Tentacles on Thames

Originally named for the variety of projects they began working on 11 years ago, London-based practice Studio Octopi have now turned their many [metaphorical] tentacles to designing aquatic public spaces. Their attention has shifted to their Thames Baths Project—a scheme originally born out of the ‘London As It Could Be’ 2013 competition—which seeks to regenerate the city’s disused waterways.

With the increasing ‘public’ nature of London’s shared spaces constantly marginalized, could the key to Londoners reclaiming their collective occupation of the city, lie in opening up London’s historic waterways? Grace Quah speaks to Studio Octopi co-founder, Chris Romer-Lee, about the challenges of designing inside the Thames, their optimistic outlook and their £125,000 goal to succeed in their recent Kickstarter campaign.

How did the competition come about in the first place? I noticed that the other competition proposals focused in designing along the riverbank rather than directly in the water.

I think our call to arms with this project, was getting people to re-engage with the river itself. Let’s avoid building all these river walks with high concrete balustrades and private developments, which effectively privatise the river walk. We want to open it back out again and improve access to the waterways. This is probably the largest public space in London and probably the most underused in London as well. We’re working on projects at the moment that are less about building mega-ego structures and more about keeping our feet on the ground.

Had the idea of swimming in the Thames been attempted before?

Yes we found that there was a long history of swimming in the Thames, which had been cut short in the 1950s, when they said that the river was biologically dead. Perceptions of the river have been negative when pollution from factories as well as sewage was at its worst. Nowadays it’s an awful lot better than it was.

Since the competition was launched in 2013, has the technical side of the scheme changed?

We have moved the scheme 500 yards further upstream to find a place where we have designed a floating pontoon, which doesn’t touch the riverbed. The critical part is the water from the pools is separated from the river water itself. So we now take water in from the Thames, we filter it in reed beds and the filtration system is underneath the decking. It’s a closed system, so there’s no chance of getting any pollution in there. Ideally, we would be directly swimming in the river but due to the continual sewage leaks, it’s just not feasible at the moment. Hopefully within the next ten years it might be possible.

How do you go about getting planning permission to get something built on the Thames?

It’s incredibly complicated. It’s a very drawn out process due to the regulatory bodies, which keep a watch on the river, such as the Port of London Authority and the Environment Agency. Then you have to satisfy all the planners and the conservation officers because of the nature of the site (along Victoria Embankment). Should the crowdfunding be successful alongside other funding routes that we’re looking at, we would hope to have a planning application submitted by the end of the year. As well as looking at crowdfunding, we’re also looking at corporate sponsorship, government funding and funding from sports organisations.

How are the consultations going and how is the council responding to the scheme?

They are all responding very warmly. I think that there’s a feeling now that this is going to happen—it’s just a matter of when. We’ve had a meeting with the Port of London Authority, who effectively manage the riverbed and where the emphasis was on the health and safety aspects of the scheme. The City of London warmed up to the idea because they’re greening the river walk from Blackfriars to Tower Bridge, so it links up an awful lot of things going on such as Heatherwick’s Garden Bridge.

Floor Plan and Section of Blackfriars Proposal

Floor Plan and Section of Temple Proposal

I’m interested in this idea of collective investment for public spaces. Is this why you decided to crowd fund?

The one key reason was to get Londoners to buy into the idea. I think given the phenomenal response and press interest that we’ve had, from London as well as global press, I am pretty confident that Londoners do want it. We wanted it to be a chance for Londoners to say ‘yes, we want to be part of it’. Kickstarter is a reward-based crowdfunding site, as opposed to an equity-based site, so we have to give back to those investing based on a system of tiered membership. You have different levels of return depending on how much money you invest. We are offering back membership to the baths for the first year, giving X number of free swims, when the baths go live or get built.

Can you tell me about the Community Interest Company (CIC) model that the project has adopted?

The CIC is effectively a charity, and the funding is asset-locked. This means any funds which are pledged to the CIC then have to go towards the CIC’s main objective, which is improving access to urban waterways. Ultimately, the Thames is our first mission, but beyond that, we have dreams of getting this into other urban waterways in the UK, in Europe or even around the world. We think it’s scalable and can go in many locations and resolve redundant urban waterways.

You won a competition for a lido in Peckham recently, so I can see how the scheme is already expanding.

So Peckham came about through the Thames Baths. A couple of guys who had plans for returning the lido to Peckham contacted us and said, “We want you to pitch for this.” They were intent on having a heated, chlorinated pool so we approached it slightly differently. We provided them with that, but we also saw an opportunity to resurface the River Peck, running underneath the Peckham Rye Common, and use the water from the Peck by filtering it to fill the natural pools which could surround the chlorinated pool. So you get natural pools amongst the landscape, surrounding the chlorinated warm pool. The water comes directly from the site, something that we particularly enjoy. It’s a very different location compared with central London. There’s a very powerful community network, which we are going to work with directly to get the lido off the ground.

So what would you say is Studio Octopi’s approach to designing public space?

We are increasingly intrigued by what constitutes ‘public space’. We still do private residential work, but we’ve moved away a little bit from that and have become more interested in nature, less into building our cities for our egos or other people’s egos. We’re beginning to think of things a little bit more fluidly.

Architects have a terrible ability just to look at the finished building as an object to be completed. It’s not always about the window details or the finish in the second bedroom, it’s often about the larger issues that make a project happen or lead to the start of other projects.

Cheesy end note, but do you have any advice for students who would like to work for themselves?

Unfortunately it is about an awful lot of hard work and but also about entrepreneurialism—which I think is something that is desperately lacking in our industry. I think there are an awful lot of people who just expect for jobs to come to them. The exciting thing about the Thames Baths is if the campaign succeeds, it will prove that through a lot of hard work—and it’s been a massive learning curve for us—that it is possible to generate your own project once you get a good idea.

Do you think entrepreneurism is something that should be taught or perhaps something that students should find through their own experience?

We all have many ideas, but only 1/20 ideas actually stick so I think it should be taught absolutely but perhaps taught is not the right word. I think student should be exposed to it and then nurtured at the early stages—both in terms of the ego but also in terms of the reality of it. It’s not about filling in endless forms to try and get your next job, or waiting around for someone to call about a house extension. You have to go out there and get it.

Images courtesy of Studio Octopi and Picture Plane.

Want to swim in the Thames? Check out their Kickstarter campaign and help make it a reality!