Generating change: London's Nine Elms

3 January 2014

The world’s leading architects are lining up, as the largest redevelopment site in Europe gets under way in London. But, with dozens of separate projects and a deeply contested legacy of urban regeneration, will the city’s latest transformational story live up to the billing? Philip Kleinfeld speaks to the architects, developers and planners remaking London’s Nine Elms district.

The train journey into London's Victoria station is a strangely exhilarating experience. Just a stone's throw from the city centre, commuters are suddenly presented with the towering, cracked smokestacks of Battersea power station, a meditative art-deco hulk in a landscape of low-rise industrial arcana.

That this could happen within London's core activity zone is as empowering as it is baffling - a victory for the unplanned wonders of city living, the chaos and the whimsy that great master plans so often erase.

But, in a city as mutable as London, chaos can't last forever. In Battersea, things are changing. Soon, the power station - that great smorgasbord of pop culture and municipal socialism - will be flanked by five pristine apartment blocks, new riverside icons designed by the great celebrities of modern architecture - Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Terry Farrell among the names already announced.

"For an area of such monumental scale, the site and its discourse remain almost entirely uncontested."

Around the old hulk, tucked in between Chelsea and Lambeth bridge, 25 other development sites will slowly crop up; a cluster of impossibly glossy riverside towers, an ultra-modern sugar-cubed American Embassy, a new High Line-like Linear Park, a revamped New Covent Garden Market and endless rows of cafes, bars, clubs and eateries.

This is, according to the curious patois of commercial development, London's "great transformational story", the reformation of its last remaining "blank canvas", a post-industrial landscape of strange visual beauty
and unrealised corporate ambition.

Remaking London

There are two things about London's Nine Elms development, which, in the context of modern regeneration, seem particularly striking. One is that, for an area of such monumental scale, the site and its discourse remain almost entirely uncontested; the other is that, for all the talk of decline and opportunity, it didn't happen sooner.

Though Nine Elms is the largest redevelopment in London since the Docklands, schemes of this kind have been emerging throughout the UK since the late 1990s. After a long period of suburbanisation, the UK switched its interest from out-of-town retail parks to state-led inner-city regeneration, targeting areas of deprivation and disuse left behind in the shift to a service economy.

The transformation of Nine Elms is, in many ways, the swansong of this kind of regenerative practice, the final piece in a jigsaw that has seen vast tracts of inner-city land brought into the commodity sphere; Kings Cross, Elephant and Castle, Earls Court, Shoreditch, Hackney Wick and Paddington have all gone through various forms of highly contested renewal. Now it's Battersea's turn.

Two things holding back earlier redevelopment were its designated land-use and total lack of public infrastructure. The first problem was solved with the 2008 London Plan, which put forward 28 separate opportunity areas for the Vauxhall-Nine Elms-Battersea region and lifted the area's classification as a strategic industrial location.

The second was resolved with the introduction of a tax increment finance scheme - borrowed from the US - to cover the costs of infrastructure in the absence of direct government subsidy. Though Vauxhall has a functioning station, the Battersea area remains totally unprepared to deal with any kind of regeneration.

By allowing local authorities to borrow against the anticipation of higher tax revenues, London is expected to have its first privately funded underground station. All it needs now is a flood of inbound commerce.

"We lobbied hard to have the area marked as a central activity zone," says Fiona Fletcher Smith, executive director of development at the Greater London Authority. "And we achieved it. It was extremely important to us that Nine Elms has a commercial element, not only for the vibrancy of the area but also because we are paying for the Northern Line extension from business rate uplift."

Loose-tight governance

Creating some semblance of architectural coherence in a scheme with so many different landowners seems like an almost impossible task. While Nine Elms is better organised than commonly understood - there is an informal partnership board with multisectoral working groups - it's not clear enoughs is being done to make sure there is a cumulative sense of how the place might actually look.

In the end, it was left to the UK's built environment quango - CABE at The Design Council - to voluntarily gather the developers and architects together at two separate workshops. Various design criticisms were put forward around the quality of the park and the impact of high-density on place, but the issue of consistency seems to have provoked some level of hostility.

"I think we'd need to question what architecturally coherent actually means," says Thomas Bender, leader adviser at CABE. "The urban character of European cities is made up from different identities, neighbourhoods and quarters, and different styles of buildings, eras and materials. That is what we admire and find charming; in a way we welcome the diversity."

Whether it actually emerges remains to be seen. John Letherland, lead architect at Terry Farrell and Partners, who masterplanned the Nine Elms area, has expressed reservations about the homogeneity of the existing plans.

"There's an awful lot of identical products," he says. "A lot of the properties are the same, most are apartments in tall buildings. I think developers will start to diversify when they realise that they can't actually put this amount of monocultural product on the market at the same time."

