About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sneak preview of Battersea-Nine Elms "village" life as river frontage opens to public

Good news (or so it seemed) last week, to hear that the river frontage by Battersea Power Station was open to the public for the first time since that brief glimpse we had back in 2013 (when there was a sort of alternative Chelsea Flower Show staged on the land about to be transformed into luxury flats).

So on Sunday, after a happy hour or two in Battersea Park, including a visit to the Pump House Gallery (re-opened after being flooded in January) I thought I'd check it out.

It's good that you can get from the park to the new bit without having to cross Queenstown Road, via a walkway under the first span of Chelsea Bridge.

So you walk under the road, and emerge in front of those lumpy flats which went up in the 1990s and now seem rather jaded, set as they are against a backdrop of the splendours oF Battersea - Nine Elms extravagance.  So now, you can walk on, until you get to the wide Grosvenor railway bridge carrying all the Southern rail lines into Victoria Station over the river.

This bit of the walkway has been transformed using lots of Scandinavian-look timber. It's all very nicely-built. There's a new Santander bike rack and large timber-framed exhibition room, plus several shop/bar/restaurant and kiosk spaces. And lots of festive lightbulbs. Just round the corner it leads to what they are calling a "village hall" for the first of the new residential areas ("Quarters" I mean)  at this end of the massive Battersea-Nine Elms development.

With people supposed to be moving into the first flats very soon, this bit - Circus West Village - is a sort of sneak preview of what this vast development might feel like. I never did find the idea of London's urban villages very convincing or  attractive, and to describe this encampment for multi-millionaires a village is stretching the concept a bit, isn't it?
The folksy map shows some of the first occupants of the retail and restaurant
spaces: looks like you won't have to far for a cocktail or an artisanal toasted
sandwich with a cold-pressed flat white, if that's your thing...

On this day, it felt a bit odd, a bit sad, a bit of everything really. Smartly dressed security guys clutched walkie-talkie phones and did their best to smile at the occasional pedestrian or cyclist visitors, the inquisitive passers-by and lost joggers.

Not sure how many serious potential buyers there were there.

The new residential buildings are very showy, very smart and cold.
There's one clad entirely in copper sheeting, another a great glass snake that follows the railway line, said by the developer to be as long as the Shard is tall.

One of the rooms under the bridge is hosting a display about the development. It includes one of those wonderful old wooden models of Battersea Power Station as it was in 1935, complete with neatly stacked piles of coal by the quayside.

This room contains big panels of texts and diagrams informing us of what to expect. Not too many surprises. The developer is making  efforts to win over the more influential local residents. For example there will a programme of free cultural events over the summer, involving among others, Battersea Arts Centre. Which is a good sign, isn't it?

The "village hall", which is being built under one of the massive arches, will include a large performance area.

Then there will of course be shops, bars, restaurants galore. Not - we are promised - from the big international chains. Oh no. But neither, judging from the descriptions given here, will they be terribly affordable to the passing public. Well, at least not to the old menaces like me who like to float around with a Sainsburys bag usually containing a couple of charity-shop bargain books and a camera or two.

The view east: any resemblance to San Gimignano or Trebizond is entirely
a figment of this author's fevered imagination.
It should have been great to see what's left of the power station close up again. Of course it never fails to take your breath away - even now. And the scale of the whole redevelopment is also breathtaking, if in a rather different way.

But, seeing the stumps of the chimneys and the non-existent walls and roof of the main hall was also like walking into an operating theatre and seeing an old friend all opened up and bloody on the table.

You just know that when it's finished it will be all scrubbed up and lovely, like a CGI image in a Hollywood movie. It will be hard to tell which are the new bits and which the original. And, it won't matter. Will it.

They've built a neat little viewing platform so you can gaze across the whole development towards Vauxhall.

The new concrete cores of high rise towers, the lift and service shafts, stick out of the churned up soil of Nine Elms. On some they've painted the number of each floor in case they forget where to stop.

 If you screw your eyes up you could almost be looking at the medieval towers of San Gimignano in Tuscany. They were built by wealthy barons, initially to defend themselves, but really to show off their wealth and outdo their neighbours in a macho, phallic display. So what changes?

Well, at least those medieval barons didn't drive SUVs.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Two more art enterprises fall victim to London's property vultures

It's hardly news that London's rapacious property developers are driving anyone who's not rich out of newly-fashionable areas. Among the victims are artists, who are being pushed out of their studios and work-spaces. It's a cliché (and therefore true?) that struggling artists, musicians and their ilk, who always tended to migrate to areas with cheap, large work-spaces, helped to make those areas fashionable and desirable. And then these very people who made the area popular get driven away as rents soar and the bankers, advertising execs and the hedge fund mob move in.

