When the Stirling prize shortlist was announced last week there were gasps of incredulity that Neo Bankside, the angular cluster of luxury flats poking up behind Tate Modern in London, had muscled its way into a group of otherwise well-meaning buildings. What was this project doing on the list, many asked, as both a symbol of London’s iniquitous housing market and a project that’s not even one of Richard Rogers’s best? It looks like something churned out by his office’s B-team, generic glass silos wrapped in the trademark steel bracing, destined for a corner of the world where critics hopefully wouldn’t notice.
Echoing the surprise expressed in these pages, the project was slammed from all sides. This “stratospherically priced non-dom accom”, wrote Catherine Slessor, former editor of the Architectural Review, is “depressingly emblematic of how London is turning into a coarser version of Paris (unaffordable core, atomised banlieues)”. It is there “to remind us how money is driving housing as asset class rather than home”, agreed Financial Times critic Edwin Heathcote (in a piece that, like Slessor’s, was published in Architects’ Journal). “Neo Blingside?” quipped the Independent’s Jay Merrick. NEO Bankside, London, United Kingdom. Architect: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, 2013. Like something churned out by Richard Rogers’s B-team? Neo Bankside. Photograph: Alamy
But beyond the headline disdain about the unsavoury symbolism of these flashy pads, a closer look at the project’s planning history shows that it has set a very dangerous precedent in the way it exploits local policies and undermines the principle of creating mixed communities.
The RIBA Stirling prize is awarded to the building that has made “the biggest contribution to the evolution of architecture in a given year”, and, by one logic, Neo Bankside is an eminently worthy winner. It has pushed the role of architecture as a spectacularly effective lubricant, allowing its developers, Native Land and Grosvenor, to slip out of the council’s planning obligations with unparalleled ease.
“The project really represents how the council is willing to let developers call the tune when it comes to affordable housing,” says local resident Adrian Glasspool who, with fellow campaigner Jerry Flynn, has been shining a spotlight on the deals driving Southwark’s regeneration for the last few years through the 35% Campaign. Their analysis of Neo Bankside’s planning history tells a story of developers relentlessly trying to reduce their obligations, and a council all too willing to let them.
To begin with, the original planning application, made in 2006, used its viability assessment (PDF) to prove that the borough’s 40% affordable housing target was simply not achievable – and that only 27.5% affordable housing could be provided instead. It argued this on the basis that the flats would sell for an average of £754/sq ft, duly accepted in the officer’s report (PDF). In reality, the scheme has sold for an average of £1,326/sq ft, with the penthouses now on the market for £22m. Yet the quantity of affordable housing remains the same.