London's Nine Elms is one of Europe's biggest regeneration zones: 18,000 new homes, a Damien Hirst gallery and a thriving cultural quarter

A 'new global city' is being built on the south bank of the Thames - with a cultural quarter that aims to bring the energy, authenticity and edginess that defines a modern city.
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A grand plan to create a major new cultural quarter at Nine Elms and Vauxhall, one of Europe’s biggest regeneration zones, has been unveiled this week. It is an ambitious initiative to combat the criticism that this fledgling riverside district, where 18,000 homes are to be dropped into the landscape within a decade, lacks soul and a sense of community.

Some will fear it will end up being a land of absentee owners, investors and transitory renters. However, city planners and developers are spearheading a project for this shiny new neighbourhood with “fresh urban thinkers” who know how global cities should evolve.


The process is known as “cultural placemaking”, where the arts are not a cuddly vanity project for some rich philanthropist, but embedded into the area and woven into its architectural fabric, helping to engage local residents and foster a sense of belonging. Well, that’s the theory.

World-renowned architects are shaping the landscape with showpiece glassy and glossy buildings — satellite projects linked to the born-again Battersea Power Station. Public spaces, including a riverside park, are being designed with art and community  participation in mind — for theatre and dance performances, events, markets and exhibitions — while buildings awaiting redevelopment are being handed over to pop-ups.

The power station’s developer has even appointed a director of design and placemaking, David Twohig, to deliver a strategy for a rich and diverse programme of cultural events. “The spaces inbetween the buildings are as important as the buildings themselves,” he says.

Circus West, the first residential phase of the power station, includes a contemporary take on the traditional village hall, while the original boiler house and control room will be cultural venues.

Royal College of Art’s Battersea campus, a recent arrival, is an artistic hub with influence that is spreading to the less glamorous Lambeth and Wandsworth hinterland, where there is an established network of galleries and studios. The college has forged a relationship with developer St James by opening StudioRCA at the swish Riverlight apartment complex at Nine Elms where homes are priced from £800,000. Call 020 7870 9620.

Coming soon is Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, which will house the artist’s personal art collection of 2,000 pieces, including works by Banksy and Jeff Koons.
From £800,000: Riverlight at Nine Elms will host StudioRCA, launched by the Royal College of Art. Call 020 7870 9620 

Opening this summer, the new space is a redevelopment of listed warehouses where Hirst’s famous spot paintings are produced. It occupies the entire length of a street once considered the wrong side of the tracks. But this grittier side of Vauxhall is changing fast, with the hipsters moving in, and developers offering cheaper loft-style apartments.

Ironically, a nearby fine art storage warehouse belonging to auctioneer Christie’s is making way for The Residence — 510 homes, 76 of which are classified as “affordable” available on a shared-ownership basis. To register, call Bellway on 01689 886400.

Charles Asprey’s Cabinet Gallery is also scheduled to open later this year. 

If Nine Elms Vauxhall is set to become the new Barbican, it will certainly be more navigable than the celebrated arts venue, with a linear park linking the individual developments — 29 sites across 482 acres — and a well marked-out culture trail across the district. A “promenade of curiosities” will connect Lambeth’s pocket parks to Vauxhall Cross. 

The Residence has 510 homes, many of which are available through shared ownership. Call 01689 886400.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a revival of a Victorian venue, has put in place a summer programme of outdoor cinema screenings while a temporary ice rink will open for the Christmas and new year period. Boosted by a new pedestrian bridge, the area is also reaching across the Thames to be part of the Chelsea Fringe, hosting horticultural and arts events.

Do the lambeth walk 
Nearby Fentiman Road has four-storey mid-Victorian houses popular with barristers and City types. Another hot address is Lilian Baylis Old School. The listed Sixties teaching blocks have been turned into generous-size, big-window apartments while new in-keeping homes have been built in the re-landscaped grounds. Call KFH on 020 7740 2640.

Fabled Lambeth Walk’s Victorian streetscape was marred by redevelopment in the Seventies, but parts of it are being restored. Small businesses and galleries are moving into  refurbished shopfronts and over-the-shop accommodation is set to become available. 

The big question is whether a wider creative district can be “made” in this way. Can this slowly evolving organic process be manmade? Cynics would question why developers want to forge partnerships with the arts. It couldn’t possibly be for profit, could it?

“I suppose patrons are okay, but we don’t want to be patronised,” says Bridget Wright, 58, a lifelong local resident. “A lot of snooty types from across the river in Chelsea are turning up,” she adds. “And we are already seeing prices moving beyond what many locals can afford.”

Planning requirements force developers to make financial contributions and physical improvements to the local area. In the case of Nine Elms, two new schools and health care provision as well as the Northern line extension are part of the bounty to get the green light to transform an area. The smarter builders have put in place a cultural strategy to win brownie points with local councils and  stakeholders — whether residents, businesses or lobby groups.

Mark Davy, founder of Futurecity, a self-styled “placemaking agency” that specialises in cultural collaborations, is at the centre of this debate. He is  busy making places and has about  30 developer clients and 100 projects on the go across London and the South-East.

“In the past, creative neighbourhoods were in so-called ‘downtown’ areas with cheap industrial space and bad transport links, but the success of new developments built around the arts, such as King’s Cross, has persuaded the private sector to invest in culture,” he says. “Often it’s about making  creative use of an existing budget. London is moving from a capital city traditionally defined by the financial sector to one defined by the creative and knowledge sectors.”

Culture, he adds, brings the energy, authenticity and edginess that defines a modern city.

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