The new cubism

Residents live alongside artists and kids play by the Thames.
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The Independent Culture
Here is a building that defies the laws of planners, bankers, pension fund managers, the majority of property developers and the whole deadly culture of "men in suits": Oxo Tower Wharf. It is one of the very first important mixed-use city buildings in Britain, an intelligently designed, good-looking riverside complex of low rental housing association flats, designer-maker workshops, small shops, cafes, restaurants, community offices and places to stop and stare. It's all topped off very distinctively with the blowsy Art Deco tower Oxo, added to this former Edwardian Post Office power station when it moved here in 1928.

Oxo Wharf Tower is a small triumph for the community architecture, development and housing movement. What started in the Seventies as a rebellious beards- and-sandals fight against crass and insensitive redevelopment in the hearts of our cities has matured into a model of how British city centres can again become delightful places to live - not just for the smart, young and wealthy, but also for those on modest incomes who still eschew suburbia in favour of the rich life of a city centre.

Oxo Wharf Tower is, to date, the crowning achievement of Coin Street Community Builders (CSCB), which - since winning its battle to buy 13 acres of redundant land on London's South Bank in 1984 - has brought everyday life, complete with children, window boxes, pets and washing lines back to within a few yards of Waterloo Station, the South Bank Centre and, most happily, on the banks of the Thames.

Between 1970, when the old wharves along the South Bank were finally deserted and 1984, when CSCB won its battle and was given funding by the Greater London Council, the Oxo Tower stood silent, empty and broken. An accusing finger pointing into the London sky, it reminded us of how little we cared for life in our city centres. During the Seventies, the only development schemes local authorities seemed prepared to consider were for giant office blocks and ungainly hotels. It was assumed - and made certain - that local people would wish to move out of the area to live in suburbia. But they wanted the very opposite, and they learnt to fight for what they wanted.

In 1984, after two public inquiries and a spirited fight against bombastic redevelopment plans for the area, CSCB was able to buy 13 acres of land from the GLC which had, in turn, bought the land from private investors. The first stab at new housing - 46 family homes and 10 flats completed in 1988 - was welcome, but designed in a twee and, ironically, suburban style. This was a shame, not so much for many of the residents, who were delighted to have homes with front doors and gardens for the first time, but for the South Bank's urban geography.

A lesson was quickly learnt. Last year, CSCB opened a second development of 11 three and four-bedroom houses and 16 flats nearby, designed by the architects Lifschutz Davidson in a new and wholly convincing urban style. Searching for a form of city housing that was gritty but friendly, Lifschutz Davisdon hit the nail on the head and, justifiably, won awards for the work.

The houses, Toy Town and my-kinda-town, were, however, simply the core of a new form of city development that brought a park, a river walkway, shops, workshops, bars and cafes to the old Lambeth Marshes. Coin Street had become both a place to live and a destination for visitors and tourists.

The big leap forward in the CSCB story, however, is Oxo Wharf Tower. Here, at last, is a mixed-use building proving how housing and shops, workshops and cafes can co-exist happily in the same building. Not that Oxo Wharf Tower will ever be a residence for those who dream of domestic exclusivity; it will always be a rumbustious setting, a home for those who thrive on river views, a choice of places to go, people to meet and sights to see. Oxo Wharf Tower is the antithesis of the suburban cul- de-sac. Children brought up here will be able to scuttle in and out of artists' studios and designers' workshops, catch films, plays, music and shows at the South Bank a few minutes' walk away - and even mess about, as did Cockney children for centuries, on the river. No need for the Volvo ride to school nor the frustration of being trapped in the cossetting straitjacket of an executive house by a golf-course in Kent or Surrey.

Oxo Wharf Tower has been divided, on different floors, into a riverside viewing platform, 12 shops, a second floor of cafes run by nine separate outlets, 33 workshops for designer-makers, performance areas, 78 one, two and three-bedroom flats over five floors and a rooftop brasserie.

This must be one of the very first times that ordinary Londoners, used to big housing estates or slums, have been offered such delight. Previous experiments in such mixed-use development - in France and the US, for example - have been for middle-class communities. Le Corbusier's famous Unite d'Habitation, the great, abstract concrete housing block in Marseilles, was intended for working-class occupation, but the ingenuity of the architecture, its setting, accommodation and its shops, cafes, hotel, rooftop swimming pool and play area were very appealing to the professional classes, who muscled their way in. Today, the Unite is a middle-class dream, although one little understood by British home-makers in search of a neo-Georgian shoebox culled from a housebuilder's catalogue.

Remodelling and renovating the Oxo Tower also fills what had been a yawning gap, a missing tooth in the craggy jaw of this bend in the Thames. The Oxo Tower has been a loved, if abused, feature of the South Bank for 65 years. Its design, although wickedly commercial and as subtle as scarlet lipstick, cannot fail to bring a smile to the face; the great windows at the top of the tower that spell out Oxo were a way round the restrictions the London County Council placed on advertising on buildings in certain locations. By making the tower one big advert, with its name integrated into the architecture, Oxo was able to flaunt itself over the Thames, even when its factory had moved and the tower was abandoned.

The new development has been funded, on a non-profit making basis, through bank loans, the Housing Corporation, City Grant and CSCB equity. Only local people will be able to apply for flats to rent and, despite their interest, no "chain" shops will be rented space in Oxo Wharf Tower. So here, after many years, is architecture by the people for the people that is likeable and enhances the city it serves, without thought of gain.