenty of circular routes through small squares with canopies of trees delicately lit in the evening. 240 new apartments sit above locally-run restaurants, cafes, social enterprises, playspaces and shops, making Custom House one of London’s most sought-after destinations.

Ships, piers, restaurants and cafés enliven a whole new public realm around Excel.

Custom House and its new Elizabeth Line Station as existing.

Ash Sakula drawings photos
Ash Sakula drawings photos
Ash Sakula drawings photos
Ash Sakula drawings photos

Client: London Festival of Architecture, Royal Docks Team, L B Newham, Crossrail and Excel

Timescale: November 2018 to January 2019

The Royal Docks in their heyday. In this view looking east, Custom House is in the left foreground.

Read more about the thinking behind this project:

Initial concept sketch plan of the proposal, drawn during the charrette.

Schematic aerial view showing proposed new routes.

Part of the proposed public realm of the new sloping boulevard leading up to the bridge over the railways.