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London’s Battersea Power Station sees a momentous occasion as it reopens its doors to the public for the first time in a decade.
Words: Lauren Teague
Images: Hufton + Crow, John Sturrock
Battersea Power Station is a building that needs little introduction. Decommissioned in 1983, having supplied London with electricity for five decades, the years that followed have seen various owners plan, and fail, to make the reuse of the mammoth building stack up. Each owner passed to the next not only a decaying Art Deco icon but a legacy of whimsical – but unrealised – grand ideas. In another life, it might have been a theme park; an urban entertainment complex (complete with Cirque du Soleil acrobats); an ‘Eco-Dome’; or a home to Chelsea Football Club. But in 2012, the Grade II* listed structure was purchased by shareholders Sime Darby Property, S P Setia and the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF).
Against the odds, the partnership has achieved the improbable and not only secured the building’s future but given it a new life at the heart of a 42-acre mixed-use masterplan of office, residential, retail, leisure and 19 acres of public realm.
After almost 10 years of painstaking restoration, repurposing and repositioning, Battersea Power Station welcomed its first visitors in October this year. The ambition across the site, according to Battersea Power Station Development Company (BPSDC) Head of Leasing, Sam Cotton, was always to deliver a “variety of price points, mixing small independent retailers alongside stable brands while bringing something new to south west London”; a vision that remained constant despite years of market change.
Once the full masterplan is delivered, 25,000 people will be living and working on site, with 3m sq ft of commercial space alongside 4,000 new homes. But it is within the vast, cavernous turbine halls of the industrial former-power station that the true magic has happened. The brief for architecture practice WilkinsonEyre was to “retain or restore as much of the original fabric as possible while introducing new, viable uses,” says Project Director Sebastien Ricard. “Prior failed development attempts had left substantial loss of fabric [but] we worked very hard to restore what was effectively an industrial ruin to almost ‘as new’ condition. At the same time, we were keen that visitors would always be aware of the historic fabric and that they were in a unique space.”
This approach is evident throughout. The four famous chimneys were dismantled and rebuilt using the original construction methods; some 1.8 million new bricks were sourced from the original brickmakers to match the aesthetic of the existing facades; and internally, despite its functional overhaul from an industrial power house to a retailer’s dream, the public is able for the first time to gain a sense of the building’s significance and grandeur. Black steel walkways have been inserted to signify public routes and the new elements are respectful; neither flashy nor out of place but clearly an addition to the original architecture.
Each of the two turbine halls, now home to an array of retailers, restaurants and cafes, is given its own identity. This, says Ricard, is a response to the disjointed construction of the original building: “Not everyone realises that Battersea Power Station was built in two halves over a long period of time. Only half the building existed (with two chimneys) before the Second World War and the rest was built from the end of the war up to about 1955, when the power station finally achieved its famous four-chimneyed profile.”
As a result, the interior of Turbine Hall A was originally designed with the flamboyance of Art Deco styling; Turbine Hall B had a more austere architecture from the post-war period. WilkinsonEyre has reflected this history in the treatment of the two halls. Each is filled with commercial uses that feel a little awkward – although the rhythmic implementation of the subtle store signage throughout is a highlight – but different lighting and intervention strategies on each side create an intriguing contrast in ambiences.Overall, WilkinsonEyre’s architectural strategy for the building can only be described as a wonderous success.
The practice has achieved something truly special with the centrepiece at the heart of this new neighbourhood; actively celebrating the heritage and the intricate industrial details of an iconic structure while enabling it to function for a new life. But the wider masterplan has been the topic of scrutiny for years prior to its completion. Ultimately, the BPSDC hopes that the new neighbourhood will offer “something for everyone” through its curated district of retail, F&B and leisure offerings, and has committed to an events programme which will continue to bring people to the area. “For years Battersea Power Station sat derelict and closed to the public,” says Cotton. “Our aim throughout was to bring this iconic landmark back to its former glory so it could be enjoyed by members of the local community, Londoners and visitors from further afield.”
Only time will tell whether the crowds will continue to flock once the novelty of the spectacle wears off. Look too closely at the array of high street retailers on offer and one could be at any high-end London shopping centre. But while this might not be the future that Gilbert Scott imagined for his industrial power house, a combination of financial viability, longevity and consumer need – while questioned by some – has saved one of London’s most famous buildings from standing empty and redundant as a monument to decay. The landmark building can now be enjoyed for generations to come as an exemplar of what can be achieved through determination and the continued belief and support of the project’s shareholders – a lesson to be taken forward.
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