The giant disused power station at Battersea on the south bank of the River Thames in London has long been a symbol of the decline of the city's main waterway. Compared to the elegantly designed River Seine in Paris and the magnificent canals of Venice, the Thames has often seemed a bit of an industrial mess.
This image is being transformed, however, by a series of exciting public projects aimed at making the river a place to be visited and not just crossed to get to work and back home.
The impetus behind the new development of the Thames was the millennium celebrations in the UK. A special Millennium Fund was established to choose a number of key projects to mark the year 2000. The good news for London and its old river was that most of this money was given to the capital rather than points further upstream. But the capital was and is where the Thames needs it most.
The new national landmark is the Millennium Dome, situated by the Thames in Greenwich in East London. This enormous exhibition centre was opened on New Year's Eve 1999 by the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair, and now offers visitors several interactive galleries covering themes from human life and history. Unfortunately, the project has been heavily criticized for its design and above all its high cost. What's more, the Jubilee Line Underground hasn't been working as well as it should. All these factors mean that the number of visitors has been far lower than expected.
In contrast, the new Tate Modern art museum has proved a great success, exciting both art buffs and the public alike. Since opening on 14th May, London's first official modern art museum has recorded an amazing average of 3,000 visitors per hour! The architects created the Tate Modern by redesigning Bankside Power Station, which was previously empty, like Battersea Power Station. At the same time, a futuristic footbridge was designed by Lord (Norman) Foster (who was also responsible for the spectacular new Reichstag building in Berlin) to link the museum to St Paul's Cathedral on the north side of the Thames.
Great museum, shame about the bridge
Surprisingly, and somewhat embarrassingly for the world's most renowned architect, there were some unexpected engineering difficulties that made the special suspension design unable to support the weight of the thousands of enthusiastic opening-day visitors. The bridge started to buckle and shake with the weight of the pedestrians, so it was closed temporarily only a couple of days after opening in June. Now numbers crossing have to be limited!
The other millennium landmark to really catch the imagination of both Londoners and visitors has been the London Eye, a huge Ferris wheel located on the south bank of the river almost opposite the Houses of Parliament. The wheel, which is the biggest in the world, allows the public to look down at the politicians and the rest of the city from inside a small glass cabin or capsule. If you are scared of heights, then this is definitely not the one for you!
Back to life
These major millennium projects are part of a general revival of life along the Thames. With London Europe's largest financial centre, many new developments have been linked to business. The old docks area in east London, known as Docklands, first drew the attention of property developers back in the 1980s, who saw the chance to create Manhattan-style apartments and office blocks. After a slump at the end of the 80s, the area has been enjoying a boom with many yuppies coming here to find their dream home by the water!
The Thames is now becoming a place for a wider public to enjoy their leisure time. As well as the Dome, the Tate Modern and the London Eye, you can discover Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe Theatre, an extraordinary collection of antiques in the Gilbert collection at Somerset House, together with the controversial 1950s concrete design of the soon-to-be-renovated South Bank Centre, which houses the Royal National Theatre, National Film Theatre and Royal Festival Hall.
As you pause for a drink at one of the many trendy new cafes and restaurants along the south bank after some sightseeing along the Thames, you may ask yourself why the river is developing so fast. One reason already mentioned is that the millennium has provided an excuse for some big public projects. But there is also definitely a growing interest in architecture and design in the UK, which means that architects like Lord Foster and designers-cum-businessmen like Terence Conran, the man behind the Design Museum on the north side of the Thames, are now famous faces.
If London is still some way behind Paris and Rome in terms of architecture, Londoners are nonetheless quite possibly ahead in matters of style. What's more, they are certainly more excited than ever before by design and new tastes in this most cosmopolitan of cosmopolitan cities. You only have to look at the plethora of British newspapers and magazines to realize how important this new trend is. So don't be surprised if, on your next visit to London, you find people sitting in European-style cafes and bars drinking cafe latte and discussing the latest new building along the Thames!