It’s Enough to Get the Dopaminergic Neurons of Your Ventral Tegmental Area Stimulated Into Overdrive
A little over 22 years since the quadruple page spread was published in Ulster Architect (for decades Ireland’s leading architectural magazine published and edited by Anne Davey Orr), it seems like an opportune moment to revisit Montevetro. It truly was the trailblazing residential scheme that set alight the southwest bank. It’s hard to imagine that Battersea hasn’t always been fashionable but back then it was a backwater (no pun). Montevetro was the architectural lovechild of Taylor Woodrow, one of the largest housebuilding and construction companies in Britain, and architects Richard Rogers Partnership. A mere eight years after Ulster Architect published this seminal piece, Taylor Woodrow merged with its rival George Wimpey, to form the nation’s leading housebuilder. Taylor Wimpey Central London sprung up as the capital’s developer arm of the plc, attracting some of the hottest talent in the property industry. Swapping CGIs for photographic art, the wordage remains more or less the same in this replication of the original feature. Here goes.
“Everyone is raving about it – planners refer to it as ‘sustainable housing’ and developers call it ‘New York style studio living’ – that is, the late 20th century phenomenon of inner city redevelopment. Rising like a shining phoenix from the grey ashes of urban desolation in London is Montevetro, a contemporary block of pied-à-terres along the River Thames opposite Chelsea Harbour. Designed by the Richard Rogers Partnership, it is one of the most arresting examples of inner city redevelopment to date.
Lord Rogers: “At the time Wren rebuilt St Paul’s, he didn’t replicate the old cathedral but designed something of its own day. Montevetro is a building for our era, but it respects its setting, not be deference but by sensitivity, to the context.”
When Richard Rogers Partnership took a critical look at the southwest bank site for what was to become Montevetro, the shortcomings of the existing buildings there became obvious. The old flour mills could have been converted to residential use but as lead project architect Marco Goldschmied says, “the drawbacks were apparent – an awkward plan and inconvenient layout would have deprived a third of the apartments of any river view and prevented the possibility of creating a significant new public space along the Thames.”
The site was typical of many along the river: it had great potential but in reality it was fairly depressing. The redundant industrial buildings, objects of no beauty, formed an impenetrable barrier between the river and the neighbouring streets. Extending to the very banks of the Thames, they also blocked the path of the river walk (a popular public amenity gradually extended in recent years) and overshadowed Battersea’s ancient parish church – Listed Grade I.
The Rogers strategy was to capitalised on the riverside setting and to insist that every apartment in the scheme had a view of the river. The new building reflects that strategy. At first glance it resembles a slender wedge, its river frontage entirely glazed to maximise the views from the large reception rooms. At the rear are the bedrooms behind a more solid façade – a practical device but one which allows the building to reflect the mature of the surrounding streets, with their interesting mixture of architecture dating from the 17th to the 20th centuries. A building or buildings? Montevetro is really the latter: a linked group of buildings which step up from three storeys close to the church, to a sensational 20 storeys at the northern tip of the development. “Respecting the setting of the church was a key consideration,” says Marco. “It is a rare survival but it had been treated with scant respect in the past. We spent a lot of time studying the impact of the development on views of it from along and across the river. The result will be that its impact will be much enhanced.”
Lord Rogers: “I’ve lived in London for 40 years and I’ve come to realise that the Thames is the real heart of London. Unfortunately, much of the river is virtually invisible to even those who live close to it – shut off by decaying industry and dereliction and frustratingly inaccessible.”
The Rogers team was keen to achieve a scale appropriate for the Thames. Small suburban scale buildings would have looked insignificant along its broad banks. Montevetro has grandeur which is tempered by a concern to be neighbourly. The apartments are pulled back from Battersea Church Road, where the residential leisure suite respects the proportions of nearby houses. Marco shares Richard Rogers’ concern for public space. The new development provides a spacious public garden which reads as an extension of the adjacent churchyard and creates a new context for the church. “A complex like this has to balance the interest of the residents, who naturally want privacy and security, with those of the public,” says Marco. Residents can enjoy their own shared private garden, set back from the river and slightly elevated above the public park.
Lord Rogers: “It isn’t just buildings which make a city – public spaces matter just as much. The Pompidou Centre in Paris, for example, is linked to a great piazza which teems with life.”
The Rogers team gave prolonged thought to the issue of materials. At Montevetro, the mix is sophisticated. The strict grid which is central to the design is used to carry a system of panels, infilled with terracotta on the eastern elevation, giving the required solid effect. The futuristic penthouses are highly transparent, with view on both sides from lofty studios. The contrast between surrounding sturdy Victorian brick and the airy lightweight grace of Montevetro will add a sexy new dimension to the riverside scene.
Lord Rogers: “Living in the city is a vote for the city. Fortunately, lots of younger people are voting for the city and living there so that they can spend time enjoying life and not battling with the chore of commuting.”
Richard Rogers Partnership believe that their new development is not a simplistic statement but rather is an intricate piece of urban design – a carefully considered vertical village to address immediate and wider contexts. Marco Goldschmied is convinced that it meets the needs of a particular social group: affluent, highly mobile, cosmopolitan in outlook and not content to decamp to the suburbs. “In contrast to other countries, we expect people to decamp to the suburbs to live in conventional houses when they achieve a certain position in life,” he comments. “Montevetro is a belated recognition that there are plenty of people who have ‘made it’ but actually want to live in the heart of London, with all the amenities that the city offers in easy reach.”
Whether or not you actually like Montevetro is, of course, a matter of personal taste. To us, striking arrangement as it is, we can’t help thinking that from a distance it vaguely looks like a group of Docklands offices. On closer inspection, its residential purpose becomes totally apparent as the tiers of towering terraces come into view. Maybe it is just a question of adjusting our view of the form domestic architecture should take. After all, the Lloyd’s Building readjusted most people’s perception of what a white collar workplace could look like. Montevetro – it’s certainly a cutting edge architecture and concept.”
Montevetro is aging well. Incredibly well. Like a good Malbec or a high cheek boned former model. City centre apartment living is no longer novel. Quite the opposite. And on the publishing front, if anything, today’s photographic art outsells yesterday’s CGIs. The narrative has become more augmented. Somehow the sharp contrast between the high tech architecture and neoclassical church has mellowed with time. And as for the area’s fashion status: a Russian oligarch has snapped up Old Battersea House, a smooth pebble’s throw from the scheme; the future king goes to St Thomas’s School round the corner; and on a sunny Friday evening you’ll find the best photographers and writers and planners and models in town chilling in Battersea Square. That’s how it is.