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Royal Arsenal: Stitching a new neighbourhood into a historic place

A place of rich history, Woolwich today is undergoing significant change. Long known by its association with the Royal Arsenal, the area’s origins as a military ordnance can be traced back to the 16th century. In 1805, the designation ‘the Royal Arsenal’ was bestowed, and a munitions industry grew throughout the nineteenth century reaching some 80,000 employees at its peak. Subsequently, a town centre emerged organically over the centuries which housed and fed many of the thousands who worked there. Steeped in military history, there remains today an enduring legacy in the impressive collection of heritage buildings, such as the Royal Brass Foundry (1717) or the late Palladian Royal Military Academy (1719), which help to give Woolwich such a rich character.

In the time following the Second World War, the military scaled back operations with the Ministry of Defence ultimately closing shop in 1967. A period of decline ensued with many of these remarkable historic buildings lying empty, and the departure of jobs and people sapped energy out of Woolwich town centre. Now, a new chapter is being written in Woolwich’s long story as it becomes the focus for residential intensification, echoing the trend of outer London sites becoming unlocked for new housing to accommodate the city’s growing population.

Allies and Morrison’s role at the Royal Arsenal has been twofold, as masterplanners of a prominent 16-hectare site in the heart of the historic Arsenal quarter since 2005, and as architect for several waterside residential buildings within the masterplan redline – a site that includes some of the signature buildings of the masterplan known as the ‘Warren’. The wider plan for Royal Arsenal has guided the area’s incremental transition into a new urban neighbourhood of more than 3,700 new homes. The opening of the new Woolwich Elizabeth line station, due next year, will make this a prime location within easy reach of central London (21 minutes to Bond Street) and a direct link to Heathrow, making it an attractive place for Londoners to call home.

The ‘Warren’, a name derived from a 16th century observation that many rabbits inhabited the area, consists of 2,000 new homes in buildings varying in heights from five to twenty-one floors. In 2013, this western half of the Royal Arsenal masterplan was refined in order to enhance its riverside views. Residents have now moved into the neighbourhood and enjoy views of and access to the River Thames. Within the ‘Warren’ are Waterside II, a trio of linear buildings facing the river, and Nouvel, a contrasting four-storey brick building and ten-storey tower.

Across the masterplan, the context of many listed buildings has meant that careful consideration has been given to new architecture; new buildings are contemporary yet complementary in both form and materiality to their historic neighbours. Many of the neighbouring historic buildings have found new uses, from pubs to new housing, and an essential principle of the masterplan has been to use new connections and buildings in a way that embraces and works with this built heritage. A ribbon-like park, Royal Arsenal Garden, crosses the site and echoes the footprint of the Crossrail tunnel below ground. New streets and routes, and the massing and form of new buildings, all pick up on the surrounding urban grain and scale of the old town, the river and grid left by the Royal Arsenal. Today, Woolwich is fast becoming an exemplar of how new residential life can be brought into once declining historic sites, creating compact, well-connected places to call home.