London Thatch
by James Kirk


The stark concrete exterior of many of London's postwar housing blocks could be made more attractive with thatching, proposes architecture student James Kirk (+ movie).

London Thatch by James Kirk

Kirk's University of Westminster graduation project presents an option for improving rather than demolishing the high-rise buildings by extending apartments outwards and creating a new thatched facade.

London Thatch by James Kirk

A phased development would minimise disruption to existing communities of residents, who Kirk says "don’t wish to move or be moved."

London Thatch by James Kirk

The plans also feature a school of thatching where residents could be trained in how to apply and repair the new exterior, using reeds sourced from constructed wetlands in the southeast of the city.

London Thatch by James Kirk

See more projects from this year's graduate shows »

The description below is from Kirk:

A film for my Masters in Architecture, University of Westminster in Design Studio 17.

A thatched approach for the redevelopment of London's postwar towers. London Thatch makes the case for alteration, extension and remodelling as opposed to demolition as an approach to reworking London’s ageing tower blocks. The approach that is proposed is specific to the site and context, though the attitude is proposed open enough to be repeated elsewhere.

London Thatch by James Kirk

London tower blocks are lively communities, with groups of residents who on the whole don’t wish to move or be moved. It is essential to remember this when designing for the renovation of the buildings that the residents live in. The proposals seek to achieve a maintained architecture which promotes a skilled method of construction and restores a skilled trade south London.

London Thatch by James Kirk

The project proposal is for a building that facilitates the modification of the existing towers, over time. The project allows for a phased redevelopment of the existing towers, providing on site temporary accommodation for families displaced by the construction process. The existing towers will be extended laterally, on a new structure, to increase the living space of the existing flats, and provide private outdoor amenity space for each, improving the quality and amount of space in each of the flats.

London Thatch by James Kirk

Alongside this, a school of Master Thatching is proposed, which will teach local residents a skilled, traditional construction method, the resources and students for which will be used to apply and maintain a new thatched facade for the existing towers. Local people who are in need of work will be able to gain skills, and maintain the existing built environment. The school will train students, maintain the buildings, and promote building using natural materials in the city.

London Thatch by James Kirk

Finally, a constructed wetland of reeds will provide the materials required for the new thatching industry in Bermondsey, as well as filtering and cleaning effluent from the towers before it is disposed of in the Thames, and creating a pleasant, diverse functional landscape around the estate, in the location of an underused outdoor amenity space.

Film by James Kirk
Music kindly lent with permission by Celer & Nicholas Szczepanik, from the album Here, For Now.

  • Rob

    Pretty, but Jeeeesus do you have any idea of the maintenance requirements for that amount of thatch?

  • mmmhhh

    Kind of pretty but that makes no sense at all.

  • Yeah and what about the risk of fire? Next

  • jack

    London Thatch by Prince Charles, soon to be appearing on the Shard and the Gherkin.

  • Chris

    Think this would use up the UK's entire reed bed capacity.

  • psg

    Is this a joke?

  • Adrian

    Very interesting but entirely impractical… imagine the weight of all that reed!

  • Woycester83

    Are you all retarded? This is a STUDENT project. It will never be build, but it is absolutely beautiful! Also it is really unique and no star architect spin-off. What more do you want from a university project? So just let your narrow minds open for a minute, stop thinking about building regulations and enjoy this project.

    Now go back to drawing toilet sink details for your Boss.

    • Chris

      As an Architectural student I find your comment demonstrates an ignorance towards Architectural tuition. Students should be taught to design buildings within the confines of economics and practicality. Yes it’s great to explore new concepts and solutions but only if the learnings of this can be applied when in-practice. Otherwise what has the student really taken away from the project? The workings of an outdated building material with an ever decreasing clientele base? Clearly this project is also interested in social housing; why then does the student choose a material that entirely contradicts the premise of affordable housing with one of the UK’s most expensive building materials?

      • Philip

        As an architectural student I find your comment demonstrates an ignorance towards architectural tuition. If you want economical and practical, build a box and don’t be an architect. You will never offer anything to the discourse of architecture if your only driving forces are such.

        Architecture is far more than what you have described. Where are the social, historical and political references? This building is a statement, and whether or not it can be built means nothing, architecture is not just being able to construct something in real life. The best architecture deals with ideas not economics and practicality.

    • Max

      Pretty funny.

  • Peter

    I’m all for exciting proposals from students proposing interesting alternatives and diverging options for the future. However this is beyond impractical. Fine create something fanciful and interesting, but this CJ Lim style of archi-fantasy doesn’t push the game forward. You seem to have ignored all architectural theory about a possible project. Where is the natural light? How would this even be built?

    Not even with some kind of advanced technology could this be feasible. It would absolutely stink. Have you ever smelt wet reed? Lovely in the countryside but would smell like a massive wet dog! I’m all for suspending reality for the sake of something interesting, but there has to be a boundary to that!

    Plus points: rendering is awesome!

  • Woycester83

    Reed roofs have been built in Germany for hundreds of years, and as far as I can see in the sections there are window openings planned. Anyway it’s a pointless discussion if you assume that every design must include all answers to how it will be constructed. From the Petersdom to the Mercedes Benz Museum nobody knew exactly how to construct the projects, but the designed challenged the planners to develeop new methods (not that I want to compare this project to the Petersdom).

