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An Update on the Status of Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station was returned to World Monuments Fund's 2014 Watch list ten years after it was first included. On both occasions the building was nominated by Battersea Power Station Community Group (BPSCG), which has campaigned for the preservation of the building since 1983 when the defunct generating station was sold by state-owned Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) to the first of a series of private owners.

During the last ten years the building changed hands from a Hong Kong-based developer, to an Irish one, to a Malaysian one. A master plan for the site by Rafael Viñoly for Irish developer REO survived the transition to the new Malaysian development corporation and the first parts are now being implemented. The proposals represent a significant intensification of use of the building and surrounding site, with implications for the significance of the building as a listed structure and as an urban landmark.

The first phase, currently under construction, consists of two apartment blocks (up to 18 stories) standing between Battersea Power and the railway viaduct. These will obscure one of the most dramatic views of the building, seen close up from the passing train as it slows to enter Victoria Station. Over-scaled buildings in later phases of the Viñoly master plan—by Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and others—will deprive the building of its landmark presence from other vantage points.

The works to Battersea Power Station itself is in the second phase, with a shopping centre in the famous "A" Station turbine hall, with commercial offices and apartments on the upper levels. This banal
outcome will be achieved by forming multiple new windows in the building’s plain brick walls, with new pavilion structures for rooftop apartments spoiling its famous silhouette.

Most worrying of all is the demolition of chimneys, said to be "beyond repair." Permission to demolish and rebuild the chimneys was given ten years ago, although challenged at the time by conservation groups in the UK—including WMF Britain—which argued that the case for complete demolition was unconvincing. The southwest chimney has now gone.

BPSCG has long feared that some technical glitch will emerge to prevent the rebuilding of the chimneys, most likely associated with the integrity of the original supporting steelwork. Even if rebuilding does happen, much of the building's archaeological interest will be lost.

The acceptance of such a harmful scheme by the regulatory authorities—Wandsworth Council and English Heritage—shows their weakness in the face of intense commercial pressures on London's riverfront. But it also highlights a lack of imagination and political leadership, not least for the failure to recognise that the central problem with Battersea Power Station is not the building itself—its material condition, size, or other characteristic—but rather the conduct of a succession of owners over many decades, and indeed CEGB's decision to privatise it in the first place.

Three years ago, with the Irish developer REO indebted to Lloyds Bank (majority owned by the British government) to the tune of £150 million, there was perhaps the opportunity to wrest back public control of the building, to be repaired with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to become a major new civic space and cultural venue for London. But that opportunity, along with so many others down the years, was missed. The prospect for Battersea Power Station is depressing indeed.