Approaching Canary Wharf on the diminutive Docklands Light Railway has always felt a bit like stepping out of a toy train into the high-rise fantasy world of Gotham City. But from its inception in 1991 to the early 21st century, the common perception of the area has tended to be that of a soulless financial bastion, humming with high-stakes dealings by day, all but deserted by night.

Visit today, and you can see Canary Wharf is transforming. It’s a metamorphosis encapsulated by the dazzling new Elizabeth line service, which means that 17 minutes after boarding a train at Paddington you alight at the capacious new station floating on the water in West India Dock. Designed by Foster + Partners, the building has been conceived “to mediate between the adjoining worlds of Canary Wharf and the local community” and it immediately makes you feel as though you are approaching east London on more visitor-friendly terms.

High-rise buildings on the 97-acre estate 
High-rise buildings on the 97-acre estate  © Valérie Sadoun

Riding the escalator past the new restaurants of Crossrail Place up to Level One, you’ll enter the free-to-visit top-floor roof garden, which has been open since 2015 but still feels like a secret unknown to most. This urban haven sits almost exactly on the Meridian line and the planting is arranged according to which hemisphere the plants are from, the Americas to the west and Asia to the east. 

Canary Wharf’s transformation has been in part an attempt to redress criticisms that the area promoted city ambitions at the expense of the local community, who were largely ignored by the area’s original expansion. Gardens and green spaces are an essential component of the strategy as the 97-acre estate moves towards residential as opposed to just commercial occupancy. A swathe of new high-rise buildings, comprising more than 4,000 homes, have either already opened or are under construction. At the same time a support system of shops, restaurants, cafés, schools and other waterside amenities has grown alongside.

Many might assume that the Canary Wharf Group, which is spearheading these changes, has been compelled to shift its focus to residential property to compensate for the number of financial services workers who have deserted their desks since the pandemic began. But the residential development has been more than 10 years in the planning, dating back to January 2012 when Canary Wharf Group PLC purchased a 250-year lease on Wood Wharf, 23 acres of reclaimed land on the south-western edges of the estate. 

Electro-Rainbow, 2022, by Lothar Götz in Crossrail Place
Electro-Rainbow, 2022, by Lothar Götz in Crossrail Place © Valérie Sadoun
The botanical roof garden at Crossrail Place
The botanical roof garden at Crossrail Place © Valérie Sadoun

The buildings that have since been constructed include One Park Drive, a 58-storey skyscraper designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron with a distinctive cylindrical form. Its 484 apartments are all for sale, with prices ranging from £710,000 for a studio up to £1.8mn for a three-bedroom flat. Surrounding it are the high-rise properties 10 George Street and 10 Park Drive and the contrastingly low-rise 8 Water Street and 8 Harbord Square, with its open-plan Manhattan loft-style apartments.

At 220m high, Newfoundland overlooking Middle Dock is the tallest build-to-rent apartment block in the UK. Designed by HCL Architects and opened last May, it is supported by a diamond-pattern steel exoskeleton and, in common with the other rental properties on the estate, is owned and managed by Vertus for the Canary Wharf Group. The sweetener here is the provision of hotel-style amenities: 24/7 concierge service, a co-working space and a private lounge complete with self-service wine dispensers, gym and a screening room that can be booked for film nights or sporting events. But the 180-degree panorama back up the Thames – from the Isle of Dogs towards the City and St Paul’s, with the Olympic Park at Stratford off to the east and Greenwich and the Thames Barrier visible in the distance – also goes a long way to answering any lingering questions as to why anyone would want to live here. 

Jubilee Plaza with Newfoundland beyond
Jubilee Plaza with Newfoundland beyond © Valérie Sadoun

Uber Boat by Thames Clippers calls regularly at the Canary Wharf landing stage, but at low tide in Limehouse, history reasserts itself as sandbars and spits are revealed and mudlarks search hopefully for buried treasure in the same waters where Charles Dickens set his final completed novel Our Mutual Friend. Canary Wharf’s contemporary elevated luxury may seem a long way from Victorian London’s old docks and wharves, but the most interesting aspect of the estate’s new image is its eagerness to embrace its heritage at the heart of what is hoped will be a green and sustainable environment.

