Battersea Power Station: a giant that doesn’t need grand gestures | Architecture
Jhe first thing that strikes you is the scale. Have we ever stacked so many bricks like that elsewhere? It’s a cliff, a mastodon, a Babylonian monolith. Up close, you keep recalibrating your sense of proportion, like a confused camera lens, not quite believing what you’re seeing. Although crowded with tall, dense, for-profit apartment blocks, they cannot undercut Battersea Power Station.
The next thing you might notice is the bravery of its original architects, Giles Gilbert Scott and J Theo Halliday: the four pale chimney stacks that carried only plumes of smoke; the muscular curvature of its masonry; the insistent fluting and streaking of its art deco ornamentation, slightly Mayan. There’s a game of raw and refined that continues inside, in its two former turbine halls, where pillars clad in handmade earthenware carry heavily riveted steel beams. There are two glorious control rooms – the 1930s version (Control Room A, a private events space) contains batteries of dials and knobs with a crystal clear glass ceiling worthy of an ocean liner ballroom ; the 1950s Control Room B – a bar – featured a more futuristic proto-Tardis.
Battersea Power Station is an industry made civic. He’s a carbon-spewing brute-turned-national-monument who once burned 240 tonnes of coal an hour and electrified 20% of London, before going into long retirement as the backdrop for album covers, films, fashion shoots and daily life in the capital. Also as the biggest heritage issue in the country, going through British, Chinese, Irish and Malaysian landlords, and many proposals from leading architects and consultancy teams, each trying to figure out how to make a business proposal from of the expensive-to-repair carcass, which was nevertheless Grade II* listed.
It was built in two phases, from 1929 to 1935 and from 1937 until the interruption of the war in 1941, finally completed in 1955, and gradually decommissioned from 1975 to 1983. Then it was to be a theme park, and after that various combinations of retail, leisure, housing and office development. At one point, there must have been Cirque de Soleil acrobats flying over surprised shoppers from its high rooftops; at another, a 300-meter-tall “eco-dome” was to be built just outside the power plant. In 2012 Chelsea Football Club proposed to make it a 60,000 seater stadium. Meanwhile, the condition of the building, left roofless after the failed theme park project, has become increasingly precarious.
It has therefore spent more than 25 years operating at full capacity, compared to the nearly 40 years it took until it reopened this month to find a new use. The final answer to the question – how do you solve a problem like Battersea? – turns out to involve over 100 shops, restaurants and cafes, a 1,400-person events venue, 254 apartments (over £1m for a studio, £18m for a six-bedroom penthouse), plus over 500 000 square feet of office space, most of which has been helpfully taken over by Apple. These large apartment blocks on the station’s 42-acre site helped finances pile up, as did then-Chancellor George Osborne’s 2012 decision to underwrite an extension near the northern line of the London Underground with public money. The power station’s business opportunity also benefits from its proximity to Vauxhall and Nine Elms, where a riot of residential towers have developed around the new US Embassy.
The conversion, by architects Wilkinson Eyre for the consortium of Malaysian investors who now own the building and its surrounding site, is understated, especially compared to the histrionics of previous proposals. There’s plenty of angular black steel, riffing on the building’s industrial heritage, with respectful restoration of the fancy tiled floors and gorgeous control rooms, plus some memorabilia from its former ruin – bits of broken masonry and rusty metal left exposed; a spider-like metal frame supporting the fragile cathedral-sized window at its south end.
Occasional quirks, such as unusual angles resulting from irregularities in the original structure, help keep the new architecture from becoming too po-faced, and there are outbreaks of careful whimsy, such as a suspended glass hall that can move up and down and side to side with the help of the building’s old gantry crane. The craziest moment will be a lift to one of the 109-meter tall chimneys, with panoramic views of London at the top.
The general restraint of the design makes sense. When you’re dealing with something as magnificent as Battersea Power Station, one of those rare buildings that can be called an icon, who needs to get the eye of the novelties? Wilkinson Eyre’s work also helps the building defend itself against shopping – retail has a way of flooding spaces with the generic glitz of glass balustrades and bright lighting, and demanding that nothing gets out of hand. interposes between consumers and products. Here, the architecture prevails: the beautiful old pillars, for example, are firmly anchored on the ground, with elements of commerce embedded between them.
The architects’ no-nonsense approach doesn’t work so well with the new apartments, which are built into parts of the power plant’s perimeter and stacked on its roofs, overlooking high gardens. Here, the normalcy of the architecture does no justice to the fact that these airy mews are actually anomalous, while their glass walls create awkward intimacies between shared gardens and private interiors. The situation here is extraordinary, but the design seems to wish it weren’t.
The restoration of the power plant has a cost. The decades of desperation and site reversal have reduced some of the public benefits that could have accrued from a development of this size and increased the amount of profitable floor space. Successive owners argued that they could not afford to save the historic building without significant concessions from planners.
Thus, the supply of affordable housing, on a site right next to the power plant development, is 9%, which compares to the 15% allocated in the 2010 planning application and the 50% targeted by the politics of the time. The Northern Line Extension, prior to Osborne’s intervention, had to be funded directly by the developers. The surrounding blocks have been allowed to a height where they obscure the historic building from several directions, which is certainly undesirable in terms of planning. You could certainly wish that Wandsworth Borough Council and London City Hall had been more robust in their planning negotiations with current and past owners of the site.
The project as a whole also creates a highly managed territory of the type you tend to get in single-owner developments that, despite some great moves from a Frank Gehry-designed apartment block, is fundamentally predictable. It threatens to cage the beast that is Gilbert Scott’s masterpiece, as does the array of retail logos inside. But, between the bland landscape outside and the brandscape inside, the powerhouse is pretty enough to assert its own character.
Yet it is still cause for celebration that one of the most remarkable buildings of the 20th century has been saved and its interiors, for the first time, are open to the public. Its eventual survival demonstrates, among other things, the relative strength of heritage in British planning – normal business logic and standard considerations of value for money give way to the needs of the monument. Which, compared to Battersea Power Station, is welcome. It contrasts starkly with the visual and spatial anarchy on the Thames at Vauxhall and Nine Elms. If only some of the thinking applied to old buildings could be applied to planning new ones, we could move forward.