This would not be the first time pigs would fly over Battersea Station. For more than 30 years after its closure in 1983, the power station was imagined and reimagined as fitting into a variety of implausible costumes—taking the on-paper guises of everything from a theme park to a new home stadium for Chelsea FC—all were ultimately dashed by that meddlesome wrecker of lofty and impractical visions everywhere: money.
But finally, after being put under the auctioneer’s hammer for the first time in its history in 2012, the Battersea Power Station and its 42-acre surroundings are to be reawakened into a sprawling commercial, public, and residential space of crystalline and redbrick beauty.
Power stations rarely evoke visions of beauty. Ugly and noxious with smoke and steam spewing from them to choke the sky, they are the necessary evil that give light and energy to our streets and homes, yet tend to be the architectural equivalent to the abattoir when we’re munching a burger.
Yet in the 1920s, as the sounds of jazz glittered in the airwaves and as women’s hemlines crept ever thighward, electricity became essential for everything from telephones to refrigerators. The city of London and its nearly five million inhabitants faced the diabolical problem of where to place a hulking power station.
The site had to be on the meandering Thames so that its waters could spin the station’s vast steam turbines, and for the ease of the barges that would deliver it the requisite mountains of coal. Battersea was chosen, a relatively poor suburb heavily polluted since catching its capitalist stride in the Industrial Revolution, yet still less than two miles from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.
London turned to the man who had designed the iconic British red telephone box—Sir Giles Gilbert Scott—for an inspired architectural vision. Scott was born into proud architectural lineage that stretched from father to grandfather, and would go on to build the Bankside Power Station on the opposite side of the Thames—now the home of the Tate Modern.
Completed in two stages in 1935 and 1955, Scott assembled a herculean hoard of bricks into a Cathedral-like mass that fused a gothic imposition of space with art deco flair. The four 330-foot high smoke stacks became spires topped by Doric columns, and the interiors were finished with marble cladding and wrought iron staircases.
The largest brick building in Europe, the power station fell into dilapidation after its closure, though not before establishing a notable presence in music history, featured in The Beatles’ 1965 movie Help! and in the video for Judas Priest’s 1982 hit “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.”
Its best known guest appearance, however, came from its highly chromatic presence on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals, in which the station was orbited by a voluminous 44-foot long floating pig (a Pink Floyd concert mainstay) built by artist Jeffrey Shaw. When a gust of wind released its tether, the pig went skyward, grounding Heathrow.
Battersea Station represents an unusual opportunity for the city of London, one that very rarely falls to cities of such ancient provenance. The development is not merely an attempt to build a cluster of high-rises with a token shopping mall; it is an opportunity to subsume a vast historical structure into a meticulously orchestrated bespoke district right in the beating center of one of the world’s great cities. These opportunities are all too often wasted.
There’s an incredible risk with large developments that they can become an affliction to the liveability of a city, particularly if the classical uses of the space—residential, commercial, cultural—become too far apart or too widely separated. The spatial division of real estate by purpose (single-use zoning) began as a practical response to the environmental unpleasantness of concentrated industry that emerged only (relatively) recently in human history. Ancient cities were much more tightly fused together.
According to Dave Twohig, Head of Design and Placemaking for the Battersea project, “We need mixed-use communities where people are living, shopping, playing, and have transportation. It means the neighbourhoods are populated. They’re safe and secure.”
Twohig notes that “[Up until now] we’ve kind of ignored all that progressive thinking in the ’60s…and you look at the city of London, only now it’s starting to say ‘Actually, do you know what? We could do with some residential and retail in here because it’s a ghost-town.’”
Liveability is the driving key. The environment must be a place where people want to live, work, and visit. Though this acknowledgment twists us toward the complexity of the property market, and begs the question: How can a development like Battersea ever hope to achieve its sought after liveability if too many of the homes are purchased by investors who have no intention of ever living there?
At its heart, the answer the Battersea development team have arrived at is: art. Make the buildings incredibly beautiful, and incredibly desirable. At its periphery, the answer the Battersea development team have arrived at is: technology. Make the space accessible, and apply the cutting edge of design, mathematics, economics, and function.
Twohig says, “When we planned our office buildings we knew that…once you get to about 1.5 million square feet of office space, you’ve got 15,000 people working there. That’s enough people every day to make the retail thrive and not just on the weekends. Then a critical mass of residents, and not [just] two or three thousand apartments, means that when the office people leave, the residents keep that trade footfall.”
The development has its own tube station, its own high street, a waterfront for cultural events and a calculated ratio of office space and living space. And the development has art. There is an incredible who’s who of “starchitects” embedded in the project. It is the art that will keep people living in, and coming to see Battersea Power Station.
Aside from Scott’s titanic structure itself—which has been re-envisioned as an ambitious mixed-use space by Wilkinson Eyre (featuring some dazzling novelties, like elevators in the smoke-stacks)—the starchitect honor role includes the Uruguayan Rafael Viñoly, who developed the master plan; Norman Foster, whose Battersea towers form wave-like glass undulations. Then several structures by Frank Gehry, most notably the Flower—a harlequinned concertina-of-a-building that uses Gehry’s hallmark convergence of warping curves and rectangular windows.
It’s another building by Gehry that Twohig points to for proof positive that the Battersea Power Station will become a genuine residential district rather than a soulless conglomeration of investment properties—Gehry’s Manhattan skyscraper on Spruce street. “It’s a rental tower,” Twohig says, “the developers decided to hold it, but [they] have 97% occupancy…one of the highest…in New York, and on top of that…one of the lowest turnovers. When people move in they don’t want to leave, because they are so proud of the building.”
The extent to which the Battersea Power Station development will fulfil its lofty ambitions of course remains to be seen, the world is a chaotic place, and as the history of the Power Station shows, the only truly predictable thing is unpredictability. But there is an incredible vision with this project, far, far grander than the norm. There can be little doubt that even if it were to have only ever existed as an act of pure imagination, rather than having already broken ground in 2013, our global culture would be the richer for it. As it is, a truly exciting new place for Londoners awaits.