The art of placemaking

As part of the London Festival of Architecture (1st – 30th June) I went along this week to the site of Riverlight, a new residential development by St James (part of the Berkeley Group) in Nine Elms beside the Thames. I was especially interested because I used to live across the river and played in Battersea Park in the early ‘60s.

It’s a challenging site in a neglected area. The new buildings will sit between a pumping station, a cement works and a waste transfer station – that’s a tough sell to prospective purchasers. Change is on the horizon though, with the transformation of the iconic Battersea Power Station to the west finally set to commence this year and the new US Embassy due to open down the road in 2017.

Riverlight comprises six buildings, stepping up west to east from 12 to 20 storeys, set perpendicular to the river and providing 806 apartments, 106 of them affordable. On the lower level there’ll be commercial uses, including a health club. The footprint of the buildings is just 25% of the site, 75% is open space, with 60% of that accessible by the public. It will all be fairly exclusive but this is not meant to be a gated community.

As the design team of architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and landscape architects Gillespies took visitors through the thinking behind the project, I was struck just how much care goes into some developments. From orientation to materials, from the history of the site to the involvement of artists (check out advisors Future City) this is an attempt to make a new piece of urban fabric, a place, rather than simply exploit river views for the benefit of a few.

Of course it’s not entirely altruistic – the developers need to make a return and quality sells. But the challenge of the location and site, a former FedEx depot, seems to have inspired the designers to look beyond the predictable.

Two thoughts – for a new community to work, you need people. If the apartments go to investors who rarely use them, then Riverlight may not have the vibrancy of the CGI images shown in the marketing suite. See recent comments from Simon Hughes MP.

London has too often turned its back on the river (although access and design are improving bit by bit) and this stretch of the embankment is pretty uninspiring.  Creating new open, public areas alongside the river is to be applauded but the key will be maintenance and management. The designs we saw on Tuesday evening were captivating – a pocket park, streams and ponds, weirs and a “beach”. But a few yards away is the harsh reality of Nine Elms Lane – a busy and unforgiving main road.

Riverlight could offer sanctuary and inspiration and not just to its residents. I hope it works and doesn’t become just another privatised space in the city. I look forward to returning.