Battersea Power Station is as monumental an expression of the Anthropocene age as you can find. The sombre brown-brick cliff stands back from the Thames with a giant doric column sprouting from each corner, a powerful reminder of London’s smog-darkened past when the world burned whole mountains of coal day-in, day-out, oblivious to the consequences.
Today densely packed blocks of flats, which sell for at least £3.25m for a three-bedroom apartment, crowd around the newly restored power station. These can also be understood as having a symbolic significance – the result of a planning system that subcontracts the cost of affordable housing provision to private developers.
Battersea Power Station is what might be called an accidental masterpiece. The architect Giles Gilbert Scott – perhaps now best known for Britain’s iconic red telephone boxes – was called in to give an aesthetic quality to the bluntness of the power station’s ruthlessly utilitarian architecture – often described as a huge upturned kitchen table – only after construction work had already started in 1929. For the first years of its life, it had just two chimneys. After the second half of the building was completed it had three for a long period, reaching its final symmetrical form only after 1955.
Shortly before its generators were switched off for the last time in 1983, the conservationists campaigning to save it from the bulldozers that had already flattened so many art deco buildings celebrated it as the “Colossus of Battersea”. The very fact that it still stands, in the middle of an area of London that has endured a paroxysm of change, is what gives it its continuing significance.
Scott was awarded every honour the architectural establishment had to offer. He was the president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. He was at his busiest in the 1930s at the moment that modernism seemed at its most radical and most threatening to architectural traditionalists. Scott argued for a cautious middle course, or as the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner said of his work for the New Bodleian Library in Oxford, an approach that was “neither one thing nor another”.
In contrast to his grandfather – who designed the exuberant St Pancras Station – Giles Gilbert Scott’s work on the Salvation Army training college in south London and Cambridge University’s library has a lugubrious, almost Transylvanian flavour, characterised by high towers of uncertain purpose and dramatic blank walls. Battersea, which has the solemn dignity of a Mayan temple, is more successful and has been a listed building since 1980.
The Colossus of Battersea opens its doors to the public for the first time today (14 October). As if to exorcise the power station’s past, signalling its hedonistic, guilt-free new identity as a palace of conspicuous consumption, where you can buy a Polestar electric SUV from £79,000 or shop in a Korean supermarket until 9pm, the north-west chimney no longer puffs sulphur-laden smoke rings from its long-gone boilers. Instead, passers-by will be able to watch the spectacle of a glass bubble soundlessly materialising from the tip of the chimney.
It’s one of the rebuilt power station’s many sideshows. An intricate lift mechanism has been threaded inside the chimney, to emerge 365 feet above the power station floor. It offers a panoramic view of London and the area below, which has undergone an astonishing transformation in recent years: from the fortified and moated cube of the new American embassy at Nine Elms to a cluster of Chinese-financed skyscrapers around the south side of Vauxhall Bridge. From here there is also a glimpse of the new apartments built on the roof of the power station. The largest is on the market for £18m.
It’s only inside you understand that the apparently monolithic power station was actually built in two stylistically very different stages. The first half was completed in 1935, and has a spectacular art deco switch room, designed by Scott’s collaborator Theo Halliday. It looks out over the turbine hall, which, stripped of its machinery, has the flavour of an Edwardian department store lined with pilasters and is flooded with daylight through the glass roof. The second stage, finished after the war, is more restrained, with rusting gantries that contrast with smooth concrete finishes.
Salvaging the ruined remains of the power station and deftly inserting a complex of more than 250 shops, with restaurants, food courts, along with offices and apartments is the work of Wilkinson Eyre. It is the architecture practice that turned a cluster of historic gasometers at Kings Cross into apartments and converted redundant steelworks in Rotherham into a science-themed adventure playground. Within the bounds of what was asked, it has done an impressive job at Battersea.
In most contemporary shopping malls, architecture is reduced to theatrical scenery. You will find carefully faked fragments of the past: artificially distressed brick walls and neon signs designed to evoke American diners. In Battersea, the fragments of the past are mostly real, or else accurate reconstructions. In places you see disturbingly genuine ruins, such as the traces of staircases torn from the walls that line the entrance from the riverfront.
The power station is connected to its new Northern line Tube station by what the developers describe as a “high street”, an open-air continuation of the mall inside. It’s a curving pedestrian route, flanked on one side by residential buildings energetically designed by Frank Gehry and on the other by Norman Foster’s hotel, office block and apartments. They have done their best, but in order to pack in the numbers they rise up to 15 floors, and are close enough to each other to create what feels more like a canyon than a street.
The developments were meant to have been finished a long time ago. John Broome, who bought Battersea Power Station and the 40 acres of land around it for just £1.5m, promised that it would reopen as a theme park by 1990, two years after Margaret Thatcher set off a huge firework display to celebrate the start of work. In fact, all he did was take the roof off and then run out of money. Since then the site has been through several different owners and countless different schemes, and even more architects.
The Hong Kong-based, Taiwanese-born Hwang family bought Battersea from Broome’s bankers for £10.5m, sat on the site for a decade without building anything. The Hwangs finally sold the project to the Irish-owned company Treasury Holdings for more than £400m. The latter proposed a scheme even wilder than Broome’s Dickensian London theme park, involving a 1,000ft-high glass chimney as part of an eco-power-generating scheme. It was likely designed to secure approval for a more conventional mixed-use development. The strategy succeeded, but the company went bust before it could be built. Its creditors sold the site on to a Malaysian consortium, which valued it at £1.87bn when the station was moved on again in 2019 to other Malaysian investors, including a pension fund.
Like Canary Wharf, which was planned as an enterprise zone that would attract industrial sheds, but turned into a high-rise financial centre when the developers spotted that the same financial incentives on offer for warehouses could also go towards office buildings, the new Battersea is the product of unforeseen consequences. What was meant to be an enabling development to allow for the restoration of the listed power station has become what amounts to a whole town. As costs have risen, so each developer has gone back to the planners to ask for consent to put more and more expensive housing on the site. Battersea has hundreds of shops and 750,000 square feet of office space – room for 5,000 people to work – with another 17 unbuilt acres to go. That means 4,200 homes, which could house more than 10,000 people.
Saving the power station after 30 years of ruinous decay has come at a serious cost. For the developers, the final bill for the completed project is said to be more than £9bn. By one count, the public contribution is close to £1.35bn in cash and kind. The Treasury committed £1.1bn to underwrite the expense of building a new Tube line to make Battersea a plausible place for that office space. The public has also lost 1,270 affordable homes. Wandsworth council gave the developers permission to build 4,200 homes on the 40-acre site. It reduced the proportion of affordable homes required from the initial 35% to 15%, and then to just 9% when it was claimed that the costly restoration of Battersea would be unviable otherwise. Sadiq Khan called it a “wholly unacceptable cut”.
What does the public get for it? Several thousand jobs, 386 affordable homes and the survival of the power station itself. Compared with many shopping malls, it’s certainly a more appealing place to spend a Saturday afternoon. But it feels more like a warning, rather than a model of how to plan a city.
This article originally appeared at the New Statesman.