Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
London's waterfront has never quite managed the elegance of the Seine, but that's about to change, with the help of a little inspiration from New York.
It’s got charisma, but London’s Thames riverside has never quite managed the elegance of the Seine quays of Paris. Lined with old warehouses, power stations and factories and slicked with a fluctuating rim of tidal sludge, London’s waterfront developed its character at a time when people cared about unloading coal, not strolling under trees. For centuries, the river even formed a grimy cordon sanitaire between the respectable and disreputable parts of the city, the banks and palaces of the north bank turning their backs to the brothels, theaters, factories and tanneries on the south.
That industrial, maritime past has long gone, of course, and in recent decades the southern riverside has taken over as London’s main outdoor living room, housing its best arts center, most popular art gallery, biggest new tourist attraction and busiest gourmet food market. The embankment is packed on weekends and waterside apartments invariably have don’t-even-think-about it price tags.
This retooling of the riverside is now entering a second phase. All along the South Bank, new projects are either planned or already underway to capitalize on the area’s popularity. Perhaps best of the new crop is a garden bridge designed by Thomas Heatherwick, the creator of London’s Olympic cauldron.
On a structure that looks like a string of huge steel lilypads, the bridge will have wildflowers, tall grass and full-sized trees also providing close up views of what could be the most beautiful structure London has built since the war. A little farther upriver the city is also planning its very own spin on New York’s High Line in the form of the Vauxhall Missing Link. Covering an old riverside railway viaduct in an area near the new U.S. Embassy, this will be an elevated garden walk, punctuated by an as yet unspecified “promenade of curiosities” that references the area’s bawdy past as the site of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.
Back downstream, Tate Modern is doing whatever it takes to remain the world’s most popular modern art museum, including building a huge new wing that looks like a futuristic chunk of Toblerone. Designed by Herzog and De Meuron, the extension is already under construction and will tower over the river, blending in easily in an area already filled with flashy new condo developments. And nearby, the brutalist concert halls and galleries of the riverside Southbank Centre, already one of London’s most popular places for weekend walkers, are due to be smothered with a huge glass cap.
Naturally, there’s a catch to this new spate of projects. Big city space earmarked by developers as being underused usually turn out to be anything but. While the Vauxhall Missing Link wants to reference its neighborhood’s shady past, that past is actually alive and kicking in the very railway arches it will straddle. These are full of workshops and nightclubs, especially those of the sort whose patrons prefer a nondescript backstreet entrance. If London’s High Line-Lite proves successful in drawing in visitors, its probable that higher rents could give these businesses their marching orders. Likewise, the Southbank Centre’s revamp of its riverside site involves turning an undercroft that’s a legendary, much-loved hub for London’s skaters into yet more shops. Protests are underway to stop this, but the struggle has tarnished the publicly funded Southbank’s art-for-all ethos already.
Still it’s unlikely that London’s new riverside projects will quite be seen (as New York’s High Line has by some) as a gentrifying angel of doom putting the poor to flight. The U.S. Embassy has just carved out a chunk of the South Bank to build fortress-like new premises, while the embankment already has new luxury riverside flats so flashy they’d even make a Dubai city planner blush. London’s new Thames-side plans won’t radically change the riverside’s character, they’re just the ultimate expression of a dramatic transformation that’s been long underway.
Top image: Tate Modern Project. View of Construction Site Courtesy Lobster Pictures Ltd 2013 Copyright Tate