London isn’t a beautiful city in the classical sense. It’s more an agglomeration of unorganised stuff. It’s more a two thousand year draft of a city, with rewrites to plot, characters and events scrawled all over its terrain.
It’s a city where your state of mind is as important as the physical fabric. For example many of London’s now extortionally expensive houses – homes to bankers and lawyers – were once classified as slums – earmarked for demolition. Writers have not only written London into their narratives, but have also impacted on its body (in Dickens’ case though highlighting the inner-city slums). Does this mean that London’s organisation is mostly imaginary? And if so, shouldn’t writers like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, or JG Ballard be candidates for head of the Architecture and Urbanism Unit at the GLA?
So many London buildings move from ‘ugliness’ to ‘beauty’ through changes in attitude over time. Many of the ugliest buildings are assimilated, becoming part of the cities narrative – just as its population absorbs waves of immigration over hundreds of years enriching London’s grand narrative.
Having said that, there are some right architectural howlers. Take the Nat West Tower – it’s the logo of a bank extruded skywards – that’s a pretty ugly concept – however excused by its ridiculousness and its facile commercial brutalism (reminiscent of a Chicago album cover designed by the Smithsons). There are places like the Elephant and Castle – massive modernist conglomerations of traffic planning and housing that certainly lack genteel appeal. Even here though there is a lingering utopian vision. The cities arteries snake around housing like a Futurist choreography. It may be ugly, but at least it meant well.
Ugliness however, isn’t an aesthetic. It’s about a mean-ness, a lack of generosity. In urban planning terms a grabbing of public resource for private gain. And there are two candidates for this crown, both on the stretch of riverfront from Vauxhall to Wandsworth: St George Wharf (“22 stories designed amid majestic gull-wing roofs and stylish terraces. Set amongst landscaped courtyards that sweep to the waters edge”) and Battersea Reach (“a dramatic series of waterfront buildings that cascade towards the river’s edge, spacious contemporary apartments and penthouses offer panoramic views across the Thames or the Wandsworth skyline”) – both from developer St George.
These are yuppie ghettos, bought off-plan on the back of buy-to-let mortgages. Designed from the brochure outwards they bristle with balconies that rubber-neck the river.
It’s not their venal maxing out of volume or limit-of-the-envelop massing that’s the problem. Or the crashing together of economic circumstance (cheap loans, post-industrial rehabilitation, exponential rise in property value). It’s the fact that it tries to look nice. That it does ‘architectural’ things (a touch of modernism, a little dash of High Tech, a dose of Pomo). It’s these buildings restraint; their desire to please that is so despicable. They capture an anemic, generic marketing led reductiveness. If James Blunt were a building, he’d be these. If they were food, they’d be served on airlines. They are like penthouse perfect versions of 19th century rookeries where chardonnay replaces typhoid-riddled water.
“The design brief for St George Wharf was challenging: Create a thriving Thames riverside community worthy of its place amongst some of Europe’s most spectacular landmarks. The views would be breathtaking. The shimmering architectural aesthetic, interior detailing and landscaping would be the same.
Today, more than five years later, our vision has reached the 5th stage of completion. Every evening, new residents marvel at their new twilight vista.” So say Broadway Malyan, the architects brave enough to have their involvement advertised on the front of the St George website, as though remisicing with satisfaction over some kind of significant contribution to mankind.
Read on to find fictions of your own possible near future: “Owning a luxurious apartment or penthouse is just the start of the adventure. As a St George Wharf resident, you will be part of a sophisticated, cosmopolitan living environment. Imagine: outside, a series of landscaped courtyards sweep out to the river’s edge with a 275m promenade, for residents and public alike. Tranquil courtyards echo to the gentle sound of fountains. Stylish bistros, cafes and shops around the piazza provide an irresistible excuse to simply sit, talk or watch the world go by. A health and fitness studio is planned for the future.”
With a scenario written like this, someone needs to check that JG Ballard hasn’t indeed been installed behind a desk the A+U unit, approving developments most likely to end in yuppie carnage.
The buildings – named with watery-heritage – swim in ‘high quality’ public space where it is impossible to imagine anything ever happening.
It’s the fact these are monsters that have no idea of their own self. What is more terrible – the idea that developers are trying to hoodwink the entirety of public life? Or the fact that this is honestly an attempt to make sense of contemporary living? These are perversions of Richard Rogers 1980s plea for Thames-side urbanism. It’s enough to make him spin in his grave even though he’s still very much alive.
Quite frankly, these buildings are fucking insults. They are an anathema to a London that spans from Handle to Hendrix, Inigo Jones to Steve Jones, kebabs to kings, the M25 to the Mall, suburbia to Soho.
Of course, this early 21st century ugliness will one day become rewritten as late 21st century beauty, though quite what twists and turns in London’s plot will precipitate this are hard to imagine. If you are in for the long term and an urban pervert, why not visit the marketing suites: Monday – Friday, 10-8. Weekends 10-6. +44 (0)207 978 4141.