08 Nov, 2009

Rafayel on the Left Bank

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Falcon Wharf, Battersea, London SW11

It was, most unusually, the press release that I noticed. Writing about architecture for an international paper means a daily inundation of hysterical claims from demented flaks, earning tiny fees by greasing the client’s huge vanity with preposterous claims. These releases routinely go straight to the bin without passing Go.

But this one was different. It said south London was the new Left Bank. This caught my attention. Wandsworth Road as the new Boul’ Mich? Battersea as a Latin Quarter? Harold Wilson said PR was “organised lying” and here, I thought, was an impressive level of organisation. There was more: interesting claims about a new green hotel. Any hotel in this still neglected part of London is a prospect of wonder, but an ecologically intelligent hotel with aspirations to glamour is, to put it no higher, exceptionally noteworthy.

Eco-innovation on the south bank of the Thames has recently had a patchy history. Vauxhall Cross transport interchange positively encourages congestion and pollution. Rafael Viñoly’s crazily ambitious scheme for an environmentally responsible glass funnel megastructure at Battersea power station was howled down by preservationists.

And as for glamour, there has certainly been lots of building in the past few years, but it has all been developers’ development. This is the equivalent of barrow boys doing fashion. The result is a strange, but perhaps rather wonderful, Ballardian netherworld of vast ziggurats, screaming for attention. It is like Super Cannes without the weather. Sun-blocking urban masses and competitive shape-making: a set -back, mirror glazed, multi-storey utopia with no heart, not even a centre, but chocker with marketing suites. Public space is no more than an apologetic gesture and, like most apologetic gestures, has little conviction.

But standards in the area will soon rise because the American embassy, apparently convinced that truck bombers do not have satnav, is moving to “more secure” premises on benighted Nine Elms Lane. Early next year, the US will choose between IM Pei, Kieran Timberlake, Richard Meier and Morphosis Architects (the branded vehicle of Thom Mayne) to design its embassy on a site whose present neighbours include the abandoned Stationery Office distribution centre, a garage, a CWU sorting office, the Dogs and Cats Home and the glum flower market. At last, there seems to be a realistic plan for the tottering power station.

Already, people are talking excitedly of the “Nine Elms corridor”. And this is the corridor that is going to lead to the new hotel Rafayel. Inspired by the river which John Betjeman, writing on Battersea Bridge, once called “incurably disgusting… a sliding train of filthy, intimate objects”, its 65 rooms take riparian inspiration: in ascending order of size, they are categorised as Mississippi, Yangtze, Amazon and Nile. Shit Creek does not get a mention.

The story of the hotel Rafayel offers real-world insights into the business of architecture today. From the start, it was construed as an integral part of the Falcon Wharf development. The designer was James Burland, a veteran of Arup. The original developer sold it on to a construction company and some “value engineering” occurred.

This is a euphemism for systematic eradication of design sophistication in the cause of penny-pinching. Out went interesting duplexes and the hotel. Then Iqbal Latif bought the top floors in this 145-room development and, sensing an interesting opportunity, acquired the freehold. Latif boldly reinstated the idea of a hotel and established the ambitious rhetoric of an “intellectual renaissance in Battersea”.

As is the way of the world, Burland was complemented by fit-out architects who were responsible for finishes and details, some of them unhappy, but, despite compromises, his concept remains essentially intact. In plan, four banana-shaped elements are arranged around a core (which we are required to call an atrium). This arrangement allows almost everyone, in either apartments or hotel rooms, to get a river view. Burland was very aware of that 1930s tradition of apartment blocks, such as Maxwell Fry’s 1937 Kensal House, hosting social functions so there is a riverside restaurant and bar while the lobby has a branch of MyChelle’s Baketique. We might not have Sartre on the South Bank, but we do now have sourdough.

And the environmental positives? All lighting is by low-energy LEDs. There is rainwater harvesting and a glorious policy of no plastic bottles, although champagne comes in glass. Still, they calculate that each guest at the Rafayel will discharge a mere 17kg of carbon, as opposed to the gluttonous norm of about four times as much noxious effluvium. Environmental negatives include the scruffy and noisy Battersea Heliport next door: non-reflective glass covers the building, deadening the light because, it is said, Mohamed al-Fayed’s pilot was once dazzled during a touchdown.

There have been inevitable artistic compromises and political accidents and narrowly avoided emergencies on the way. And Battersea cannot yet be confused with St Germain. But, for once, a developer is determined to do something interesting. At a time when other developers are pondering ugly, non-viable holes in the ground, this is inspirational.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Read the original post on Guardian Arts & Architecture

No Responses to "Rafayel on the Left Bank"

Comment Form


Flickr PhotoStream

    Fairy of the middle of Winter/ Яварь Середина-Зимыnozzle head trioLars MikkelsenCountry house and waterfalls - The majolica cloister of Santa Chiara in Naples (years 1739-1742) - Architect Domenico Antonio Vaccaro - Painters Giuseppe and Donato MassaCyborg Dude with Autodesk Sketchbook Pro & iPadKnock Out Game175. The Carlyle Hotel, South BeachPájaro N°3Quasi PrimaveraFfunny FfriendsCatch!American DreamA Blessing


HaggBridge.com brings you a daily update of news from art world, focused on UK based artists, exhibitions, and galleries.