It follows all the Urban Renaissance precepts, yet this scheme is as grim as the 80s Docklands that Rogers was reacting against, says Owen Hatherley
Battersea will jennings.
Source: Will Jennings
If you walk along the Thames between Pimlico and Chelsea today, you’ll find something strange: Battersea Power Station has almost disappeared. This gargantuan building, which towered over this part of London for 80 years, is dwarfed, pinched and tucked in by the new apartments that have sprouted up around it. What is happening to the Thames looks increasingly like satire, some sort of activist’s hoarding about the dangers of overdevelopment: ‘they couldn’t possibly really do that, could they?’ Well, they have. And, curiously, as a Guardian report on ‘ghost towers’ suggests, it’s not selling; ‘New London’ is broken.
This might just be the end of an era in London, the point where the new city that has been built along the Thames since the end of the 1990s finally stops; not just because there’s no bit of riverbank left to fill, but because the results are so grotesque they can no longer be ignored or waved away with talk of progress, coffee and section 106 agreements.
Whereas many of the luxury riverside developments have been on industrial wastes, here, it is happening around one of the most recognisable buildings in London
This is where it ends; developers offering cars to investors as incentives to buy flats in what were once meant to be pedestrian-based walkable cities, with empty private cinemas in barely occupied towers, and with what one estate agent describes as ‘empty rooftop bars with no one living at home to buy drinks at them’.
And, whereas many of the luxury riverside developments have been on industrial wastes with few landmarks, here, it is happening around one of the most recognisable and best-loved buildings in London, suffocating it with utterly useless, barely inhabited luxury living solutions, in a city where homelessness has got to the point you can barely move now without walking past people sleeping rough. It is genuinely dystopian. How did things get this bad?
Something of the generic nature of the Linear City that has been built along the Thames in the past 20 years can be garnered from the name given to the new ‘opportunity area’ of which Battersea is the centrepiece – VNEB, short for Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea. The ruthlessly overdeveloped nature of this new district, devoid of planning, intelligence or character, is a genuine nadir.
As always, the politics of it aren’t hard to spot. There have been a dozen or so proposals for the Power Station site, from architects, developers, campaigners and fantasists – it’s telling that the one that finally got built was the first to be based solely on the extraction of maximum profit from the difficult site.
Labour councils in, say, Newham or Southwark have let terrible things happen (encouraged them, in many cases), in the similarly vast ex-industrial lands they’ve redeveloped at Bankside and the Lea Valley, but they do have public things to show for it: a Tate Modern, a new swimming pool, a new park.
Conservative Wandsworth Council’s oversight of this area, though, is pure laissez-faire. It’s a huge new commuter suburb in the centre of the city, a tangle of superfluous skyscrapers around parodies of public spaces, all shunning the council estates and light industry clinging on nearby. Instead of a heart, VNEB has a heavy-security US embassy with a moat around it.
Among the more prominent parts of VNEB is Rogers Stirk Harbour’s high-rise cluster, Riverlight. This is the final banalisation of the dreams Rogers and his New Labour friends once had for a ‘New London’ along the Thames, where a drizzly Barcelona would emerge on the wharves and sheds of an ex-industrial river, with coffee and culture and apartment living.
There was nothing wrong with those things per se; there still isn’t. What VNEB reveals is the foolishness of assuming changes in architecture could themselves be a reform, as opposed to changes in the ownership of land and the laws in planning. We now have a place that follows all the Urban Renaissance precepts that is easily as grim as the 80s Docklands that Rogers was reacting against. ‘New London’ is, finally, dead.
This article appears in the Homes issue – click here to buy a copy