Any hopes that this dismal trend was slowing down have been dashed. It's only February and already, two very different artist-led enterprises in south London have been given notice to vacate their premises, both in once-despised areas that have recently become highly desirable: Vauxhall and New Cross Gate.

These are just two examples that I happen to know personally. The same thing is happening to dozens of others, typically in the areas which have been made more marketable to city commuters by the arrival of the London Overground.

These two places are at different ends of the art world.

The first is LARA - the London Atelier of Representational Art - a well-respected independent art school, known for adapting the classical atelier system for teaching the traditional skills of drawing, painting and sculpting the human figure. The tutors are all successful practitioners, and the students learn by example. They spend weeks and months and years learning to use the sight-sizing methods developed by Italian renaissance artists, to build their knowledge of paints and brushes and pigment, canvases, papers, the lot.

Who could guess that in the basement area of the buildings to the right,
on the busy Vauxhall gyratory system, there's an amazing hive of artistic
activity - the London Atelier of Representational Art.
It runs full-time diploma courses and a  busy schedule of short courses, evening and weekend masterclasses, exhibitions and excursions. It's a hive of intense artistic activity, and at the moment it inhabits the basement of a big old office/warehouse building on an unremarkable part of Vauxhall's one-way traffic system.

Recently LARA was given notice that the building they've been in for several years is going to be demolished for re-development later this year. They're going to have to leave by late summer, meaning students on their three-year diploma course could face disruption (although LARA already has its sights on alternative premises).

So here's a unique, creative organisation which provides employment for dozens of artists, tutors, models and others, which is at the heart of an international revival of the atelier method, and which has also played a part in the re-energization of this fascinating part of London. So close to the centre, and yet so different. And now of course the money-men have noticed, and the place - which survived so much, including one of the most murderous traffic systems in London - is now being torn apart for the development of high-rise luxury flats and "serviced office accommodation".

Ironic that, as a new upmarket Newport Street gallery owned by Damien Hirst opens in Vauxhall, so the organisations that will create future artists are being pushed out.

The second sad story is another hive of creativity: the ASC Studios in Bond House, Goodwood Road, New Cross Gate. This big old former factory, just round the corner from the railway station,  currently hosts over 100 artists' studios of varying shapes and sizes as well as exhibition spaces.

Amongst them are a celebrated community project, The Gate Darkroom, which started in 2011 and provides  studio, developing and printing facilities for hundreds of photographers, students and other artists.

These studios are just over the road from Goldsmiths; they are part of that incredible ecosystem of creative talent that's existed in this corner of south east London for decades, and which every so often erupts into international notice, as with Hirst and Co back in the 90s.

There's no doubt that proerty people - estate agents, the lot - owe a huge debt to these artists, students, the punks and poets and actors and activists who have between them, over decades,  created a unique atmosphere in the Deptford - New Cross - Peckham - Camberwell valley. That's one of the reasons this area is now so sought-after.

But alas the area is also succumbing to the Overground effect. Wherever this extremely useful railway lines goes, it carries a parasitic virus with it: the dreaded virus, Luxuriosa domos. The Overground trains arrive, then sure enough, along come outbreaks of "New-London-vernacular" flats, which pop up like a bad case of measles alongside the stations.

No doubt Bond House will go the same way, soon after the artists are kicked out on March 26. There's already a crop of them just round the corner.

ASC is one of several organisations that exist to secure affordable spaces for artists and craftspeople of all types, all ages, all nationalities. But no-one is immune to the squeeze: and there is no government or even local London legislation to ring-fence certain types of property, apart from the listing system for buildings "of special architectural or historic interest considered to be of national importance and therefore worth protecting".

Perhaps they could add: "and cultural, educational or local community" interest to those, as well as building up a strong "continued public access and purpose of use" to this admitrable system.   This is what should be happening NOW!

Or maybe legislation that forces developers to provide alternative, equally well-positioned accommodation to any of the above that they displace, and that that should only happen with full agreement on all sides - current occupiers, other local businesses and residents.

But this is pipe-dream stuff in the world of Theresa May and co.

In both the cases I cite above, hard-working dedicated artists and students will have their long-term plans disrupted, even wrecked by the impatient greed of property people - these ones who are perhaps trying to squeeze the last millions out of the London property market before it goes pop when all the money men leave for Paris.