The driving force behind the strategy is the Canary Wharf Group CEO, Shobi Khan, who succeeded Sir George Iacobescu in October 2019. The 57-year-old architect’s son from Baltimore studied molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and acquired an MBA from USC prior to embarking on a 30-year career in the real-estate industry. Khan’s suite of offices on the 30th floor at One Canada Square, where there is also a huge Lego-like model of the Canary Wharf Estate and spectacular wraparound views, would do justice to Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” in his 1987 satire The Bonfire of the Vanities. But in conversation Khan is softly spoken, thoughtful and clearly determined to change perceptions of “this extraordinary environment, and transform it both for people who want to work here and people who want to live here”. 

Tear, 2021, by Richard Hudson, on Jubilee Plaza
Tear, 2021, by Richard Hudson, on Jubilee Plaza © Valérie Sadoun

Khan wants the estate to “activate and engage with the local area” to create “a sense of wellbeing that will educate the marketplace and the office customer”. To do so, he’s entered into a partnership with Sir Tim Smit, co-founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall. As David Harland, chief executive of Eden Project International, puts it: “We are primed to work together not just to make Canary Wharf a greener place rich in biodiversity but also to share what we learn in order to bring nature back to other urban developments in the UK and across the globe.” Ideas include creative planting of native species that help wildlife to “connect people to the docks around the estate so they can experience the marine species we’ve encouraged back to the dockside”.  

Plans are already under way, designed by the architects Glenn Howells, for what Khan and Smit are calling a “green spine through the centre of the estate” not dissimilar to the Riverwalk in downtown Chicago. They involve constructing a “new podium and exit” outside the London Underground station in Jubilee Place to permit access for sports such as open-water swimming (which commenced in the heatwave this summer), kayaking and paddle-boarding. In tandem, new waterside cafés, restaurants, boardwalks, parks and art spaces will complement the estate’s collection of more than 100 works of public art – the biggest free outside collection in the UK. Khan insists that “depending on your affinity, we will have something here for you”, and expects that the first stage of the development will be up and running by the time of the Winter Lights Festival in January. 

Group CEO Shobi Khan in the Crossrail Place Roof Garden
Group CEO Shobi Khan in the Crossrail Place Roof Garden © Valérie Sadoun

The Canary Wharf Group is hoping to attract residents and new commercial tenants not just from financial services but also from life sciences, creative media, technology and telecoms. Among the new shops and restaurants that have already moved into Wood Wharf are the Italian food market Mercato Metropolitano, an Amazon Fresh and a new Hawksmoor, which has been built out on a pontoon over the water. A branch of Dishoom is also due to open at the end of this month. 

Emma Fletcher-Brewer, head of city and east new homes at Knight Frank, says the impact has been a rising demand for property in Canary Wharf. “Those renting there are often quick to convert into buyers – they see the investment potential of the area, which has really come alive, and are keen to get on the ladder as swiftly as possible.” Of the buildings for sale, One Park Drive is currently at 75 per cent occupancy and 10 Park Drive at 80 per cent, while all the buildings for rent from Vertus are wholly occupied. 

Back up in Shobi Khan’s offices in Canada Square there’s a fascinating collection of photographs – some in colour, some black and white – of Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs over the course of the past century. Images of grinning stevedores and dockers in the ’40s contrast with pictures of dereliction and decay 30 years later and there’s an atmospheric still from the 1980 film The Long Good Friday in which an East End gangster, played by Bob Hoskins, had ideas of his own about dockland reclamation. The photos are a reminder that this part of the city has witnessed scenes of great poverty and that some of the surrounding areas are still no strangers to deprivation. Khan is mindful of the disparity and says that the intention is that the estate’s future profile will include more apartment blocks offering “mid-market entry level with prices within the range of nurses, police officers and teachers”. With that end in mind, a new Mulberry primary school in Wood Wharf, an offshoot of the Mulberry School Trust in Shadwell (visited by Michelle Obama in 2015), opened this September. 

Khan believes that London is still a much more diverse city than most. “It really is the centre of the world,” he says. He also recognises that the opening of the Elizabeth line has been “a game changer” – and Canary Wharf is now only 45 minutes away from Heathrow. Will it further enhance the estate’s appeal? Watch this space. 

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