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.
Anne was born in Downpatrick and spent her early childhood in Killyleagh, County Down, a town dominated by a fairytale castle built in 1180 and strategically located overlooking Strangford Lough to defend the town against the Vikings. It was adapted in the 1850s by the architect Sir Charles Lanyon. The castle has a colourful history which includes murder, a contested inheritance and a Judgement of Solomon. It’s now inhabited by the Rowan Hamilton family and is marketed as a self catering destination. Anne remembers going with her mother to the castle’s market garden to buy vegetables.
While at Edinburgh she was elected President of the Sculpture and of the Drama Society whose former President was the playwright John Antrobus. She wrote and produced two plays one of which is now in the archive of the Traverse Theatre in the city. Anne’s interest in theatre stems from her association with the legendary Mary O’Malley, founder of the Lyric Players Theatre Belfast, as a scene painter. In later years Anne was elected to chair the theatre’s board, setting in motion a review of its governance.
Anne took a sabbatical when her children Leon and Mary-Ann were born and moved to County Kilkenny with her husband the architect Harry Orr. There, she revived her art practice setting up Legan Castle Design Studio. She won an Irish Arts Council Travel Award to study traditional mosaic making in Ravenna’s Accademia di Belle Arti and exhibited during Kilkenny Arts Week. Her exhibition about The Troubles, titled Images of War, transferred to The Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow through the sponsorship of the journalist Kay Hingerty and the encouragement of the late Jack White, Head of Programmes at RTE, who opened the exhibition.
When Plan magazine needed a Northern Correspondent, Anne was approached. That association led to the publication of a brochure for the Festival of Architecture in Belfast for the Royal Society of Ulster Architects which subsequently evolved into the Ulster Architect magazine of which Anne was the founding editor. In the 1980s she purchased the magazine and set up a company to ensure that it would continue in publication. As publisher and editor of an architectural magazine she covered all the main building projects in the UK and Ireland with an eye to the visual arts and heritage projects. She personally interviewed high profile people including Max Clendinning, Edward Cullinan and Richard Rogers as well as covering stories throughout the UK and in Belgium, Canada, Germany, Holland, Italy and Norway. Her company was selected to take part in an entrepreneurial programme between University of Ulster and Boston College. Anne spent six months in the media department of a large advertising agency, Hill Holiday Connors Cosmopolous.
My Favourite London Hotel… Because I live in London I don’t often stay in hotels in the city but I did stay in the Tower Hotel at Tower Bridge when my daughter was married in London. It’s in a spectacular location with magnificent views of the bridge and the River Thames. Quite a few years ago I found The Manhattan Hotel in Covent Garden almost by accident. Named after Lord Louis Mountbatten, in the opulently relaxed colonial interior, you could almost transport yourself to India as it was when he was the last Viceroy. It’s now part of the Edwardian Hotels group so has probably changed somewhat since then.
My Favourite London Restaurant… I always take advice from my brother Damien and his wife Imelda when they come to London. They are both great foodies who keep me on my toes gastronomically. They lived in London before moving to France about 20 years ago but still visit regularly. So I don’t really have a favourite but I have had really good experiences with them at Brasserie Zédel in Piccadilly which is a slice of medium priced Paris in London, and Vinoteca, Beak Street, Soho. Great atmosphere in both and good value.
My Favourite Local Restaurant… My favourite food is Middle Eastern so I like Beyrouths in Streatham Hill which serves simple Lebanese food, great mint tea and delicious homemade lemonade. For French food I found three courses recently at Côte Brasserie on Battersea Rise faultless. The subdued interior in muted green is cleverly lit to soften the glow over the clientele and again good value.
My Favourite Weekend Destination… It used to be Ragdale Hall Health Hydro and Thermal Spa in Melton Mowbray where I took my family one year for a total chillout divorced from the commercialism of Christmas. Now I think it is Kelly’s Hotel in Wexford, Ireland. Architecture as such has bypassed it in that it has grown like topsy over the years due to its popularity, particularly with families. Situated right on the beach on the Wexford coast, it has one of the best private art collections in Ireland, a selection from it hanging on the hotel’s walls: Hockney, Picasso, Miró, and good contemporary Irish art as well. Sculpture defines the surrounding gardens and the collection is catalogued in a book which can be purchased at reception. The labels of their own very good wine collection and the menus for their creative and wonderful food are designed by the artist Bill Corzier.
