Ever since he first passed the colourful hoardings surrounding its construction site, Taran Wilkhu’s imagination has been sparked by Design District. Determined to find out more about what was happening on the other side, the photographer was soon being introduced to the team co-ordinating the development of the 16 buildings set to become a permanent home for London’s creative industries. To his delight, Wilkhu was commissioned to document the Greenwich Peninsula site, from its early stages through to completion.
Working as a professional photographer wasn’t always on the cards for Wilkhu — as he describes it, he’s ‘pressed restart’ on his career many times. Born in Yorkshire of Indian heritage, he studied law in Manchester before moving into the world of investment banking, working at high-profile institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and even Lehman Brothers at the time it went into administration.
‘Although there are many positives to take from this period of my life,’ he says, ‘I was keen to get back to my creative side. I briefly dabbled in photographing weddings, but soon found that although I enjoyed the work, I couldn’t juggle children, weekend photography and corporate life. Something had to give!’
In 2016, that change came about thanks to a redundancy: ‘It was a blessing in disguise, I had the opportunity to take my career in a new direction.’ After graduating from a short course in architectural photography at London College of Communication, he decided to initiate a project that was authentic and personal to him. The focus of his enquiry was Walters Way — the renowned collection of self-build houses designed by Walter Segal in South East London where he and his family live.
For an architecture enthusiast, finding a home on Walters Way was something of a dream come true, and also a stroke of luck: ‘We spotted a Segal home on The Modern House. Although it was already under offer, we asked the team to keep us on file on the off chance the sale fell through and lo and behold, three months down the line we received a call. We snapped up the opportunity and never looked back. Two children, an extension and 11 years on, we could not be happier with our home.’
To create a portrait of this unique place and its community, Wilkhu teamed up with writer Alice Grahame — a fellow resident and Segal fan. Together they examined the story of self-building, the architect’s legacy and the lives of those who live on his unusual estates.
Wilkhu’s collaboration with Grahame resulted in his first book, Walters Way & Segal Close, published in 2017. Since then, he has gone on to photograph remarkable homes and architectural projects across the UK and Europe for publications such as Elle Decoration, Vogue Living, Dezeen, Wallpaper*, Monocle, The Guardian, ICON, RIBA Journal, Architectural Digest and Milk Decoration (who gave him his first cover in 2018).
In 2020, Wilkhu launched the Roots to Routes podcast with Wallpaper* Design Editor Sujata Burman. Set up as a response to ‘the evident lack of diversity in the industry,’ it explores the journeys of South Asian creatives in the world of design and architecture. The aim, Wilkhu says, is to ‘examine how where you came from can inform your path to creativity.’
Not much has gone according to plan for anyone this year, but fortunately for Wilkhu he was able to carry out a mid-construction shoot just days before the UK government’s first lockdown announcement. It was also an opportunity for him to create portraits of the Design District team.
Now Wilkhu can’t wait to get back on site to see how things have progressed since construction resumed. He’s also looking forward to producing images of the site upon completion. He specifically recalls the ambiance he felt walking around Mole Architects’ timber frames on his first visit. And, ‘from an aesthetic and light perspective,’ he says, ‘I cannot wait to see the completion of the pair of structures designed by 6a architects, with their sloped sides and huge diamond windows.’ Wilkhu is also intrigued by the potential challenges presented by the close proximity of the buildings, and ‘how to contextualise each space.’ He’s weighing the possibilities of utilising a drone in order to depict the full scale of the project.
Like so many creatives working in the city, it’s of paramount importance to Wilkhu that London maintains its global reputation. ‘It’s why we pay the mortgages and rent we do,’ he says. ‘When London’s creative juices are flowing you don’t want to be anywhere else.’
For someone in Wilkhu’s position, having access to flexible workspace would be ideal. With his ever-changing schedule, he appreciates the idea of not having to commit to a full-time studio. He sees Design District as a bold experiment, not just because of its commitment to providing affordable workspace, but because of the creative community, cross-pollination and relationships it will inevitably foster. Wilkhu may be best known for documenting the built environment, but he clearly values the human interaction within those spaces. In a sense, by documenting the construction, he’s glimpsing the future life the place will bring. He imagines a day at Design District: popping into workshops to visit with craftspeople, yoga on the rooftop basketball court, attending a talk or exhibition opening, relaxing in the courtyards with clients and fellow tenants.
In this way, Design District has proved a source of inspiration for Wilkhu, not just as a photographic subject, but for its spatial possibilities. ‘A new project I have been thinking about recently,’ he says, ‘is to be able to hire a space in which to host our monthly podcasts and offer our guests the chance to organise workshops and talks. I think Design District would be an excellent place for this as it’s accessible, dynamic and inspiring in equal measure.’
Lead photo by Julia Wetzel.
All other photos by Taran Wilkhu.