St George Wharf

St George Wharf
London borough of Lambeth
12 February 2007

In the mid-19th century, the extension of South-Western Railway, from Nine Elms to Waterloo Bridge, put a two-mile viaduct across Vauxhall’s once respectable pleasure gardens, providing them with a station for the last few years they were open. The name Vauxhall is reputedly the source of the Russian word for railway station, “vokzal”, because of the area’s association with its rail stop.1

Vauxhall’s role as a major transport hub was reinforced by the introduction of electric trams in the early 1900s (replaced by buses in the 1950s) and the arrival of the Victoria Line in 1971. More recently, a solar-powered bus interchange opened here in 2004 and soon became London’s second busiest bus station. Vauxhall Cross is for many the last checkpoint south of the river, somewhere to travel through but not to live.

A growing Portuguese community, bringing a cafe culture, has done much to revitalise the district in recent years, as has the gay club scene that is burgeoning within the arches of the viaduct. Because of its proximity to Westminster, Vauxhall has also become a popular place to have offices, especially for politicians and civil servants who inhabit much of the Albert Embankment, including Terry Farrell’s neo-Babylonian headquarters for the Secret Intelligence Service.

With a few exceptions, residents of the area have traditionally lived in its social housing: mainly brick-built, mid-rise blocks. But Vauxhall is on the cusp of zone one, within spitting distance of Victoria, and is starting to emerge from its downtrodden past and become a desirable place to live. Perhaps the most visible evidence of this is the ever-expanding complex of St George Wharf, being built by the river on the site of the Nine Elms cold store.

For the developer St George, their show-stopper apartments have been a great success, attracting moneyed buyers willing to pay handsome sums for a riverside location, easy access to the West End and views of the Houses of Parliament and the soon-to-be-redeveloped Battersea power station. The development also houses a Tesco Express, a Youngs pub and offices for Lambeth council, controversially bought for a lot of money by the since ousted Lib-Dems and Tories.

The building was designed by Broadway Malyan; it is very large, colourful and distinctly postmodern, with art-deco details and trademark “gull-wing” roofs. Although it is still unfinished, it has been almost universally slated by the architecture establishment.

Writing in the Times, Tom Dyckhoff called it “Britain’s finest exponent of bling brutalism”.2 Jonathan Glancey, the Guardian’s critic, wrote that its “madcap” roofs “resemble the rear ends of Chevrolet Impalas”.3 And for Rowan Moore of the Evening Standard, it is a “real monster”.4

The Observer’s Dejan Sudjic described the development as “hundreds of flats in a procession of sawn-off ziggurats topped by ludicrous green vaults” with “the comic-opera quality of stage-set Stalinism”.5 In 2002, he awarded it his “turkey of the year”.6 For a number of years, it has also topped an annual poll by the Architects’ Journal of readers’ most hated buildings.7

As part of the development, St George is soon to start construction of the tallest and arguably most contentious block of flats in London, the 180-metre Vauxhall Tower, also by Broadway Malyan. Planning permission was granted with help from John Prescott and Ken Livingstone, notwithstanding objections from Lambeth council and critics arguing it is too close to Tate Britain and the Palace of Westminster.8 Furthermore, the tower is unlikely to stand alone for very long, as the GLA’s London Plan deems Vauxhall an area suitable for a cluster of skyscrapers.9

Despite critical disdain, flats within St George Wharf are very popular and sell very quickly. Building goes on and the site for the tower has been cleared for its imminent erection. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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