When Canaletto arrived in London in 1746, he seemed to segue effortlessly from views of the Grand Canal and the Lagoon in his native Venice to expansive and grand views of the Thames. London in the mid-18th century was a boom town. The banks of the river were lined by a mix of ad hoc tenements, wharves and palaces.
It was a city in flux, anchored by the great dome of St Paul’s and the spiky skyline of dozens of spires puncturing the horizon. That particular mix of church, wealth, trade and poverty defined the city’s horizon for centuries, a symbol of resilience as well as flexibility, hereditary power and the potential for the accumulation of wealth from a good idea.
In Canaletto’s day, further west along the river there was almost nothing, just a few villages and the occasional country house — and one landscape of real charm. In Vauxhall there was a pleasure garden. This enchanted park was the social space, a world that came to life at twilight, dotted with thousands of lanterns and with music wafting through the air. It was the city’s back garden, a place of display, consumption and sex.
Today that same site houses a weird mix of soot-stained railway arches, gruesome traffic junctions, the lumpy MI6 headquarters and a huge swath of what has become the Thames’ 21st-century vernacular, a landscape of glazed towers stacking apartments for investment.
Vauxhall and its neighbour Nine Elms are emblematic of a riverside where there is now only one option — luxury residential. What should be a mixed, magical piece of city embracing its vegetable and flower market, a buzzing gay scene, a lively Portuguese community and the remains of light industry is fast becoming a monoculture of the glass vitrines of asset apartments.
Spurred on by the construction of the new US embassy and the rebuilding of Battersea Power Station for residential use, the riverside is being changed, arguably, more dramatically than at any time in its history. But what, exactly, are we building — where is the plan? It is often asserted that London is a city that grows organically, dictated by the market rather than by dictators, but is the market capable of delivering real urbanity rather than a skyline of isolated objects and a streetscape of gated developments?
The US embassy is a standalone glass cube, a super-secure structure that has the river on one side and an actual, partial moat. It is the architecture of alienation.
Battersea Power Station, meanwhile, has long been one of the city’s saddest sights, a massive temple of power and industry that has been empty for as long as it was active and is increasingly looking like it should have been put out of its misery. Its walls, like brick cliffs, are being entombed in glass canyons of luxury residential blocks designed by Foster & Partners and Frank Gehry — global names commissioned to invigorate a project stalled for so long it became a joke.
The first impression of anyone approaching this chaotic landscape of disconnected towers must be one of bemusement. How has this anarchic cityscape been allowed to emerge? London is a complex city of dense streets, the paths they trace often following medieval or Roman routes. It is a city of layers in which each new manifestation smashes through the old, yet one in which traces of each era survive so that it becomes a palimpsest, its evolution legible in its built fabric.
Yet this new riverside landscape more closely resembles Dubai — what Danish architect and urban design expert Jan Gehl refers to as “perfume bottles” — a skyline of disassociated forms that bear no relation to the street, the river, the history and grain or the way we move through the city. Instead, each block is a discrete, deracinated object.
Vauxhall and Nine Elms are the most characteristic manifestations of this phenomenon, but the whole south bank, from Wandsworth to Blackfriars and beyond is being blighted by blocks that have nothing to do with anything — developments entirely aimed at maximising “river view” floorspace with its subsequent uplift.
There is another version of the South Bank — that of Europe’s biggest urban cultural centre, a concrete landscape embracing the Royal Festival Hall and the brutalist landmarks of the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery and the rest. That landscape of leisure, now expanded by Tate Modern and the Globe theatre, is one of modern London’s success stories, but the visionary public nature of that forward-looking, genuinely public cityscape also helps to highlight the privatisation of the skyline further west.
In the east too — in the Docklands, the same generic, globalised luxury towers are metastasising into a dense yet still oddly dispersed landscape that seems to look to the physical forms of New York or Chicago yet has none of the logic of those cities’ grids, their mixed economy intensity or their relationship to the waters that define them.
London is not a city of squares and public spaces. Instead it is defined by its parks and, most fully, by its river. The Thames is London’s defining civic space. It is not just an artery but a conduit through which the city is understood. Its winding complexity means that clusters of towers overlap and create background as well as becoming foreground themselves. It is the passage through the city along which its ceremonial and public functions are understood — from St Paul’s and Tower Bridge through to Westminster and the cultural complex of the South Bank to its broad Embankments.
The current rebuilding of the river’s banks is the most radical and massive the city has seen, a complete remaking of its panoramas. And it is a mess, compounded by the Garden Bridge proposal — an eyesore that threatens to spoil London’s greatest view (from Waterloo Bridge). The Thames seems to be losing its way.
With the crisis caused by Brexit and the sudden slowdown in sales of what now appears to be a glut in luxury properties, this is a city remaking itself in a failed model. It has been a disastrous waste and a massive opportunity lost. Is it too late to save the Thames from London’s lack of planning?