Battersea Power Station

  • Feature_Batterseapowerstation2.JPG'For a Londoner, it’s an icon of London, simple as that,’ says Peyton-Jones. ‘It’s been on the skyline for as long as I can remember. It makes an interesting counterpoint to the Serpentine [a refined former teahouse]. Though both date to the 1930s, in all other ways you couldn’t have a more extreme contrast.’

    ‘It’s a Hong Kong Chinese developer who owns it and it raises so many issues between the future and the past, between celebration and memory, and future possibilities which are the key issues that China has right now,’ says Obrist.

    Though the site is currently devoid of discernable activity, once work starts it will, says Parkview, create 3,000 jobs during construction, and 9,000 when up and running, with an emphasis on local recruitment. It will finally open up 36 hectares along the Thames, creating a continuous riverside walk from Vauxhall through to Battersea Park. Unlike some nearby riverside schemes, it’s using genuinely exciting architectural and engineering talent to design some stunning new buildings. Extra investment is promised to upgrade nearby Battersea Park station. It will reinvigorate this down-at-heel corner of Battersea and bring international dollars into the capital.

    So why do I feel slightly depressed watching the slick Powerpoint presentation of state-of-the-art facilities and happy shoppers in what will be humiliatingly rebranded as ‘The Power Station’? Fabulous though these visions are, they seem quite wrong in this historic monument and only serve to sanitise it. Spectacular though the proposed development looks, it really could be anywhere. Or at least anywhere except where it is.
    It also jars with its location. Conference facilitties and five-star hotels can’t be high on the list of priorities for residents of the nearby council estate. Equally, Battersea is off the map for Sloane Street shoppers and wealthy visitors to London presumably seek out accommodation close to the capital’s glittering West End rather than its famous dogs’ home. Can something so alien ever successfully integrate into such ordinary surroundings?

    ‘I feel that there’s a real problem of appropriateness,’ says Keith Garner of the Battersea Power Station Community Group (BPSCG), set up in 1983 to ensure local interest in the power station would be represented and that the building would be properly conserved. ‘They need a completely different kind of scheme, not this airport-lounge treatment. What you see now is a majestic building looming up from the river. If you surround it with buildings 15 storeys high, you don’t have a landmark any more.’

    Garner instead suggests some sort of attraction related to science and industry, a showcase for new energy technologies, or simple studios for the creative industries.

    I, however, would prefer to see it left almost exactly how it is. Sort out the conservation and health and safety issues but then leave the building to speak for itself. Throw the site open to the public and allow everyone to enjoy it – as art, as sculpture, as architecture, as a landmark, as industrial history, as local history. Londoners could explore the last bit of untamed wilderness, while tourists would come and take snaps. Encourage some small-scale landscaping, a few more architectural pavilions housing cafés or other basic facilities, give up some land for affordable housing, an educational resource. Meanwhile, artists could continue to give their own (temporary) interpretations.

    There may be little point fretting about Parkview’s plans anyway. There have been so many aborted projects and promises since 1983 that it would be quite radical if anything at all happened to the site. There are even rumours in the property trade press that Parkview, which has already spent more on the building than the site is actually worth, has run out of money and that the building is up for sale yet again (rumours that have, of course, been vigorously denied).

    What is more worrying is that the longer nothing happens, the worse condition Battersea Power Station falls into – the building is already on English Heritage’s At Risk register. BPSCG has been monitoring the lack of progress and is concerned. ‘They’ve been saying that work will start “next year” for the past ten years, and they’ve been saying for five years that they’re doing enabling works,’ says Garner. ‘English Heritage should make them look after it. They have the legal powers to do so [the building is Grade II-listed] but for some reason they are being soft.’

    Rather than seeking one impossibly huge investment in the site, Garner proposes doing work in incremental stages, part funded by the Lottery or public bodies: ‘It would be a popular cause.’

    The Serpentine Exhibition offers a unique opportunity to explore the site, and no doubt there will be queues. But it’s a scandal that such an important landmark has been out of bounds for so long. Battersea Power Station is not an international property speculator’s plaything, it’s an important part of London history, and a vast tract of city centre riverside land that should be open to all. It’s time we reclaimed what’s ours.

    What would you like to see done with Battersea Power Station? Have your say. ‘China Power Station: Part I’ runs from Oct 8-Nov 5, Thur-Sun. Available for group bookings Mon-Wed. Adm £5. Booking advisable. Again see for details.

    Parkview’s plans

    Architect Nicholas Grimshaw (most famous for his Waterloo International Terminal) is masterminding the main work on the power station. The building will become a shopping mall (1), with 40-50 cafés, bars and restaurants and 180 shops, plus nightclubs, comedy venues and a cinema. The 1930s Turbine Hall A will be used for more cosmopolitan shops; the later Turbine Hall B, on the west side, for cutting-edge labels.The former boilerhouse in the middle will be glazed over and retained as a public space for installations and exhibitions. The four 337ft pre-cast concrete chimneys, said by Parkview to be unstable (something disputed by BPSCG), will be replaced with replicas. Plans are to use them for a viewing platform, a thrill ride, a flue for the inhouse generating plant, and a single table restaurant. A five-star hotel will run along the western edge of the site (2). Also of architectural note, Cecil Balmond of Arup has designed a remarkable glass showcase building (3), twisted in the middle. Other facilities will include a conference hotel (4), offices for creative industries (5), a new jetty (6), a subterranean auditorium, a residential complex (7) and several parks and piazzas. There are also plans to build a footbridge (8). Planning permission for everything bar the bridge is in place; the first phase could be completed by 2010.


     for the China Power Station exhibition

    Read more about the China Power Station exhibition

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