Here in London’s least fashionable arrondissement we are bracing ourselves for a triple tsunami of international embassies, luxury high-rise flats, and, worst of all, the arrival of hipsters.
Since the demolition of the glorious Pleasure Gardens in 1859, Vauxhall has resolutely resisted all colonisation, despite being Thames-side and embarrassingly central. Indeed, so dreary had the postcode become that in 1994 MI6 moved here, confident, no doubt, that the enveloping miasma of dullness would act as a psychological moat. Since then, the area has been reduced to little more than a suicidal traffic island arranged around the world’s most depressing bus station — its only architectural feature of note being its boldly exposed outdoor urinal. But all that is changing.
Gentrification. Gone are the determinedly 1970s-era restaurants so beloved of Vauxhall’s cool-immune Portuguese community with their air-freighted battery chicken and non-specific meatballs; instead, in come the gourmet burger bars, the slick sushi counters and the street-food markets (‘Levantine wraps’). Gone the backstreet garages (‘exhausts a speciality’); instead Damien Hirst has chosen Vauxhall as the venue for his first art gallery. Going the likes of Keybridge House, the grey 15-storey landmark to human desolation formerly owned by BT; coming instead innumerable luxury apartments like ‘Keybridge’ — a ‘stunning fusion of the capital’s mansion blocks with elements of Manhattan architecture’.
I say innumerable. Besides Keybridge, I have counted 13 towers or blocks being built and at least another ten planned. There’s One Nine Elms — in fact two towers, one of them 56 storeys high, comprising 436 flats, a five-star hotel and oceanic swimming pools. Then there’s Nine Elms Point (593 flats) beside the new Nine Elms tube station. And Vauxhall Sky Gardens (35 storeys), New Broadway tower (50 storeys), Vauxhall Island towers (41 and 32) and Vauxhall Square towers (48 and 50).
I know. It’s exhausting. But I’m not kidding: the Vauxhall of 2025 is going to make Canary Wharf look as elegant as 18th-century Venice. Also well under way is the new American embassy — an epic architectural essay in state-of-the art security and one-way glass. Beside it is yet another development. Embassy Gardens features a ‘sky pool’, a 25-metre clear-bottomed swimming pool suspended between two apartment blocks ten stories up. And just down from there: the regeneration of Battersea Power Station, with more than 3,500 new flats.
Does this mean that Vauxhall is the answer to the housing crisis? Gazillions of new apartments, all empty? Problem solved? Well, not exactly. At Keybridge, for example, a studio (no bedrooms) will start at £630,000.
But maybe it’s not the influx of the super-wealthy from the Far East that Vauxhall fears most — they’re unlikely to actually visit their apartments. No: maybe, after all, it’s the hipsters. For years now the area has been mercifully free of men trying to look like D.H. Lawrence or woman in abstract floral leggings. There have been no baristas, nothing vintage, nothing artisanal; nobody has ever used the word ‘eclectic’ without being immediately targeted by teenage gangs (on hand for this express purpose). Coffee here was always flat and white.
And yet that, too, is changing. Now, men with hello-I’m-creative beards push their bikes from Hirst’s new gallery towards the Tea House Theatre — an iniquitous den of bespoke baking and crochet clubs.
Even the steadfast gay community is changing. Vauxhall used to play doughty host to the bear-curious who enjoyed a sweaty old-school night of rough and tumble under the leaky railway arches at The Hoist. Or the grim veterans of Chariots Roman Spa. Or the louche transvestite-cabaret audience at the shabbily un-chic Vauxhall Tavern (set to be demolished). But now there are half a dozen internationally famous nights for the younger gay crowd migrating south from Soho to Voho.
Long-term residents are divided. Some are founding creative hubs. Some are learning Portuguese and going underground. Others are taking combined courses in Chinese and high-rise window cleaning. Others are moving to Norwood in disgust. I’m thinking about opening a coffee shop with an outdoor-urinal salvage theme.