That vista is about to be enhanced. From May of this year, Somerset House, perhaps the most glorious building on the river (although Greenwich Naval College might offer a persuasive alternative), is going to be turned from a shoddy urban slum into a visitor attraction of the highest quality.
This massive yet elegant building, designed in the late 18th century, and for so long known best as the place where birth, marriage and death certificates could be checked and where the Inland Revenue conducted its assaults on innocent citizens’ finances, is to be a place of public resort.
There will be art exhibitions (not only the wonders of the Courtauld Institute but loans from the Hermitage in St Petersburg), restaurants, a bar and a huge courtyard – with a fantastic fountain – in which open-air entertainments will be staged. It will also have what will undoubtedly be the best riverside promenade in Britain. This will be 146 m long, with access not only from Somerset House but by a ramp leading off Waterloo Bridge.
The architect Jeremy Dixon.Edward Jones, whose achievements include the rebuilt Royal Opera House, has presided over the transformation, which has included the replacement of the courtyard’s depressing tarmac with granite setts.
The London Eye, which I love, has nothing in common with Somerset House, which I also love
From this terrace, visitors will be able to look across the Thames to a National Theatre whose approach has been revivified, a Festival Hall that is going through its own refurbishment with grand plans to follow and, of course, the London Eye, which, with luck, will be revolving regularly by then. Couple all these changes with the construction further down the river of the Millennium Bridge, and we have some exciting changes. The bridge will lead to the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, the new gallery located in the former Bankside power station, originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and now refitted (at a cost of £130m) by Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron.
So, this stretch of the river will be more attractive, on both sides, than ever before. For this improvement I offer two cheers. Why not three? Because each project, although fine in itself, seems to have been undertaken without reference to all or any of the others. The London Eye, which I love, has nothing in common with Somerset House, which I also love. The new-look National Theatre is in an entirely different vernacular from the Festival Hall. The Imax cinema, a Roman colosseum of celluloid fantasies that has transformed a dispiriting traffic island, does not blend with anything around it.
These new assets are admirable but although each has been planned with great care as an isolated entity, there seems to have been no overall planning brief – perhaps because the developments on each side of the river are situated in different boroughs with different planning policies. Maybe the arrival – also next May – of the new London assembly will impose some overall discipline on planning developments in our capital.
It is, however, far too late to put right the unspeakable mess down-river from Blackfriars Bridge. I saw this from the river a few days ago when travelling by boat to the Millennium Dome (another success, despite the carpers, as Building has made clear). The mishmash of ill-assorted buildings on the north side of the Thames, most of them ugly in themselves and apparently designed without any reference to any neighbouring structures, is repulsive. And, although the immediate approach to the dome is now a credit to those responsible, the riverbanks only slightly further up are a disgrace. What would my American friend’s guests make of those dismal mudflats populated by forlorn birds?
The Right Honourable Gerald Kaufman is MP for Manchester Gorton and chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.