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.