Current Entry




Beginning in the 1800s, and for over a century, London reigned as the world’s largest port. Miles of its banks were developed for industrial activities, activities that, with advancing technology, were rendered obsolete over a short period of time. London’s docklands quickly became redundant as containerization took over as the dominant method of shipping goods by water.

Containerization is a process where cargo is packaged into large metal boxes, then loaded and unloaded via crane. Compared to the previously standard “break-bulk” shipping method, where cargo is simply stowed loosely in a ship’s hold, containerization reduces shipping costs dramatically. Ships need to spend much less time in port and cargo can be easily transferred to rail for the next leg of its journey.


The efficient nature of containerization led to a shift in volume that necessitated larger ports, larger ships and larger equipment. This new shipping paradigm could not always take advantage of older ports and narrower waterways. Many districts previously sufficient for shipping use were now deemed untenable for the industry. In the case of London, the shipping industry pushed its new center far outside of the central city. This, of course, left a vast stretch of underutilized industrial wasteland. At the same time, this shift presented London with an opportunity. The city now sported a glut of prominent real estate lining the river and waiting to be re-envisioned.



One person eager to take up the challenge of rethinking London’s waterfront was Richard Rogers. In the mid 1980s, Rogers presented his thoughts in an exhibition he called London as It Could Be. His style was technologically expressive and his tone was optimistic. Rogers wanted London to embrace its transformed role and to lead the world into the future with style and confidence. In his eyes, it was time to break from the materials and methods of the past and move ahead with his brand of carefully crafted techno-futurism.


Steel and glass dominated Rogers’ scheme. Futuristic trams and gracefully thin bridges spanned great distances to connect new islands in the Thames. Shining metal spheres and cylinders invoked a technical expertise. The proposal celebrated an unapologetic engineer’s aesthetic as the way forward for London. Rogers, and London alike, grasped the symbolism of the upcoming millennium and used it as a conceptual armature to guide the brand of the city. The new millennium was a chance for London to re-brand itself, to state that it was a world-class city with a bright future.


Of course, rethinking the Thames on a grand scale was an opportunity to steward urban design in London as well. Not only was Rogers proposing a new aesthetic for London, but his design was also tacitly reinforcing the idea that the river is the backbone of the city. His proposal would impact image in terms of formal language (techno-futurism), but also in terms of conceptual urban structure (the river as backbone). It would sharpen the image of the city as forward-looking: embracing its waterfront and the future.



Although Rogers’ particular proposal wasn’t physically realized, a version of it was. London has since revitalized its waterfront with numerous landmark projects, namely in the 1990s. In the eyes of developers and politicians, the timing was right for a millennial push.

With the urban vision of Rogers and the political backing of Tony Blair, the contemporary sensibilities and cultural inertia of ‘Cool Britannia’ ushered in transformative redevelopment on the Thames during the 1990s. It was a unique time for the country, where a resurgence of British culture infiltrated international media (namely musicians, fashion designers, and actors). However short-lived, the synchronicity of cultural confidence and political will engendered some of the most iconic architectural works found in London today.


Looking at modern-day London, the influence of this movement is clear. The river houses architectural icons from both extremes. Parliament and Big Ben are as strongly tied to London’s brand as ever, but now projects like the Millennium Bridge and the London Eye have worked their way into the public’s psyche.


London’s waterfront was quickly transformed, but the effect was ultimately a mixed message. Perhaps the vision of Rogers (and those like him) was short-sighted. An optimistic futurism can stay futuristic only so long. What Rogers considered cutting edge in the eighties appears a bit dated already. Perhaps the city was too eager to build first and ask questions later. The Millennium Dome may best exemplify a misreading of the public. The dome, designed to house an exhibition celebrating the turn of the millennium (probably considered a cunningly self-referential move by those who conceived it: building an icon to honor itself), turned out to be a strikingly unpopular financial flop. This misalignment of hype and reality might be seen as a judgment on Rogers’ view of London.



The Eye has done for London what the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, which is to give it a symbol and to let people climb above the city and look back down on it. Not just specialists or rich people, but everybody. That's the beauty of it: it is public and accessible, and it is in a great position at the heart of London.
-Richard Rogers

Despite any miscalculations, London has managed one important step in transforming its river. The water is reinforced as the front yard of the city. It is the center of the action for iconic development. All eyes are on the river and, with its targeted redevelopment, it is clear that London sees the Thames as a place for the public. Whether a new Ferris wheel or the adaptive reuse of a power station converted into an art museum, ambitious public projects seem to find the water in London. They may not all fit the mold of Rogers’ vision in the long-term, but they keep the waterfront firmly planted in the realm of the public.


Despite any interruption in the visual and stylistic continuity on the river, the programming has remained consistently public. Major public amenities and government buildings occupy the edge of the water. Works like the Millennium Bridge and the London Eye identify the riverfront as the realm of the public, while Parliament and the GLA Building bring the government to the water and thus to the public. The river is a place where governmental functions are, at least symbolically, brought to transparency. Combining a strong presence of both public and government functions shapes the perception of London through the collective eyes of its citizens.


The importance of transparency and accessibility should not be underestimated in terms of their impact on image. If the public cannot adequately access the waterfront, it will be far more difficult to build consensus around the psychological structure of the city (at least in terms of the river). The shift toward public spaces and projects that attract the public to the river has reinforced the water as a continuous backbone that can be used as the reference point for London’s many axes, relationships and geometries. The Thames, as an edge, is more accessible and therefore more imageable. A mental map of London is more vibrant and structured with the revitalized riverfront.

Comments for this entry

Becca Aitken


My peers and I are working on a project in school where we are making a documentary about fashion and how France/Parisian immigrants have influenced fashion in America.

My group and I were wondering if you would grant us permission to use your images in our documentary. It would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you.

Leave your comment


Parks, Promenades and Planning

2010 Rotch Traveling Scholarship