The Architecture of Death


As some of you will know, on Tuesday, 2 October a man was killed by a window pane falling from the Corniche building, which with Merano Residences (designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners) and the Dumont building (designed by David Walker Architects) is one of three new developments of what the advertising boards call ‘luxury apartments and penthouses’ that make up the newly-named Albert Embankment Plaza. This lies within the Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea Opportunity Area, over which the London Mayor has planning authority.

Like the other two buildings comprising the Albert Embankment Plaza, the Corniche was built by the Berkeley Group, the largest property developer in London, which has 75 per cent of its sites inside the M25, and pre-tax profits for the year ending April 2018 of £934.9 million, up 15 per cent on the previous year. The building was designed by Foster + Partners, the largest architectural practice in the UK, with pre-tax profits last year of £20.8 million, and whose partners took £23.4 million in bonuses, up 43 per cent on the previous year.

ASH went round to have a look at the building later that day, and the fallen pane could clearly be seen missing from the penthouse apartment on the 27th floor. The last five remaining 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom apartments are currently on sale for between £2.7 million and £6.25 million, but the penthouse from which the window pane fell was reported by the architecture and design magazine Dezeen to have been on the market for £22 million (although this information has subsequently been removed).

Apparently this isn’t the first time a window pane has fallen from the building. Last August, during construction of what Foster’s website describes as ‘curved gardens in the sky’, another pane slipped from its frame and nearly hit two carpenters working on the site. Despite this precedence, the hoardings outside the building advertise the Corniche as ‘Life ahead of the curve’, the irony of which disappears with this latest fatality from London’s housing.

The due date for completion of the Corniche is October 2018 – which is to say, now; and the website of St. James, one of the property developing subsidiaries of the Berkeley Group, says that the apartments are ‘ready to move into’. Residents of the Corniche have access to an ‘extensive health and wellness suite’ that includes an infinity pool, sauna and steam room, a ‘vitality’ pool with Jacuzzi jets and a ‘state of the art’ gym. Apparently the ‘Skyline’ residents’ bar on the 19th floor is a ‘spectacular spot for an aperitif watching the sunset over the River Thames’. We weren’t able to gain access to the building since a security guard at the door turned us away, so we’ll have to take their word for it. The neighbouring Dumont development, also by Berkeley, offers residents ‘exclusive access’ to a residents’ cinema, ten-pin bowling and a games room with pool table. The website says that ‘Staying in is the new going out’.

However, not all residents have access to these facilities. Entered through a separate poor-doors to a noticeably different building called Bankhouse, this backs onto the railway line that runs directly behind the development, and was developed separately by the One Housing Group housing association. Bankhouse includes all the development’s affordable housing provision, and provides a mix of 1- and 2-bedroom apartments, 36 of which are for sale through shared ownership deals, and 48 are retirement apartments for people over 55 with care needs and available for affordable rent, meaning up to 80 per cent of market rate. These 84 homes make up 33 per cent of the development’s 253 apartments.

But at £565,000 for a 1-bedroom apartment and rents from £208 per week (£900 per month) plus service charges as of November 2017 for retired residents, even this so-called ‘affordable housing’ would be well beyond the financial means of the man who was killed by the Corniche building. Mike Ferris, a 53 year-old coach driver for Clarkes of London and a life-long fan of West Ham football club, was reportedly returning from using the toilets in the Riverbank Plaza Hotel next door when the window pane hit him, killing him almost instantly.

A report into corruption in new London developments published last March by Transparency International revealed that all of the 7 Corniche properties sold at that time had been purchased by overseas investors, and that 3 of the owners were from high corruption risk jurisdictions. Of the 14 developments investigated in the report – including One Tower Bridge, 250 City Road, Southbank Place (the former Shell Centre), Baltimore Wharf, Circus West (phase one of the Battersea Power Station), City North Islington Estate, Manhattan Loft Gardens, Market Towers (One Nine Elms), Merano Residences, South Gardens (Elephant Park), The Stage, Two Fifty One Southwark Bridge Road, Westminster Quarter and The Corniche – 87.7 percent of sales had been made to buyers from abroad, and of these almost half had been bought by persons living in high corruption risk jurisdictions.

Transparency International, March 2017

Despite this, Councillor Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Labour Council, which granted planning permission for the development in March 2013, said of the Corniche Building:

‘This new development on Albert Embankment is another important stage of the transformation of Vauxhall. Developments like 20-21 Albert Embankment are essential to bringing new jobs, new affordable homes and inward investment into Lambeth which will secure our long-term economic growth.’

As big a lie as this is, at least the unaffordable affordable housing provision for the Corniche, although socially segregated from the rest of the development, was built on site. In October 2013, St. James developers received approval from Lambeth council’s planning committee to turn the 14 shared ownership properties that comprised the affordable housing component of the 48 apartments in the neighbouring Merano Residences into 6 properties for market sale, making the development 100 per cent private. In compensation for this loss of affordable housing provision, St. James provided the funding for 6 of the 8 ‘social rented affordable housing units’ that were built on 24-30 St. Oswald’s Place. This was a site cleared of a ‘short life’ housing co-operative, whose terraced housing was demolished by Lambeth council because it had, in the words of their newsletter, ‘reached the end of its lifespan’. Two years later, in November 2015, this new development was visited by the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who said:

‘I was keen to come along to see how they’ve managed to get the best deal for local residents, persuaded developers to build the right sorts of homes and negotiated on behalf of local residents. What you’ve got in Lambeth is a council on the side of its residents and as Mayor I’m going to be on the side of Londoners.’

The properties in the Merrano Residences, which started at a sale price of £2 million, had all sold off-plan by 2016, a year before they were completed last summer. Like the Corniche, all of the 8 properties sold at the time of Transparency International’s report last March had been purchased by oversees investors, with 75 per cent of them being from high corruption risk jurisdictions. The 6 homes for social rent built off-site were all the affordable housing provision the 48 apartments in the 28-storey tower funded. The 186 properties in the 30-storey Dumont building are still available and start at £2.35 million for a 2-bedroom apartment, which makes them as likely to serve as investment opportunities for global capital and dirty money as the rest of the Albert Embankment Plaza. But what all three of these buildings show is that, far from bringing investment into the borough to build the ‘right sorts of homes’ for local residents, as Sadiq Khan put it, Section 106 agreements with developers building multi-million pound property investments like the Corniche are funding the demolition of existing housing and community services that Londoners already live in and rely on, and replacing them with the minimum off-site provision of affordable housing that only London’s middle classes could possibly afford to rent or buy.

Mike Ferris was killed twice. Before being struck by the penthouse window pane that ended his life, Ferris, who was born in East London but had moved out to Medway in Kent, like so many Londoners had been socially cleansed from his home by the housing crisis that has been manufactured by this collaboration between London councils, successive London Mayors, property developers, and the global investors of the estimated £90 billion of dirty money that passes through the capital every year – £4.2 billion of which is invested in property. This is the architecture of death.

From left to right: Brian Maynard, Project Director at St. James Group; Sean Ellis, Executive Director of the Berkeley group and Chairman of St. James Group and the Berkeley Homes Eastern Counties Division; Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London; Florence Eshalomi, former Lambeth Cabinet Member for Culture and Sport and current Labour London Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark; Councillor Lib Peck, Leader of Lambeth council; and Councillor Matthew Bennett, former Cabinet Member for Housing and Regeneration and current Cabinet Member for Planning, Investment and New Homes.

Simon Elmer
Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (CIC). Although we do occasionally receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work financially, please make a donation through PayPal:

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