High tide on the Thames

More and more aspirational and iconic developments are springing up on London's riverside. But do they really live up to their expectations? Graham Norwood reports
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The Independent Online

Iconic is the latest buzz-word used by estate agents and developers to describe apartment blocks built in flamboyant style at prominent locations. Such buildings used merely to be labelled "stunning". But now your city or waterfront is nothing if it does not possess at least one "iconic" site, and when it comes to London's Thameside that tag pops up time after time.

Iconic is the latest buzz-word used by estate agents and developers to describe apartment blocks built in flamboyant style at prominent locations. Such buildings used merely to be labelled "stunning". But now your city or waterfront is nothing if it does not possess at least one "iconic" site, and when it comes to London's Thameside that tag pops up time after time.

Almost every new tower announced along the Thames is the biggest, tallest, oddest, dearest or plain loudest, and the projects often come with celebrity architects attached.

Take Albion Riverside, known as The Curve. It is an 11-storey structure designed by Sir Norman Foster, which stands between Battersea and Albert bridges on the south bank of the Thames. There are 13 penthouses and 183 apartments (one is on sale now at £650,000 from Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward, 020-7924 1944).

"This is typical of the iconic buildings in the capital - a building that is known well outside of London circles and associated with a headline architect," says Linda Beaney. Her consultancy, Beaney Pearce, has helped to acquire land and advised on planning procedures for a string of striking residential buildings lining the Thames.

The most famous is the Richard Rogers-designed Montevetro at Wandsworth, which has 103 apartments, each with a river view, and whose residents have included the models Naomi Campbell and Marie Helvin, TV crime fighter Nick Ross and property tycoon Nicholas Cowell, brother of Pop Idol's Simon.

Another icon is Imperial Wharf. Its towers and gull-wing rooflines, designed by architects' firm Broadway Malyan, dominate the skyline and were used by Tony Blair as a backdrop for an election campaign press conference. As with all such buildings, prices are steep - from £454,950 for a two-bedroom apartment to £2,999,950 for a townhouse in the development (St George, 020-7610 9693).

The newest Thameside construction to describe itself as iconic is Falcon Wharf. Its four boomerang-shaped towers, just now being built, will be the tallest in Wandsworth, and made from curved glass, steel and timber. Many apartments will have panoramic views over the river, but the most luxurious space of all will be the penthouse - 12,500sq ft over the top three floors of one of the towers, scheduled to go on sale at a cool £25m (from Hamptons International, 0870 990 7599).

At one time civic leaders and businessmen built monster libraries, theatres and other public buildings to show their influence; now they create homes high in the sky, says Liam Bailey of estate agent Knight Frank. "Council leaders are continuing the tradition of their Victorian forebears, although the symbols of civic pride now are higher towers rather than ornate town halls," he claims.

Permission has just been given for the erection of Europe's tallest block of flats at 1 Millharbour in London's Docklands: two linked towers will rise to 36 and 50 storeys and will contain more than 700 apartments. The developer, Ballymore, describes it as "iconic" (of course), and has commissioned architects Skidmore Owings & Merrill. This is the practice behind the Burj Dubai in United Arab Emirates, set to become the world's tallest building when it is completed in 2009.

Even former council houses are getting in on the act. Aragon Towers, a 29-storey 1960s tower block built by the Greater London Council on the Thames at distinctly un-iconic Deptford, is now privately owned. It has been spruced up and is selling at prices from £230,000 a flat (Berkeley Homes, 020-8331 7272).

Other apartment buildings still awaiting planning permission include the 66-storey London Bridge Tower, a 63-floor block in Limehouse and the 50-storey Vauxhall Tower near the South Bank. But not everyone is a fan of this design-driven trend.

Graham Morrison, a director at Allies and Morrison architects, described iconic property as "ordinary buildings distorted into unnecessarily complicated shapes" at the recent Architects' Journal annual awards dinner.

He said: "Take a trip down the Thames from Southwark to Wandsworth to see the effects. On what I call the Costa del Icon, you see an array of second-rate structures shrilly demanding attention. Sophisticated computer imagery and carefully lit models mean the original plans are very seductive but their concrete realisation often leaves us disappointed."

There are practical drawbacks to these developments, too. Beaney says that some iconic buildings on the Thames are inconvenient if residents are relying on public transport.

"They are on the river front, so some are 15 to 20 minutes' walk from a Tube station. If you do that on a wet November night, you inevitably walk down a few muggers' alleyways," she says.

Despite this, such properties attract a premium. "The fame of renowned architects has given their buildings an edge. As a result of the publicity, these buildings attract a certain kind of person - often those working in design industries," Beaney says.

"These are discerning buyers who don't want to live in a block designed by some developer's computer. That's why icons work."

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