  • Woycester83

    Also I don’t see the connection to CJ Lim.

  • Alice

    Of course a Graduation Project shouldn’t be restrained by technicalities but to say that students dont have to concern themselves with the construction of their projects is to educate “stupid” architects that will be silenced after 2m in any project meeting. Besides, why are we under this impression that to push architecture forward is to design fantastic buildings that we dont know how to construct?

    I think this video is absolutely beautiful but the idea is based on so many concepts that have tried and failed because its not that simple – concepts such as use of local materials for cheap and sustainable solutions, construction over time, maintenance by locals/residents – that makes me wonder how we are moving forward when we don’t learn with past experiences and understand the failures and promisses?

    Lacaton and Vassal have made a similar proposal for the suburbs of Paris but manage, in my opinion, to evolve it into a workable system that is much less dramatic, but much more effective… however lesson not learned!

  • LOW

    More like a hairy pagoda.

  • Rich

    It is irresponsible for any architecture student or their educational institution to propose something like this exterior decoration. I agree that these towers as built were very poorly executed misinterpretations of Corbu's original concept housing towers and I also agree that they should not be wasted by tearing them down. In the hands of BIG, ELEMENTAL (Alejandro Aravena) or REX I'm sure that a viable use can be found that improves the quality of life and is sustainable. I think the best designs emerge from the toughest challenges so this proposal has not really provided this student with a very valuable education…. except as a renderer and I agree with Peter (above) that he has excelled at that. To be fair it would be good to see what his classmates presented.

  • Hello everyone, thanks for all your comments. Many if not all of the issues you have brought up have been considered in the development of the project, and are covered in more detail in my technical and strategic report available on my website. The work shown here is of course not a complete representation of all of my year’s study.


    P.S. you will soon be able to see other student’s work, from my studio on the studio blog that’s being put together. I’ll update this when it’s complete.

  • Callum


    You are by far, too generous. If you find the environment at home to be stifling, we need you in Australia.

  • I am truly saddened by these negative comments, creativity at this level should be celebrated! This concept is magical! Architecture like this amongst the metropolis of buildings that make up London would be absolutely awe-inspiring.

    Go back to your dull, ultra-functional lives and let the creatives be!

  • Nick

    In fairness I’d have to agree that this proposal doesn’t make sense. The “how” is relatively important and I’m sure James has addressed this sufficiently. It’d be possible to do I’m sure. However the central issue is that the “why” hasn’t been addressed. Do we need to reclad these towers at all? And if we do, would such an expensive material (in terms of extra structure, labour and maintenance) be the right choice? Don’t get me wrong – a single, new, thatched tower might be great (if MVDRV or FAT do one everyone will call them geniuses) – but as a new style for widespread application it doesn’t work.

    However we should remember that this is a Part I project. I certainly wasn’t pulling up trees at that point of my education. The graphics created and open-mindedness should be applauded. I expect James will get a great job at a top practice if nothing else for the level of effort put into this work. I’m just not sure Dezeen were right to feature it.

  • Bob

    It's a staggering piece of work by someone who is brave enough to let their fertile imagination off the leash and venture into territory no-one else would dare. That's a very rare talent and will inevitably upset many. Fantastic!

  • More attractive with thatching, agreed. Next world issue.

  • James

    A masters thesis? Pie in the sky. I think in first year I did this same concept, as a joke; we all had a good laugh at the time.

  • Colin

    Water reeds are not the only thatching material that could work. Older heritage varieties of cereal, which are generally much healthier than the more modern varieties (although yield less) have long, tall straws which, if harvested correctly, make ideal thatch material in many circumstances. These are very much in vogue at the moment and hopefully will be in the future.

    If heritage grains become more commonly grown, then the cost of thatching straw could drop significantly and one day make this kind of project viable. Hats off to James. The more thinking like this the better!

  • Kevin

    As a piece of student work I think this is fantastic. The how and why may be explored in further detail, which is great, but in my view the primary focus of university for architects is about imagination and learning to develop a real sense of valuable identity through your imagination.

    For many university is the last platform from which they will have the freedom to let their imagination soar and hopefully they will learn a way of thinking that you don’t have the opportunity to learn in practice. A way of thinking that will make them stand out an be able to take a strong sense of identity forward. There is a huge gap between university and practice and they should NOT be compared. Often schools that pride themselves on detailing do so because it’s the default position when you cannot compete with the creativity of schools like Westminster, the Bartlett and the AA.

    There are many skills that any graduate doesn’t have but you have the rest of your career to learn about budget, programme and buildability. The platform of university affords conditions that should not be wasted by working to the confines of practice pragmatics.

    I am a firm believer that imagination is far greater than knowledge and even more so in modern times with an internet of information available literally at your fingertips.

    The problem with architecture today is the quality of architecture schools. Many are willing to pass students who have very low standards and have developed very basic schemes with little or no imagination – just to keep fee-payers on courses.

    James has done a first class job with many valuable skills and a very distinct style and I am sure he will go on to have a very fruitful career.