When the artist Canaletto moved from Venice to London in 1746, he began portraying the Thames as a kind of northern version of his home city.
The broad sweep of the river became a Grand Canal, the barges that crowded it became gondolas and the palaces that lined the waterfront glistened in the sun. Above it all loomed the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, completed only a few decades earlier but already a seemingly eternal presence on the skyline.
The city Canaletto portrayed – or perhaps occasionally imagined – revolved around its river. It was a port city, a liquid city whose main artery was the Thames, which brought ships from its colonies, transported prisoners and mayors, and sustained fishermen and ferrymen.
As the scale of trade increased, the banks of the river became dotted with secure, bonded warehouses, docks and factories. Yet fearful of looting, the businesses locked themselves away, taking the waterfront with them so that over the course of the next two centuries the city was deprived of the Thames and it was glimpsed only from its bridges, seen as an obstacle rather than an asset.
The reintegration of the river into the city, which has been made possible by the migration of industry and the docks, presented the greatest opportunity for a reimagination of London since the Blitz. Yet it is an opportunity that has been utterly and painfully wasted.
From the beginnings of the riverside revival, with the Docklands projects in the early 1980s, the signs were bad. This huge section of the city was redeveloped with no real idea of how it should look, what kind of infrastructure there might be or how existing streets and estates could be woven back into some kind of coherent urban fabric.
The result was a piecemeal series of largely low-rise buildings that inhibit rather than celebrate the waterfront. The exception was Canary Wharf, where real money was spent but the result was a bankers’ ghetto, an island of imported North American high rise in the midst of some of the city’s most deprived boroughs.
This disparity set the scene for what was to come. The towers that now line the Thames tell a story of luxury housing, disconnected from the urban fabric.
No place better illustrates the astonishing lack of planning or any sense of a bigger picture than the south bank of the Thames between Wandsworth and Vauxhall. It could be the metaphor for the city itself: a series of ad hoc developments, none of them relating to anything on either side; each conceived as a standalone project. These are buildings aimed squarely at buy-to-let investors for rent to the wealthier classes.
This former industrial stretch of Thameside was a potential gift to the city, a chance to reimagine the waterfront and reintegrate it into a south London that retains an extraordinary social mix.
The opportunity has been wasted. Emerge from Vauxhall station and you see the extraordinary St George Wharf and its fag-end attendant tower. How, you might ask, in a city that prides itself as home to some of the world’s greatest architects and designers, did this happen?
If you walk west a little you come across the massive building sites from which is emerging endless luxury housing, ranks of straggling towers that do nothing, and then, at their centre, the building emblematic of the problems, the US embassy.
Surpassing even the most luxurious of luxury housing, this building, designed by Kieran Timberlake actually has a moat around it. Could you find a better metaphor?
Then there is the hulk of Battersea power station, soon to be squeezed by a massive redevelopment that, though it might eventually contain some interesting buildings (the developers here have made an effort, hiring Foster and Partners, Frank Gehry and some good young architects), suffers from an inherently faulty master plan – at the heart of which is the perennial problem of the massive building itself, presenting both opportunity and handicap.
The high-tech steel and glass architectural language in which all these new buildings are expressed is intended to make the most of views. Yet in importing the tropes of a commercial architecture intended to last for a quarter of a century or more, it instead results in a cold, alienated landscape, free of texture and grain, free of anything that might anchor it in the city.
Developments are conceived as objects – there are no streets or lanes, just impenetrable superblocks separating the river from the city. But most of all, they turn the river into a ghetto – exactly the kind of residential monoculture we should have learnt to avoid after the low points of modernist planning.
A boat trip down almost any part of London’s river is a shock. The architecture is appalling. Dim, anonymous, globalised and formulaic, it could be anywhere – but no other western European capital would allow anything of this paucity of quality.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the South Bank at Waterloo was conceived as a space for culture and experimentation, it became the site of the radical temporary architecture of the Festival of Britain and the utopian modernism of everything from the Festival Hall to the brutalist Hayward Gallery. It was recaptured for the public.
Tate Modern was the last gasp of this era. Now, the river is being returned to private ownership, monopolised by a layer of dwellings for the wealthy.
The result is a sterile landscape of investment without connection. It is a grim indictment of a city that seems entirely to lack a vision of what it wants to be.