At the cluster of development sites around Vauxuall, high-density will invariably mean high-rise. Back in March, Lambeth Council approved plans for Foster and Partners' three new mixed-use towers on the Albert Embankment. Then, in June, Chinese conglomerate, Dalian Wanda Group snapped up the One Nine Elms site from Green Property Group, which put forward its plans for two new riverside skyscrapers.

Add this to the almost completed Vauxhall Tower and the much maligned residential complex at St George's Wharf, and you have the beginnings of what architecture critic Rowan Moore has called a "mini Dubai"; a battery of semihomogenous "iconic" glass towers stretching along the River Thames.

English Heritage has raised some serious concerns about this process. From Waterloo Bridge in particular, the bundle of towers at Nine Elms will rise above the tallest part of Westminster palace, permanently changing the way Westminster is perceived. The clustered approach was only mooted after Rafael Vinoly's eco tower - a key feature of the original Battersea power station plans - was pictured spoiling views of the Westminster world heritage site.

So, what about Nine Elms itself? The issue of how these buildings, and the others around it, use and shape the industrial heritage of the area - the old gasholders site, the rail arches, the estates and warehouses, the much loved Battersea Cats and Dogs Home and, of course, the power station - throws up much wider questions about how architects and planners think about post-industrial landscapes.

Much fuss has been made about the UK's so-called Gritty Brits, a generation of young East-End architects interested in the aesthetics of urban degradation and the recycling of ex-industrial landscapes. But, what kind of interest are we seeing at Nine Elms amid the gloss and sheen of its luxury developments?

"Some people say that an area like Nine Elms doesn't have as rich a history or cultural context as other parts of London, but that's not true," Letherland says. "We always said that the development of the area around Nine Elms, Battersea and Vauxhall was the rediscovery of the entire Southbank."

At the Embassy Gardens site - masterplanned by Terry Farrell and Partners - Letherland has made reference to various aspects of the existing landscape.

"Battersea power station is the linchpin of this industrial heritage, a flashpoint for local struggles, and a curse to the numerous developers that have tried and failed to commodify it."

"There were huge railway sidings in the area, which we recorded in the landscape," he says. "We've reused some of the old street names in the layout of the new ones. Of course, there were great assets that were lost but, on the other hand, there were buildings like the power station that translate wonderfully well into other uses. We've seen that at the three big power stations in London - Battersea, the Tate and Lots Road."

What Embassy Gardens offers in terms of historical reference, the new American Embassy - with its ambition to "reflect the values of the American people" - will presumably lack. After years of servility to the Grosvenor estate, the US will move into Kieran Timberlake's 12-storey carbon-neutral sugar-cube - not quite a public space, but less 'Checkpoint Charlie' than the site it leaves behind.

London's powerhouse

Battersea power station is, of course, the linchpin of this industrial heritage, a flashpoint for local struggles, and a curse to the numerous developers that have tried and failed to commodify it.

That it will stand at all is something of an achievement given the rather dubious intentions many of its developers are thought to have had. The site, now owned by Malaysian investment group, Treasury Holdings - itself indicative of a city no longer owned by its inhabitants - will be turned into a mixture of residential flats, restaurants, and a shopping centre in one of the two turbine halls. Around the power station two new residential zones will be designed under the guidance of Rafael Viñoly, one by Norman Foster, another by Frank Gehry.

"It will become a metropolitan town centre with a huge variety of different uses,'" says Helen Fischer, programme director at Nine Elms.

Though huge elements of the initial structure are retained, perhaps its most impressive aspect is being removed. After years of decay, the iconic, apparently unstable smokestacks are being torn down, replicated and replaced under the guidance and complicity of English Heritage. Treasury Holdings insists this has to happen, but assessments from independent engineers suggest this isn't the case.

"Life has to move on," says Fletcher-Smith. "Why would we preserve? The stacks will be taken down, made safe, and rebuilt."
Public realm

Tying everything together from the power station to Vauxhall Cross is the Linear Park, a long slither of public-private realm based, in part, on the New York High Line.

"It's called a park, but it isn't one in the traditional sense of the word," Letherland says. "It was a way of connecting the different sites with a pedestrian-dominant public realm. Each developer owns a portion of it and will deliver their own piece."

The park features heavily in the Nine Elms marketing campaign as an indication of future place and as a landscape that offers something the rest of the site lacks - access to ordinary people. The park may be a medley of private owners, but it offers a semblance of continuity and a promise for at least some level of, albeit, engineered community.

"We could be in danger of pulling off something fairly soulless," Fischer admits. "This is why we've worked so hard with developers on the park."

In the end, it's hard to find a real sense of place buried beneath the renderings and blueprints, the maps and models, the endless marketing slogans and the unnerving optimism of public sector workers and commercial developers. But they're right about one thing, Nine Elms isn't just a stretch of the Southbank - it's a monument of a city's past, a place that's regeneration will, in one way or another, transform London.

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