The redevelopment of London's iconic Battersea Power Station sometimes divides opinion, but when it's finished, it's sure to be an architectural show-stopper
It has been nearly four decades since Battersea Power Station churned out its last kilowatt of electricity. Now the unmistakable London structure is getting a chance at a second life. Backed by Malaysian investors, British firm WilkinsonEyre is currently refashioning the historic power plant into a vast mixed-use project that includes retail, event spaces, residential units and office space that will become home to Apple's new British headquarters.
It's hardly an obvious solution for the former coal-powered station, constructed in two phases, one completed in 1933 and another in 1953. Although the structure was listed as a heritage building in 1980, parts of it had crumbled to the point where nothing was left but the external brick walls that were held up by steel supports. Even as it fell into dereliction – or perhaps because of it – the station became a widely recognised dystopian symbol of London, especially after it featured on the cover of Pink Floyd's 1977 album Animals.
Even as it fell into dereliction the station became a widely recognised dystopian symbol of London
"It isn't your typical repair job – it's much more fundamental than that," says WilkinsonEyre director Sebastien Ricard. "One of the things that started the design spirit is the fact the power station is, by default, not designed around a human scale, around people, but is designed around a machine – a turbine. It was designed as a big block without windows or access." That meant finding an "interesting way of getting people living, working and recreating in a space that wasn't made for that".
The practice's immediate solution was to maintain as much of the power station's scale as possible. "When you enter the building, you will see the full-height elevation as you see it now – slightly derelict, slightly rough," says Ricard. "Even if you create a lot of activity in the building we want to maintain the sense of scale and space." In the two turbine halls, which will become shopping arcades, that meant installing escalators and bridges – some of which will be suspended using an existing gantry crane – so as not to enclose the enormous volumes.
The 100-metre-high chimneys are the tallest constructions in Southwest London
This isn't WilkinsonEyre's first time working with tricky industrial sites. Last year, the firm finished work on converting the Gasholders, a trio of Victorian-era gas storage tanks, into luxury apartments. "We are creating quirky and interesting spaces that a lot of people will find interesting," says Ricard.In terms of Battersea, that meant revealing as much of the building's historic texture as possible. They ended up treating it as a container for an entirely new building inside. The original brick exterior walls are held up bysteel beams as if they were a glass curtain facade, allowing newly-created floors inside the building to stop short of the historic shell. "Wherever you are in the building you can have a glance at the existing elements," he says. "We're trying to maintain and preserve as much of the historic fabric as we can."
Both of the building's original control rooms are being conserved and restored, including vintage equipment and architectural details from the 1930s and '50s. The older control room – which has featured in films such as The King's Speech – will become an event space.Packing so many different uses into a single building posed a tough engineering challenge. The event spaces and retail areas needed to be free of structural columns, but they are capped by a huge amount of office space – as much as a large office tower. "It's equivalent to the Gherkin, if you took it, squished it and put it in there," says Ricard, referring to Norman Foster's famous London high-rise, officially known as 30 St Mary Axe.
A glass lift inside one of the chimneys will take visitors to an observation deck
"The challenge was to create a structure grid and a set of slabs that fit all these activities that are vertically stacked on top of one another," he says. The solution was to create a structural system that Ricard likens to a tree, with pillars that spread outwards on upper floors in order to maximise floor space. "One column in the retail area supports six columns for the office space above it."The three floors of high-end residential units being built on the power station's rooftop were designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, with a retiring glass-and-steel design that aims not to detract from the building's imposing form. A large communal garden for residents and office workers fills the space in between the residential units, which are being designed as "hidden villas in the sky," as Ricard calls them. "You effectively have these houses on top of the power station, 50 metres up in the air. The people living in these villas are going to have an amazing view."
The public will have access to an even more remarkable view. When WilkinsonEyre first submitted its bid for the Battersea project, it suggested putting a glass lift in one of the power station's four massive chimneys, leading visitors to an observation deck on top. "When you're inside those chimneys it's so impressive, we thought the public should be able to explore the space," says Ricard. "In southwest London there are not many tall buildings – in fact you can't build any tall buildings. Those chimneys are 100 metres above the ground plane and they're the highest point you are ever going to get around there."Construction is now underway, despite financial uncertainties that led to a delay severe enough that buyers of the 255 flats inside the power station now have the right to a complete refund. Meanwhile, judgements of the densely packed residential development surrounding the historic site, which includes buildings designed by Gehry Partners and Foster + Partners, have been unflattering – critic Owen Hatherley blasted it as "grim", "dire" and "based solely on the extraction of maximum profit from the difficult site".
Industrial buildings have become our new cathedrals of the 20th century… The issue is how do you justify it economically to transform them and reuse them
WilkinsonEyre hasn't played a part in that side of the development; its focus is solely on the power plant. And Ricard says their mixed-used programme – "a mini-city within a building" – is the most realistic solution for a difficult piece of heritage.
"Industrial buildings have become our new cathedrals of the 20th century," he says. "The issue is how do you justify it economically to transform them and reuse them. You can do the Tate Modern once in a while, but you can't do 10 or 15 of those in London or any other city. If you respect the historic nature of the building, it's a great opportunity for a developer to buy a site with industrial buildings and reuse them instead of demolishing them."