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Pipedreams in Battersea

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The US embassy brouhaha can be looked at in two ways: as a spat between two countries and their differing architectural cultures, or as part of a time-honoured process whereby London’s north bank shifts its problems and its detritus over the river onto the poor, long-suffering south bank.

The cultural issues are not perhaps so absorbing. Following a thirty-year period from 1945 when American architecture led the world, its reputation has since declined. Almost all American buildings are better built than ours, but too many have become bland, safe and stodgy. The dull, all-American competition shortlist made it near certain that London would get something lacking in freshness or charm. Despite its flashy glass walls, the Kieran Timberlake scheme has exactly this quality of ponderousness. A solemn glass cube sits plonked on a pond within a garden, backed by a further pack of reverent glass attendees. The present Saarinen embassy has the same unappealing monumentality, but at least it respects the scale of Grosvenor Square. The Nine Elms scheme is vaster and pays no heed at all to context, though the views back across the Thames may be pleasant.

‘What context?’ you may ask. Certainly there are few sorrier places in London than the stretch of Nine Elms between Vauxhall Cross and the derelict Battersea Power Station. The district has been raped repeatedly, first by industry and the railways, then after the war by scruffy warehousing and the raw and wasteful buildings put up when Covent Garden Market was kicked out of central London.

The US embassy scheme is just part of a third attempt to do something about Nine Elms. But again the opportunity looks like being lost. At a recent seminar on the area, the men in suits were out in force, crying opportunity. ‘Nine Elms is part of central London’ was their watchword. Translation: we’ll rape it again. There are several enormous projects in the pipeline at the moment, every one ominous. The most recent scheme for the beleaguered power station is greedier than any predecessor, and as likely to fail. It relies on an extension of the Northern Line through from Kennington, which in the present state of the public finances is a pipedream. Another large project that’s been proposed is the reconstruction of the market. It’s a reasonable aspiration, but the market authority will have to do far better than the power station developers and the Americans if Nine Elms is to become anything like a decent place.

What is missing, of course, is planning. In theory there’s a plan for Nine Elms, but it amounts to little more than knitting the various disparate developments together with some guidelines about pedestrian routes and building heights. The local authority is Wandsworth, gung ho for development, so that is only to be expected. A proper plan would start from scratch and try, patiently and modestly, to build up a true community in Nine Elms. Who might be best equipped to do that? Possibly an American, perhaps one of the skilful ‘new urbanist’ planners like Andrés Duany.

One good thing about the embassy project is that Londoners will get Grosvenor Square back. The hostile, unsightly barriers will go, and the little streets behind the Saarinen embassy will come back to life. But all that is on the North Bank. Not many pigs fly in Nine Elms.

Comments on “Pipedreams in Battersea”

  1. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I don’t like architecture or any art being used for jingoistic ends, but since we’re talking about the US embassy maybe an exception has to be made here. Although it may not “lead the world” America has some designers (Mayne , Moss, Meier, Gehry, Raimond Abraham, Scofidio & Diller, Stephen Holl, Liebeskind, Tschumi, to name a few) as good as any on the planet, as well as some of the world’s best theorists teaching in its architecture schools (Britons Ken Frampton & Tony Vidler come to mind). I can’t think of another country–even Japan, and certainly not Britain–that has a comparable number of good designers at its disposal.

    Despite the presence of Frampton, you’re quite mistaken if you think that the general quality of construction is higher in the US. What gets built is mostly absolute rubbish, dictated by space planners and developers: facades of silicone-joined brick curtain walls, mirror glass and exposed concrete floor slabs. In my experience, European architects have much more opportunity to build well.

    My opinion, therefore, is that the jury chose a crap proposal when a good one was apparently available (namely Thom Mayne’s), and that the Kieran Timberlake glass facade, when it’s designed in detail, is unlikely to be half as interesting as everyone is expecting.

    My question is: does London have to allow it to be built? Of course that part of the south bank ought to be properly planned, it comes as a shock to me that it hasn’t been. Yes, get Andrés Duany or Rem Koolhaas, the planner who probably knows London the best. I hope it happens. Like the aftermath of the destruction of New York’s Penn Station in the ‘sixties, it’s usually a disaster that galvanises people into action.

    It’s very nice to see an article by Andrew Saint here.

  2. Dunnock says:

    I’ve read the articles, looked at the pictures but it’s taken a while to crystallise my views on this building. Some dislike it because it’s American, some like it because it’s American and others don’t object to it if only to spite Ken Livingstone.

    Andrew Saint has it when he examines its scale and placement, and I got it when my own pen name for commenting on LRB blogs stared me in the face. Any bird-watcher will tell you of an affliction particularly suffered by the dunnock, a cuckoo in the nest. The cuckoo thrives while the dunnock survives the experience and its not worth straining a comparison too far, but at least when it’s full grown the cuckoo departs………….

  3. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Actually, there’s a piece of architectural vandalism going on in Moscow right now that’s a thousand times worse than anything the Americans are planning. It’s here, or if you don’t accept html, you can read about it at the excellent Hungarian blog riowang.blogspot.com

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