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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.

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