Battle for Battersea

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s graceful art-deco Battersea Power Station—famed for its appearance in film and on a 1977 Pink Floyd album cover—defines the River Thames just west of the Houses of Parliament. Passing it on a commuter train from Victoria Station, Europe’s largest brick structure is as synonymous with London as the red telephone box, which Gilbert Scott also designed. Viewed from the river, its front two chimneys and gently dilapidated dock provide a contemplative landmark, massive in scale, yet quietly settled within its surroundings. It is painful to imagine its replacement by yet another soulless, pristine executive apartment block with no connection to a geographical location or time period. Yet this would appear to be its fate. This past December, the power station’s owner, Parkview International, announced it was selling Battersea to Ireland-based Treasury Holdings for £390 million, while leaving the historic structure in worse condition than when they acquired it 13 years ago. The move marks another depressing but predictable chapter in Battersea’s history. Like the phenomenally successful Tate Modern at Bankside, Battersea, whose construction began in 1929 and ended in 1955, tells us a great deal about London’s vanishing twentieth-century industrial heritage. Battersea produced electricity for much of London between 1955 and 1975. The sulphur dioxide it produced finally ceased belching from its chimneys in 1983. Even if not all in the architectural world love it, none would doubt its success as a building and the importance of its surviving but never-seen art-deco interiors, which include faience tiles, bronze doors, and marble walls. As power stations go, Battersea is beautiful. In fact most Londoners adore Battersea with an unquestioning but perhaps inexplicable affection; it is a comforting and distinctive landmark of London, as much as St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey.

The station was decommissioned in 1984 when it was bought by John Broome, then owner of Alton Towers theme park. His leisure scheme, famously endorsed by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, collapsed amid spiralling costs. His contribution, although possibly with good intentions, resulted only in the removal of the roof and east wall before work stopped in 1987.

The site was then bought by property tycoon Victor Hwang’s offshore Parkview International in 1993. He proposed a £1.5 billion makeover of the massive 15-hectare site, complete with two hotels, 650 homes, movie theaters, and a vast retail space within the historic shell. Sir Philip Dowson, former president of the Royal Academy, drew up a master plan while Nick Grimshaw, designer of the Eden project and Waterloo’s Eurostar terminal, designed the shopping center.

When WMF placed Battersea Power Station on its 2004 list of 100 Most Endangered Sites, it was perceived as a controversial move given a plan was technically “in place” and complete redevelopment slated to finish in 2008. Given the situation, WMF was right to list the site.

In July 2006, Victor Hwang took personal control of the power station when he appointed himself executive director of the project with his son Leo as vice-president and his daughter Vicky as director of leasing. Vicky’s enthusiasm was at that moment seemingly unbounded. She was quoted in The New York Times on November 24th, 2006 saying: “We see the power station as comparable to the Eiffel Tower or to the Empire State Building. People love this building; I haven’t had any negativity at all. There is a huge desire for this to happen.” Less than a week later her father sold the power station.

Certain parts of Parkview’s plans, a hotel that would have crept along the west wall of the station, for instance, did worry conservationists, but at least major parts of the historic structure would have been rescued. Had Parkview succeeded in achieving the model they proposed, the original architectural blueprint would have survived, albeit with a shopping mall on the inside. Battersea certainly cannot afford to ignore the requirements of commercial backers.

Yet with Victor Hwang’s recent departure, this debate is now academic. His elaborate models and websites showing the redevelopment scheme seem as hollow as the station itself. Certainly Battersea Council members were strung along, giving permission for anything he suggested and ultimately for the four chimneys to be replaced as Parkview deemed them “structurally unsafe.”

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