Then maybe the cycle will start again. Meantimes there's only one sane response for those with the strength and energy to do it: Squat!

Saturday, 4 February 2017

New US Embassy in Nine Elms nears completion: but will it be blingy enough for Trump's lot?

Well, this is it - the shiny new US Embassy building in the Battersea-Nine Elms-Vauxhall property developers' sand-pit seems to be nearing completion.

Reports suggest the move from Grosvenor Square to the new site south of the river will happen in 2017 - and already you can imagine that the new president and his minions will be having mixed feelings about the shift, not to mention many of his London-based officials who are actually going to have to work south of the river.

Unsurprisingly they will not include ex-pres Obama's choice, Matthew Barzun, who resigned in January. The job of representing Trump's admin in the UK will fall to a new, much older face. The 45th president has named fellow billionaire Woody Johnson, the 69-year-old sports fanatic, owner of the New York Jets NFL team, and heir of the baby-powder and pharma products firm Johnson & Johnson as his man in London.

Of course, this very rich man will not actually live here - he will have the super posh Winfield House in Regent's Park for his private life and his parties, and no doubt he could buy somewhere even grander if this did not suit him. Winfield House, by the way, is named after the founder of Woolworth's. It was owned by Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton in the 1930s, and she gave it to the US government.

But what about Nine Elms? Well, the Americans are getting a big, super-safe, new building surrounded by lots of other big and blingy buildings. But the postcode - oh my dear, SW8!

The photo above shows the semi-translucent cladding that is going to cloak three sides of the cuboid structure. At first sight it looks like the sort of cheap and cheerful tie-on decorative facades favoured by some of the downmarket shops on Oxford Street. It looks temporary, like a strong gust of wind could send it flying.

But according to the architects this stuff performs vital functions in keeping the building cool and shaded in the summer, and also in deflecting the downdrafts of wind that can make life for pedestrians so bad. And the translucency is also meant to symbolise a transparency of government - apparently!

The architects, KieranTimberlake of Philadelphia, also wanted to avoid the fortress-like designs of many other US embassies: not sure if the big watery moat-like pond at the front of the building does much for that ambition. In fact the old embassy in Grosvenor Square was a very smart 60s building - have you ever seen so many windows in one facade? ANd all those rising bollards and so on only went in after 9/11. The old Grosvenor Square made a convenient rallying place for demos: the bleak wasteland of Nine Elms Lane is a much less attractive prospect for all, whether lovers or haters of the new regime.

However, it is no longer the 60s: you imagine Trump might quite the break from this Kennedy-era extravagance. The new Embassy, inits value-for-money postcode,  is said to be one of the most environmentally-friendly embassies ever built. OK that's not the sort of claim that's going to impress the new boss, who doesn't care two hoots about the environment. He'll like the fact that it's cheap to run, but you wonder whether he wouldn't rather stay in Mayfair, protected by huge bollards and close to the gold-plated denizens of the Dorchester and the Hilton and the high-end nightclubs of Shepherd Market.

Well, the old embassy - a 1960 building designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen – is going to be turned into a luxury hotel, so he could always hang out there anyway. Or he could just commandeer the Regent's Park house. There's room for two or three couples there, it seems.

Meanwhile, the staff of the new embassy will have plenty to explore in their lunch breaks and their after-work bonding sessions. There's the famously intense nightlife of Vauxhall itself, for example, plus some lovely (relatively) cheap eating places on Kennington Lane and Wandsworth Road. Maybe the secret gardens and lovely café of Bonnington Square will not be to every G-Man's taste - but of course it's about midway between the US Embassy and MI6, so they could arrange little meetings there.

In the summer a short walk or official car ride will take them to Battersea Park, one of south-west London's most beautiful open spaces. And already they have their very own Waitrose right on the doorstep.

But perhaps these dear Embassy folk will be discouraged from leaving their workplace, and will be kept happy in their sealed environment with Google HQ-style distractions. You know, non-stop free smoothies, a model railway to deliver authentic American burgers and/or sushimi to every work station, bean-bag-filled breakout areas, pool tables, Coke-fountains, wii screens, etc....and a pool of scooters on which to whizz around their new glassy home.

There's talk of a new pedestrian bridge, but where will that take them? Dolphin Square in Pimlico, approximately. Another place favoured by spies, apparently.

Talking of spies, if I had a high-powered telephoto lens I could spy on this new building all day and all night. Its massive bulk has blocked what used to be rather a pleasant distant view of Westminster's Victoria Tower from my bedroom window.