Saturday, December 11, 2010


Vauxhall is a funny old part of town, love it or loathe it’s a typically London juxtaposition, seemingly unplanned and a tad ugly, saturated with traffic, snarled up around awkwardly tight Victorian sized roads all thrown together with a dash of MI6 and a satellite gay /club world extravaganza VOHO. It’s also incredibly well connected with overland train lines and underground with a station and bus interchange that could be construed as a bizarre communist like monument to the roundel logo.

River Effra site Lambeth Water Works ( far left) Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens ( above) and the Oval ( bottom right )
It’s also a bit of a mess. The traffic over the years as divided the area in two, the 19th century railway hasn’t helped either. New architecture has been somewhat deranged ,we have a bizarre fortress deco homage that is MI6 and across the road a truly gruesome collection of beige and green glass lacklustre ticky tacky Pomo apartments with virtually no redeeming features apart from the fact it’s just so incredibly wrong. There are the 60’s Eastern European style buildings along the river towards Lambeth and then a collection of iffy residential complexes replacing some actually rather nice 20th century buildings.
But dig deeper into Vauxhalls history you realise not a great deal has changed behind the soot stained railway viaducts. The street pattern hasn’t dramatically altered literally since the early eighteen hundreds most notably the Victorian railway is one of the only major physical changes to the area and that happened in the early 19th Century and of course the Albert Embankment.
Vauxhall Spring Gardens by Samuel Wale 1751
Open spaces are in essence virtually intact too but have changed purpose or lost their charm over the years. Vauxhall Gardens or Vauxhall Spring Gardens as it was once known, was originally the playground of the Glitterati in the Georgian era but has now become little more than another anonymous green space that seems to lack any purpose or presence a far cry from its hedonistic, rococo past. Down the road the Oval a cricket ground since the 1845 is still in place, gone has it’s quaint rural charm, I suspect it once evoked, replaced with a far more professional affair such is the passage of time and success of the sport.
Lambeth Windmills

Like most parts of London pre the industrial revolution Vauxhall and the surrounding area was little more than a villagy like place with small farm buildings ,windmill’s and scenery that would be an ideal chocolate box foray. Over the years as populations grew and London expanded Vauxhall has be swallowed up into the major conglomerate that the city has become today.
Building of the railway viaducts

Some of the lost features of Vauxhall are the river Effra a tributary that has long disappeared into the Victorian rationalisation of the embankment. The river still stretches from Upper Norwood but has mostly been hidden weaved into the sewers like most of London’s lost rivers. The River Effra today empties out into a spot not too far away from its original position. It is now a small opening in the Albert Embankment under the MI6 building only visible from the river in low tide.
The River Effra outlet under MI6

My earliest visions of the Effra Site as a child were of a massive concrete edifice, the nine elms cold storage facility. This enormous yet strangely evocative concrete building was austere to the extreme, purposeful as a colossal meat laden fridge would probably look like. It embodied probably all what was not right with London at the time, shameless planning of industrial sites placed with no care to the locality. The poor Effra site has been an unfortunate place for industrialisation and development.  In 1847 the site was designated a gas works called the Phoenix Gas Works much to public condemnation at the time it was expanded and taken over by the South Metropolitan Gas Co in the 1870s. The cold storage facility was built 1965 and closed in 1979. It lay empty up until the early 1990’s when St George developers proposed the overbearing cascading beige concrete development we have there today. I have always considered it to be a failure of the site. It neglects to link with the surrounding Vauxhall area, a fortress like development that ignored Vauxhall in favour of views down the river. There are token bland open spaces and strange passage ways but little has been done to try and link with surrounding street patterns transport or the fact that this really could have mended once and for all this important riverfront location.

When viewed from afar with its butterfly faux copper patented roofs and green glass upvc glazing I feel some despair about the nature of such developments and there long lasting legacy to London.
For it are residential developments that stay with us for longer than any commercial building will and surely this should be treated with some care and attention.

Thinking about this for a long time I thought about theoretically coming up with an alternative of ‘what could have been done’ a sort of unrealized vision if you like. My conceptual idea’s would bring back some of lost parts of Effra reinvigorating its riverfront, creating points of interest ending road alignments and vista’s with something more meaningful and more in line with traditional and successful areas of London. It would aim to bring a level of architecture from the monumental to the townhouse combining this with road realignment and rational Pedestrianisation. Open spaces too would take a precedent as such would views of the river. The mix would hopefully encourage business and residential to be more connected avoiding too much architectural hierarchy using smaller plot sizes to reduce the scale and increase the complexity of the area.

Since I wrote this a year ago the nine elms area has had some major redevelopment proposals which promise to be far more successful in urban terms compared to what we have now. It does have the potential I think to be a great showcase to urban renewal in London on an almost grand scale. Only time will really tell but I have hope.

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