My Favourite Country House… While I am drawn to return to the Villa Saraceno, one of the mansions designed by Andrea Palladio near Vincenza in the Veneto in northeast Italy which inspires a deceptive sense of grandiose living, the less grandstanding Rathmullan House in County Donegal wins me over largely because of its location on a seemingly endless beach – blue flag and with spectacular views of the Fanad Peninsula. It was built in the 1760s and is a typical Georgian house of the period used as a bathing house by the Bishop of Derry. One of Ireland’s leading architects, Liam McCormick, designed a new pavilion extension in 1969 and the hotel has been extended several times since then. In spite of that it still feels like visiting someone’s home because many of the original features of the house have been retained and the staff are wonderfully friendly.
My Favourite Building… I have written about many buildings over the years for various publications so I have a number of favourites including Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and the buildings of the architect who most influenced him, Louis Henry Sullivan – an almost forgotten figure – known as the father of the skyscraper which he saw as very specific to America. Although seldom credited with it, he coined the phrase ‘form follows function’. Louis’ Transportation Building for the Chicago World Fair of 1893 is a wonderful expression of architecture on the cusp of change and the National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna in Minnesota of 1908 has been described as the most beautiful bank in the world. Tragically his life ended in poverty and alcoholism. My favourite building by a living architect is Ted Cullinan’s Downland Gridshell, Weald and Downland Open Air Museum of 2002. It’s a wonderful organic expression of contemporary design using traditional techniques. Ted is founder of Cullinan Studio. I sat beside him at a dinner at Queen’s University when he talked about admiring the traditional blue barns he observed on his way in from the airport. A puzzled look fell over the surrounding faces. Was this part of our architectural heritage we had missed? Was it not a case someone asked of whatever paint fell off the back of a lorry at the time they were being painted. Like the time I was suggesting programme ideas to the BBC in Belfast. I’d noticed all houses on the Shankill Road were painted dark reds, browns and ochres but houses on the Falls Road seemed to favour more pastel colours such as light grey, pale blue and yellow. Was this evidence of a significant cultural difference we should be looking at? Someone asked me had I never noticed what colours the ships in Belfast docks were painted. Aha – no expression of social significance involved at all.
My Favourite Opera…Mozart’s Magic Flute. I have loved Mozart since my school days when I did a study of Symphony No 41, better known as the Jupiter – his last. On a visit to Italy after the Venice Opera House had been burned down, a French opera troop presented a very modernistic version of The Flute in a specially constructed temporary theatre in Venice. Travelling by motor launch to this very French off-the-wall interpretation heightened the whole experience making it unforgettable. La Fenici was reconstructed “as it was, where it was,” as he said, to the designs of architect Aldo Rossi before he died.
My Favourite Artist… I have two: Peter Doig because he imbues his landscape paintings with a sense of ‘presence’. There is a feeling of ‘the hour before the dawn’, of menace and the unknown with an uncategorisable technique. My second favourite is the East German artist Anselm Kiefer. I went to his retrospective at the Royal Academy last year and was almost speechless at the breadth of his work. Mostly I admire him for how he stepped up to German history with all its connotations and for his continued experimentation with various forms of expression and media.
My Favourite Scent…Jo Malone at the moment but I have been a follower of Estée Lauder for years mainly because my mother used her fragrances.
My Favourite Fashion Designer… I like classic clothes and good tailoring so I have a soft spot for Jean Muir. I also like the simplicity of Armani. When I am in Donegal I call on Magee to have a look at their tweeds. My mother gave me a magnificent tailored coat in a beautiful mix of Donegal tweed which, unfortunately, I need to lose a few kilos to wear.
My Favourite Charity… I support The National Brain Appeal and was delighted that a watercolour I donated to an exhibition at the Oxo Tower last year sold in aid of the charity.
My Favourite Pastime… Definitely reading and – running almost neck and neck – drawing.