In 1983, the year Battersea Power Station was decommissioned, radical architect Cedric Price produced a provocative proposal for what to do with the giant brick. The silhouette of the London building, consisting of four slender white chimneys rising from a stepped art deco brick roof, was a real icon on the skyline, he reasoned, so why not just save it and lose the rest? He christened his surreal proposal a bat hat and sketched how it could all be held aloft on magnificent steel supports, freeing up the land below for housing. “We have divested the existing building of everything that froze the immediate location,” Price wrote, “leaving only what is essential—its height and familiar profile.”
His proposal was meant to be a playful dig at the conservation movement. But visit the site today and it seems like an eerily accurate prediction. Approach the area from most directions and you’ll only see chimneys – if you’re lucky. Developers of the 42-acre site have achieved the remarkable feat of hiding one of London’s largest buildings, almost entirely surrounding a large brick electric cathedral with bloated luxury flats. There are many more on the way.
One of the chimneys even has a glass lift that allows you to see the horror of nearby Nine Elms for £20.
Follow the signs “Electric Humming Vibrations This Way” and you’ll be guided through a deep canyon of high-end, high-end real estate concepts before reaching the power plant itself. Frank Gehry’s apartments snake along Electric Boulevard on one side, his trademark contortion sounds more clangs than whines, while Norman Foster’s serpentine fold slithers down the other, its curving glacier sides rising to a rooftop pool. Beneath the mirrored bridge – which reflects back the surrounding carnage in a tedious fragmented collage – you eventually reach the foot of the power station, where the ground plunges downwards in a cascade of curved steps to form an egg-shaped plaza. a hellmouth maelstrom ready to suck you from the belly of the beast. Sinking one of the capital’s most imposing buildings is quite an achievement, but this motley approach is sure to do its best.
“Hell-Mouth Whirlpool” … the entrance to the main building. Photo: Oliver Wainwrightt
After four decades, a dozen failed proposals, several failed developers and a couple of billion pounds, Battersea Power Station is finally – against all odds – open to the public. For two generations it has been London’s great unrelenting pile, a black hole of broken dreams and hot cash that won every crazy scheme thrown at it, from a theme park to a football stadium to a 300m eco-tower. As time went on, and after the roof was removed in the 1980s, the structure became more susceptible to weather damage, and many thought it should simply be pulled down. But it was a stubborn relative who refused to die.
It has been kept alive, simply, by an advanced life support system. Along with the surrounding 4,000 apartments, 1,600 of which have been built to date, the ailing brick corpse has been injected with a steroid “mixed-use” elixir: three floors of shops and restaurants, six floors of offices, as well as a cinema, boxing gym and private club, all surrounded by an armor of 250 more luxury apartments that are placed on the sides and roof. Every square inch has been turned into money, even one chimney that can be climbed with a glass elevator. For £20, visitors can watch the Nine Elms immersive horror show from the top for eight minutes.
So what kind of place has been created below? Walking from the new metro station, after passing through the gauntlet of Gehry-Foster, you enter through Corten steel doors to be greeted by a Rolex store on one side and a Cartier outlet on the other, setting the duty-free lounge tone that continues. With Omega and Tag Heuer. “We’re not trying to compete with Bond Street or Sloane Square,” insists Simon Murphy, chief executive of Battersea Power Station Development Company. “This is the place of the majority.” Walk a little further and there is indeed Uniqlo and M&S – next door to a Calvin Klein boutique and cocktail bar. The overall ambiance is supremely luxurious, as you’d expect with £8m rooftop ‘villas’.
“Clumsier arrangement” … Turbine Hall B. Photo: Backdrop Productions
The architects, WilkinsonEyre, have a figure in both the powerhouses and the work of the original exterior designer, Giles Gilbert Scott, who has transformed the sprawling Rotherham Steel Works theater into the Magna Center (which won them a Stirling Prize) and breathed new life into Scott’s. Bodleian Library, Oxford (also Stirling Listed). While the Magna was industrial chic on a budget, no expense has been spared here in restoring the glazed tiles and replacing the 1.8m bricks in 12 different colours, lovingly recreated by the original makers, Northcot Bricks in Gloucestershire and Blockleys in Shropshire.
