This project establishes a new public route and visitor destination running along the south bank of the Thames. It forms part of the emerging public realm associated with the regeneration of Nine Elms: a previously forgotten corner of south west London, which is now becoming the home of 20,000 new residents and the location for the American Embassy. This is a fluid piece of cityscape that is in a state of almost daily change, as new residential accommodation replaces former commercial properties and light industry. Set against this transformational backdrop, the first green shoots of a new urban landscape are starting to emerge.
The aim of the project was not to deliver one project for one site or even a series of projects for a number of sites – but to initiate a programme of meanwhile, short term and permanent interventions which individually and collectively can create an enhanced public realm; thus enriching the cultural offer and the spatial experience, such that this section of the Thames Path is expressive of its identity, giving it a unique sense of self awareness.
This particular corner of London has a rich narrative. Formerly natural greenspace it developed through a number of phases from cultivated strip fields, then cottage industries progressing into heavy industrial infrastructure then declining into a post-industrial economy of warehouses and breakers yards before finally being reborn as one of Europe’s largest regeneration sites. The cultural references that emerge from these many phases are rich and varied, some, such as the Battersea Bundles, clumps of asparagus grown by Huguenot farmers, are long gone, others such as the original nine elm trees which give the area its title exist in name only, while others, such as the infrastructure of the riverside wharfs and the outlet of watercourses such as the Effra, are still present, albeit buried in the layers of urban fabric. Applied over the physical fabric is an equally varied and changeful social landscape, starting with farmers, then villains and ne’er-do-wells, artisan craftsman and industrialists, factory workers, wharf workers, lightermen, railwaymen, white van men and scrap dealers and finally city workers and embassy staff. Our strategy of creating a sequence of individual spaces gave the opportunity to express this rich multilayered narrative.
Although part of a national trail, this section of the Thames Path is difficult to navigate and often divorced from the river. The section from the London Eye to Vauxhall Bridge already provides a leisure route for visitors and commuters, however, on reaching the new American embassy the riverside walk becomes discontinuous, stopping completely as it hits Battersea power station. As the development of the new residential community within Nine Elms expands so the status of this route will take on added significance. The Thames Path will become another public realm artery linking the City with South and South West London, as well as opening up a whole new series of pedestrian and cycling connections to Pimlico and North West London.
Working with their sub-consultants at Studio Weave, Churchman developed a strategy entitled ‘The Nine Realms’ – a concept which provided an antidote to the grander more civic sections of the Thames frontage of Victoria and Albert Embankments, by celebrating the differences that exist now, will exist as the context of Nine Elms evolves and will continue to exist in a permanent condition.
Due to the sites fragmented nature the proposal celebrated the different characters that occurred along the route. The project was subdivided into nine realms, each of which celebrated a different stage in the area’s history. Small architectural interventions, including a pavilion and rotating benches establish a post-industrial aesthetic which references the rich industrial heritage. The pavilion is fabricated in the same pressed steel panels commonly used in trackside water towers, in this case the tank becoming a roof garden. Studio Weave have ingeniously taken a standard industrial product and turned it into a highly decorative piece of ornamentation, creating an interesting juxtaposition with the modernist brutality of Kieron Timberlake’s American Embassy. The spinning seats, conceived by Product Designer Tord Boontje, are a combination of industrial materiality and naturally exuberant effervescent plantings. The benches designed by Churchman and fabricated by artisans Bramhall 1840 are expressive of the long history of making and crafting which is so representative of Nine Elms.