London’s Sky Pool: a disaster that’s already happened

Last month pictures of a tourist scrabbling for his life as floor panels on a glass bridge in Longjing, China shattered went viral on social media. The man survived by clinging on for dear life as a 100m chasm opened up beneath him.

This week, the internet has been populated with images of the Sky Pool, a disaster film waiting to happen, a transparent pool spanning two new towers at Nine Elms on the south bank of the Thames. On the first few hot days of the year, residents were pictured swimming and lounging above the city.

The 25m pool is constructed in clear acrylic with a bottom a foot thick and suspended between the two blocks of Embassy Gardens “legacy buildings”, 10 storeys above the ground. Hanging there, it has become the visual cipher for everything that is wrong with London’s property boom, its local politics, its architecture and its optics.

Advances in material technology and manufacturing have made things that would have been unimaginable a few years ago possible. The pool was originally designed by engineers Arup and fabricated in Colorado. But just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be. 

Nine Elms and its surroundings have become notorious in London as a hyper-capitalist development experiment enabled by a laissez-faire attitude from the local authority, Wandsworth. Billed both as regeneration and housing provision, it is arguably neither of those things, but rather a privatisation of formerly public lands to create an ad hoc pile-up of towers which have little to do with their context or the pressing needs of London.

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Vauxhall, Nine Elms and Battersea are still largely deprived parts of the city defined by huge swaths of public housing and surprising poverty amid the many now-gentrified terraces. It is precisely because of this contrast in wealth that the Sky Pool seems so obscene. To do something like this at a resort is one thing — to create a spectacle for the purposes of tourism as was done, say, at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. But to do it in London is to rub the faces of those looking up from their grim train commutes to difficult jobs in others’ wallowing about in transparent luxury.

Much has also been made of the iniquity of the residents in the shared-ownership housing elements of Embassy Gardens having the shimmering shadow of the pool cast over their lives while not being allowed to use it — it is reserved for residents of the upmarket apartments. It is right to be outraged, though it is also worth noting that the associations which now run affordable housing often deliberately opt out of shared facilities to keep costs down and require separate access (otherwise known as “poor doors”) to be able to fully control their portions of the development. Ironically this is the cost of a modern mixed-tenure neighbourhood where the responsibility for affordable housing has been outsourced.

Nevertheless the juxtaposition of bleak, strip-lit foyers for the social housing tenants and luxurious hotel-style concierge lobbies for the rest evokes uneasy images of spatial apartheid. Nine Elms represents a massive missed opportunity for a serious piece of city on a remarkable site that could weave a new network of streets into the snaking patterns of railway, river and the remains of industry.

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Instead it is a clump of ill-conceived towers which each appear to have been designed in complete ignorance of their neighbours. The collection have almost no real relationship to the ground or the city. The Sky Pool is a glass bauble, a precariously hanging decoration and it should be ignored. Unfortunately it cannot be because it has become such a perfect symbol of a disdain for the urban fabric and an attitude of internalised, privatised luxury, which does nothing for the city except look down on it.

The writer is the FT’s architecture critic


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