You can’t help but feel optimistic when you step out of Vauxhall station, that some small modicum of the gushing Nine Elms slogan – “the greatest transformational story in the world’s greatest city” – might actually be true. Not because the blueprints for London’s biggest urban redevelopment inspire any great confidence – but because it doesn’t look like it can get much worse.
Immediately opposite the station, across Vauxhall’s maligned gyratory, is St George Wharf, a hideously oppressive waterside development and a deserved nominee for British architecture’s first annual carbuncle cup back in 2006.
To its left is another legacy of architectural silliness – the incongruously conspicuous MI6 building – known not so fondly as Legoland for its unmistakable resemblance to an ancient Babylonian ziggurat.
The Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area (VNEB), as it’s plainly known, is the latest, most dramatic addition to this clumsy urban legacy; an attempt to rescue a vast sweep of London’s industrial past from years of neglect and decline.
The plans certainly look bold. 18,000 new homes have been promised with up to 25,000 new jobs. There’s an extension to the Northern Line, a new sugar-cubed embassy for America’s diplomats and a long, linear park in the style of the New York High Line to stitch the area together.
But what about the past? The Nine Elms PR team has been quick to use the idea of heritage – something lost on most journalists that have described the area as a blank canvas – but it’s hard to find much concrete appreciation for the residues of London’s industrial history in any of the developer’s plans.
This may sound unconstructive. Fetishising the memories of old London can be deeply reactionary when it works at the expense of anything new. But the approach from the developers and architects involved in Nine Elms has been clumsy at best.
Nowhere is this more evident than the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station, one of few buildings along the Thames that had, until now, managed to resist the recent influx of luxury flats.
The building’s current owners have positioned the development as the commercial heart of the entire Nine Elms project, with a kitsch marketing campaign focused on the importance of “renovation”. But this seems suspect. Not only do the core plans feature a shopping mall and luxury pent-houses – but last year the World Monument Fund listed the building as “at risk” despite reassurances from the developers.
It seems somehow fitting that a building described by historian Gavin Stamp as “one of the supreme monuments of twentieth century Britain” should find its “saviour” in an obscure consortium of investors - one of whom, Sime Darby, has faced accusations of illegal logging in Indonesia and land grabs in Liberia. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t feature in any of the project’s cutesy PR campaigns, or on the company’s website – which pitches the Station as “a real estate investment opportunity of a lifetime”.
Of course nobody wants the station to remain as it currently is – a disused and decaying asset for speculative real estate. But both the plans and the owners represent the Nine Elms development at its most disappointing and decontextualised; an era of London’s past reduced to a pitch in a glossy brochure, its insides stuffed with overpriced, luxury flats and a giant shopping mall. When I spoke to Keith Garner, an architect and activist, with the Battersea Power Station Community Group, this sense of loss and anger was palpable.
“The problem is that nothing that makes the power station special – its architecture, its engineering and its land-mark status will survive,” he told me. “It could have been bought for the people of London, transferred to a trust to be repaired using funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund.”
Part of the building’s monumentality comes from the emptiness around it, the stark juxtaposition of a low-lying townscape with a gigantic art-deco hulk. But this isn’t something the developers are particularly interested in recognising – not wanting to miss out on the value of building flats on the land around it.
“It’s a sensational urban landmark but monumentality is relative to particular settings.” Garner says. “By surrounding the building with 18 storey blocks the dramatic experience of seeing the Power Station from the road, rail and from gaps in the landscape is gone. Its presence in the landscape of London is taken away.”
It seems rather fitting that Frank Ghery, an architect of international fame has been chosen to build some of the surrounding flats. Known for his deconstructivist icons in Bilbao, Los Angeles, and Prague, a Ghery building is, by design, rarely upstaged. Of course the 79 year old is unlikely to be too moved by this critique. When objections to his icons were raised in Hove – the response was pretty resounding. “People can fuck off," he said.
As well as being disconnected from Nine Elms’ industrial heritage, the smokestacks that give the building the unique appearance of an inverted table are also set to go. The previous developer, Parkview, had claimed the chimneys were beyond repair back in 2005. But an engineering report by the Battersea Power Station Community Group suggests the opposite.
The chimneys, they argued, could be repaired more cheaply and much quicker than the cost of installing new ones. I put this to Fiona Fletcher Smith, executive director of development at the Greater London Authority but she seemed strangely nonplussed. “We’re happy that this represents excellent conservation,” she said. “Why would we preserve? Life has to move on.”
The owners of Battersea Power Station have also received planning permission to destroy a grade II listed Victorian Pump House built in 1850. And according to another report by the Battersea Power Station Community Group the famous cranes, once used to unload coal from the river, are also likely to be removed.
Even more demolitions are set for the National Grid site where four gas holders currently stand. This is, as Garner points out, a massive shame. In Oberhausen, a town in West Germany, an historically valuable gasometer has been successfully converted into a locally-owned exhibition space.
These examples may be specific to London but they point to a much wider problem in the way cities are managed and planned. Councils seem perfectly happy to see private interests direct the course of historically interesting places – despite the obvious contradictions that arise between maximising value and conserving heritage.
In the end much of the physicality and history of the region will be left to a series of empty architectural gestures. When I spoke to John Letherland, a partner at Farell’s who masterplanned the entire area, the best I got in terms of conservation was the recycling of old street signs.
“There were things in the landscape that we were making references to, he said. “For example there were huge railway sidings in the area which we were recording in the landscape. And we were re-using some of the former street names in the layout of the new ones.”
None of this would be so objectionable if it wasn’t for the inevitable exclusivity of the new Nine Elms “community”. London is, like many places, a city with a chronic housing crisis: rising private sector rents, huge council waiting lists and a government determined to make things worse through a combination of welfare cuts and right to buy.
In Wandsworth over 23,000 people are on the council’s social housing waiting list with many in the private rented sector depend on housing benefit to keep up rent. In Lambeth, things are even worse. Over 41,000 people are currently sitting on the waiting list.
Mass, genuinely affordable council housing is needed to solve this and yet with Nine Elms – as with all recent regeneration schemes – “affordability” is offered only as an afterthought. In Wandsworth Council – where most of the development is going ahead - only 15 per cent of the new houses will be “affordable” – far less than was originally promised.
Nor will rising land values on the back of the development make things any better. Estate Agent Knight Frank have estimated that property prices in the area will rise by 140 per cent between 2011 and 2016 – the highest of anywhere in the UK.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise. Both Lambeth and Wandsworth Council have gained a reputation for kicking out their constituents. Lambeth, the so-called cooperative council, has been busy evicting short-life tenants from houses they’d occupied for decades. Earlier on in 2013 the council made 75 people homeless by evicting squatters from Rushcroft Road and denying them recourse to legal aid.
The issue of social cleansing may not be as critical at Nine Elms as other parts of London. But in the context of recent regeneration, the plans remain entirely typical; lots of tall buildings with luxury housing, lots of ground level shops and active frontages, all justified by a dubious discourse of “inclusion”, “affordability” and “diversity”.
But for all the social democratic bluster this remains yet another example of urban regeneration in the neoliberal city; exclusive, insensitive and architecturally uninspiring. James Meek recently asked in the London Review of Books – Where Will We Live? I think most Londoners can safely cross Nine Elms off the list.
Philip Kleinfeld is a writer based in London. He is on Twitter @PKleinfeld.