At Battersea Power Station, the Best We Could Hope for (in Both Senses)

The turbine hall of the redeveloped Battersea Power Station. Photo: F10 Studios Ltd

If you were going to anoint a single great temple to the deity of fossil fuel, you might choose the Battersea Power Station, just across the Thames from some of the costliest real estate in London. From the 1930s through the ’70s, it sucked up coal and pumped out electricity. Now it’s burning through £9 billion ($11.5 billion) in the hope of generating much, much more, and that process of transformation is an awesome, troubling thing to behold. Bristling with cranes, it hulks over the river like some rough beast, slouching toward Westminster. Londoners know it from a distance — the quartet of chimneys jabbing at clouds, its mountainous brick bulk — but few have been inside. That will soon change, along with everything else about it.

I recently toured the construction site with Sebastien Ricard, an architect at the firm Wilkinson Eyre who is in charge of disemboweling, shoring up, and rebuilding the structure for use as a zone of white-collar lifestyle and work. Even when I stand inside the shell, the great fluted columns of the turbine hall rising toward a distant ceiling, the scale of the place is hard to fathom. One of the two boiler houses is filled with an impenetrable thicket of scaffolding. In the other, fresh armatures of concrete and steel have grown up beneath a new roof. Not long ago, Battersea Power Station was a ruin, left exposed by a developer who went bankrupt before he made good on a plan for an open-air amusement park. For years, only the rain and the odd nocturnal creature penetrated the decaying interiors.

Now, money is flowing again, thanks to a consortium of the Malaysian development group Setia, Sime Darby Property, and Employees Provident Fund. Ricard points out a vast slab of raw concrete that one day will host cocktail parties, with expansive views onto the Thames. Beyond, an undergrowth of apartment blocks is already growing around the outer walls, supplemented by an esplanade, a riverboat stop, and a couple of still-quiet cafés. Leisure is on the move.

The exterior, wrapped with new apartments. Photo: Grain London Ltd

There’s something simultaneously exciting, a little sad, and bracingly preposterous about the rehabilitation: exciting because the project brings fresh life to a central city tract that has been forlorn for a couple of generations; sad because that life consists of a narrow and familiar set of ways to make and spend money. Preposterous because the task of converting a huge machine for the postindustrial era means treating it as a precious relic. To satisfy Historic England, the body that oversees “listed” buildings, the developers had to demolish and rebuild four of those graceful but useless smokestacks, match thousands of damaged tiles, and order a million hand-made bricks from the same workshops that furnished the originals. It’s a multibillion-dollar fixer-upper.

The largest brick building in Europe, it inspired awe in the kingdom of energy. The architect was Giles Gilbert Scott, who brought a classicizing finesse to tough utilitarian structures like the Bankside Power Station that later became Tate Modern, and the U.K.’s famous red telephone booth. (The booth has an exquisite architectural pedigree: It’s based on the 19th-century architect Sir John Soane’s mausoleum, which in turn got its characteristic shallow dome from the breakfast room in Soane’s own house.) As if to guard against inevitable obsolescence, Scott encrusted the Battersea colossus with Art Deco flourishes, including the opulent control room with coffered ceilings. (In the next incarnation, that will become an event space.)

The power station burned a million tons of coal a year, hewn from the ground under Northumberland and Wales, hauled by train or loaded on barges, and transferred from a jetty on the Thames. When the facility was first proposed, Londoners objected to the idea of spitting so much coal smoke into the air of their city center. Not to worry, the journal Nature chirped in 1932: Recent technological advances had “proved conclusively that the emission of sulphur fumes can be reduced to a negligible quantity.” That was partly true: An innovative process scrubbed the gases of their most noxious ingredients by “washing” them with water — which was then dumped into the Thames. Keeping the lights on amounted to a choice between visibly poisoning the air and invisibly poisoning the river. Eventually, though, coal did both. In 1952, a thick cloud laden with toxins settled over London, and by the time it dissipated five days later, it had killed 12,000 people. Battersea’s B section was still under construction.

It was the album cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album Animals that gave the almost-retired plant a global profile and a reputation for mayhem that continued through rock concerts, festivals, and raves. (Algie, the inflatable pink pig tethered to one of the chimneys for the photo shoot, broke free and soared into the Heathrow Airport flight path; police helicopters chased it for miles until it alighted in a field in Kent.) The powerhouse glowered over the banks of the Thames, but it loomed even more impressively in the lives of commuters, who passed its great brick cliffs on the train just before pulling into Victoria Station. “It looked like a gate, or a castle,” says the aptly named Peter Watts in his book Up in Smoke: the Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. “When it came into view, that was the moment you were entering the city, which was always so much more exciting than whatever town in Surrey you were coming from. It looked primal and permanent. I fantasize that at the end of days, everything else will be gone and the power station will remain.”

As seen in 1946. Photo: WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

And yet the apparently eternal hulk was supremely fragile. In 2004, it cropped up on the World Monuments Fund’s endangered list. Dozens of schemes, each more grandly harebrained than the last, were rolled out, threatening various combinations of rescue and destruction. The New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly contributed several idas: A decade ago, a group of Irish developers hired him to design a new ostensibly “clean” power plant tucked below ground and topped with a new 1,000-foot chimney, next to an office park that would have been covered by a plastic “eco-dome.” That dream went the way of so many others in the 2008 financial crisis. Later, the Chelsea Football Club recruited Viñoly to design a soccer stadium there, though what he really wanted was a concert hall. The architect Terry Farrell suggested stripping the carcass down to four chimneys and two walls and enshrining it in parkland as an immense, evocative ruin. That proposal addressed the central conundrum of its redevelopment. Preserving the structure’s mysterious isolation, its sheer brooding strangeness, meant leaving the land around it vacant or, at most, scattering it with low-rise buildings the way a medieval village huddles around its cathedral. But builders don’t make money by not building, and the quantities of cash needed to preserve the thing, never mind reinvigorate the area, were inconceivably enormous. By 2014, the station was back on the WMF’s watch list again.

When Setia and its partners landed the site, Viñoly returned, this time with a plan that wrapped the brick monolith in glass apartment complexes (one designed by Frank Gehry, another by Norman Foster), close-cropped lawns, and fountains with the usual dancing jets of water. A year and a half from now, a new Northern Line Underground stop will stitch a long-inaccessible area back into Central London.

The power station itself will contain an immense indoor shopping center and rentable party spaces, topped by crow’s-nest penthouses. Apple has scooped up most of the offices that will crown the structure. Wilkinson Eyre’s design reclaims the site’s history and smooths it over at the same time, inserting an elegantly generic lattice of black steel, glass walls, and airy voids. Where once generators roared, now milk will be foamed, code written, and brand identities polished.

One detail captures the ethos of spectacular silliness that pervades almost every huge development project these days: a sightseeing elevator that glides up through one of the pristine chimneys and pops out the top, giving passengers a quick 360-degree vista, before dropping back inside. Let’s hope that a metamorphosis on this imperial scale yields something more solid and meaningful than a soap bubble with a view. Still, if this all seems more like a default option than a thrilling destiny, consider the imaginative alternatives that failed because of the site’s sheer scale and the possible squandered fortunes. The current future isn’t ideal, but it’s probably the least bad solution — far better than just letting the whole thing collapse into a disconsolate pile of rubble.

The retail section. Photo: F10 Studios Ltd
At Battersea, the Best We Could Hope for (in Both Senses)