The shops themselves are sensitively inserted, the details corresponding to the two different periods of the turbine halls. Hall A, built in the 1930s, is an art deco fantasy of cream-tiled suspended plasterwork interspersed with showcases framed by bronze-colored exposures. Instead of the usual glass balustrades favored in malls, for clear views, the architects have designed steel railings with a Greek motif taken from the original design to add a camp deco feel to the place. Adjacent, Hall B, built in the 1950s, has a harder-edged aesthetic, with gray steelwork and a more clumsy layout of bridges and decks – a result of the level difference between the two sides, which the architects oddly exaggerated. not to play down. A movable glass box hangs ominously overhead from a rusting (but definitely intact) gantry designed to launch glamorous products.
These halls overlook two control rooms, which Murphy calls “the jewels in the crown.” They have been carefully restored, their dial walls and buttons shine like new. A, the most impressive, looks like Chernobyl crossed with Titanic, with an ornate glass ceiling illuminating the banks of control panels. Unfortunately, it will be a private event space. Bl, meanwhile, is on the more futuristic side, set to be an all-day bar where you can live out your sci-fi fantasies with electric-themed cocktails. But it says something about priorities that the most painstaking restoration has been done in a space that is mostly off limits to the public.
Broken windows? … the view from a three-bedroom apartment costing £6 million. Photo: Oliver Wainwright
Visiting the flats – which start at £865,000 for a studio – makes you wonder if they really were the right thing to squeeze between the shoulders of a power station. Architects have sliced the facade with long vertical strips of new windows, but they do not always match the interior of the apartments. While the rooftop villas feel like a row of flood-ravaged luxury yachts, the limestone-clad capsules look out onto a private roof garden where the parapet wall is too high to open up the view.
This may explain why some of these, the most expensive devices, have yet to be sold – and why the scheme has had such a bumpy ride. To begin with, the development attracted investors to cash in quickly: a studio apartment was bought off-plan for £1m in 2014, which a few months later was bought on the stock market for £1.5m. But by 2016, the bubble burst. “Battersea panic stations,” blared the headlines as it emerged that prices on more than 50 flats had been slashed by up to 38% in what was interpreted as a sign that wealthy foreign investors were trying to pull out of the scheme.
The developer says 94% have now been sold, although large chunks have been snapped up in bulk by institutional investors such as MGT, which snapped up 92 flats for £150m last year. Murphy insists this isn’t another ‘lights-out London’ – places that sit empty as they simply accumulate value – but it raises the question of what kind of community is being created here.
“Sci-fi fantasy” … an all-day bar in Control Room B. Photo: John Sturrock
One answer is a 15-minute walk away, where the ‘affordable’ housing component of the £9 billion project, which is up against the railway tracks, is still under construction. Instead of requiring 50% affordable housing, which was the policy at the time of the 2010 planning application, Wandsworth Conservative Council allowed just 15%. This is partly because the viability assessment was based on an absurdly inflated land value: Hong Kong developer Victor Hwang bought the site for £10m in 1993 and sold it to Irish group Treasury Holdings for £448m in 2006. overpaid, they argued, they could not meet their affordable housing obligations.
Caught in the financial crisis, Treasury Holdings went bankrupt and a consortium of Malaysian investors – led by SP Setia and Sime Darby Property – acquired the site in 2012 for £400m. By 2017, they had managed to further reduce the amount of affordable housing to just 9%. With Wandsworth swinging to Labor in the recent local elections, developers may still have a battle for the first time in 44 years.
Aydin Dikerdem, Wandsworth’s new cabinet member for housing, told me: “The fact that no affordable homes have been built on the site and that developers have been allowed to further reduce the number of affordable homes is unacceptable – and it needs to change. .”
Only time will tell if further public benefits can be negotiated. If not, the 11,000 families currently on the housing waiting list in Wandsworth will just have to settle for electricity…