Meet Hannah Corlett, HNNA Architects

with Jemima Burrill, curator and cultural consultant to NOW Gallery

The second of Design District's Friday lunchtime Meet the Architects series introduced us to Hannah Corlett, founder of HNNA. Corlett is not only the architect behind two of the District’s buildings, but also the creator and coordinator of its ambitious masterplan.

Corlett’s conversation with curator Jemima Burrill began by placing Design District within the wider context of the Greenwich Peninsula, describing her practice’s involvement from the early stages, consulting on the masterplan for what is one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe.

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All too aware of the potential large-scale development has for creating generic urban spaces, Corlett advocated for a place at the peninsula’s heart that would foster a sense of community. Her idea for achieving this was to build low rise, low rent studios and workshops. They would have to be permanent, however — this was not to be yet another example of artists becoming ‘sacrificial catalysts,’ used to stimulate an area before being priced out.

But how to ensure this district fulfilled its promise of becoming a thriving, vibrant hub while keeping costs down? The obvious thing, Corlett explained, would have been to do ‘the whole thing in an inexpensive single box.’ However, the architects were committed to bringing complexity to their masterplan, wanting to create something that would behave like a piece of city: ‘permeable and open to the public.’

The space was therefore dissected, resulting in 16 irregular plots. This unusual masterplan became a tool for coordinating the eight different practices designing buildings for the site, encouraging eclecticism and providing the framework for — as Corlett put it — ‘road tested constraints.’ These largely concerned keeping the price down, essential to the ultimate aim of providing creatives with affordable workspace.

This cutting up of the site also allowed for a variety of spaces between the buildings, described by Corlett as taking inspiration from ‘the medieval plan.’ This included the central square, its scale informed by that of London's Royal Academy, as well as a series of informal courtyards: ‘Somewhere you can paint the canoe.’

Returning to urban design and the idea of ‘taking stock from the past,’ Burrill posed the question: How do you create authenticity from scratch? In response, Corlett referred to Kaunas in Lithuanian (an upcoming European City of Culture) to describe how, within the part of the city constructed around a Soviet grid, one can encounter buildings from many different periods, including some ‘incredible modernist buildings … not formatted by a masterplan.’ It is the variety that gives a new place the feeling of an organic city.

Further pointers came from London itself — described by Corlett as ‘a city to get lost in’ — and some even more surprising sources, including Ray and Charles Eames' House of Cards game, paintings by Monet, misshapen vegetables and iconic claymation character, Morph — examples of ‘the beauty in the accident.’

Corlett wrapped up the conversation speaking about a couple of her practice’s other projects — Baghdad’s new parliamentary building and their Mayfair Neighbourhood Plan — as well as her teaching at The Bartlett. She addressed a topic on many people's minds: architecture’s ‘rightly received criticism for [its elitistism] in terms of the socio-economic, racial and gender mix.’ Positive change is happening however, with the introduction of The Bartlett’s Promise Scholarships for students from underrepresented backgrounds. As Corlett stated, it’s important to ask: ‘Who isn't getting into the industry because it's a long education and expensive?’

The next Meet the Design District Architects event will be on Friday, 19 June with Tom Emerson, Co-Founder of 6A Architects. Book now.