words Beatrice Galilee
On the edge of a car park in East Fife stands Zaha Hadid’s first building in the UK.
Should they just knock it down?
After more than two decades of optimistic plan-making, Battersea Power Station is purposeless once again. The site has been sold, the plans are in limbo and another opportunity to breathe life into the most spectacular ruin in London has been passed up. So what’s to be done with it?
The perimeter of the power station site is marked by a surreal cardboard montage of manicured trees. It’s a promising image but the huge advertising hoardings that tower over the busy road to Vauxhall, plastered with visions of the development, are out of date. The site’s former owner, Hong Kong-based developer Parkview, had commissioned detailed plans to turn it into a mixed-use retail, entertainment and culture complex. But in December, Parkview sold it to an Irish developer for £400 million, making a profit in real terms of £250 million. The local community is reeling from the decision, and now speculation is rife that, with land values rising so fast, so-called developers will only ever have to sit on the site to make a fortune.
“Parkview didn’t give a rat’s arse about Battersea Power Station,” says Keith Garner of the Battersea Community Group. “They had the building for 13 years and they didn’t do any repairs at all. This land has gone to waste and they walk off with £250m. It’s the unacceptable face of capitalism.”
This is a view shared by the World Monuments Fund, which will be keeping the Grade-II listed building on its endangered buildings list this year. “We don’t think it’s overly pessimistic to predict that history will repeat itself and we will be looking at the same situation another five or ten years down the line,” says spokesperson Will Black. “The new owners haven’t been returning our calls and we’ve seen no evidence that they intend to see things through. Nobody seems to be able to pull this together. We’re all rather depressed.”
Giles Gilbert Scott built the main coal-burning power station, Station A, between 1929 and 1935, and (with the more modest Station B added in the 1940s) it provided a fifth of London’s electricity. Decommissioned in 1983, the site was sold by the government – after a private competition – to entrepreneur John Broome, who planned to turn it into an Alton Towers-style theme park. The building was gutted and the roof removed in expectation of spectacular rollercoasters, but the money ran out. It was sold in 1993 to Victor Hwang, owner of Parkview, and since then the building has stood somewhere between hope and ignominy.
Where the boiler room once was is now a grassy ruin. The steel skeleton is exposed everywhere, with the fast-crumbling layers of rain-stained bricks also revealing the heavy concrete formwork. Nevertheless, the Art Deco tiles are eerily well preserved. It may not have the romance of a crumbling abbey, but there is something very stirring about being in the belly of such a hulk. “It’s really one of the greatest Art Deco masterpieces of all time, ” says Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, the architect Parkview had commissioned to redevelop the building.
What is frustrating the likes of Grimshaw is that ownership of this London landmark doesn’t appear to come with any responsibility. Many are asking if the building should be in the hands of a private enterprise at all. The Battersea Community Group would like to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. “We would like to see an innovative partnership or trust with the local community,” says Garner. “Perhaps the developers could approach the Lottery for funds. I’m not optimistic though.” The idea of developers buying land speculatively and merely watching its value rise is one of the hallmarks of today’s global consumer society, says London School of Economics sociologist Saskia Sassen. “People are buying great hunks of cities from abroad. There’s a clear idea that just because you invest, it doesn’t mean you have to use it.”
Wandsworth council claims to have secured the preservation of the building, but there is no obligation for any owner to actually develop it. “Nothing can proceed without the certainty that the Power Station will be restored,” says Mike Riley of Wandsworth Council planning department. “But none of us can magic up tenants. This is not the Dome – no government agency is going to work to help start it up financially. You can’t force people to develop.”
The new owner, Real Estate Opportunities – a subsidiary of Irish developer Treasury Holdings – has not yet given an indication of how it intends to convert the power station. Grimshaw is hoping that his design will not go to waste, but the problem is that Hwang’s vision for the site was a personal one. By many accounts visionary – architect UN Studio and landscape architect West 8 were collaborating with Grimshaw, all working to a highly bespoke masterplan by engineer Cecil Balmond – the design-heavy scheme is not necessarily going to be of interest to the new owners.
“Victor [Hwang] sold his dream,” says Charles Walker, associate director of Arup and one of the key figures in the design of the final masterplan. Walker, who believes Hwang’s intentions for the site were genuine, doesn’t see how the plan can be revived “The design he created over 11 years was highly bespoke and it was very particular to the specific interests of Victor, Parkview and his family to own and operate in the future. It’s just not a viable commercial prospect.”
The crucial question is one of value – but is it the land value or the civic value? The issue of whether the building should stay standing may be a moot point given its listed status, but Real Estate Opportunities is plain about its priorities. “We’re not doing it for the love of it,” says Ray Hornsey, chairman of the company. “Nobody does it for love anymore. We hope it will be a very profitable venture for the company.”
The plight of Battersea Power Station is thrown into relief by another former power station, downriver at Bankside. Gilbert Scott’s later project, Tate Modern, is the epitome of successful regeneration, the quintessential example of an industrial temple being turned into a cultural one. “The Tate had the benefit of the National Lottery,” says Garner. “When Battersea was first sold in 1983, it was given directly to a developer for a competition. There were no heritage grants or national lottery then. This was the Eighties.”
There are, however, successful models of industrial zones being reused in Europe where governments have played a role in steering private developers. Sassen cites the success of Barcelona’s harbourside development. “Barcelona used its own harbour and factories to make a fantastic space. But the government had a broad way of looking at things, a civic orientation that knew how to deal with private industry.”
Grimshaw is also adamant that the Power Station not be left to languish as a fenced-off brownfield site. “I remember going to the World’s Fair in 1951 and watching it towering over us, puffing out smoke. It’s up there with the Chrysler building. It’s so important that it’s open to the public. We have the planning consent, we just want to get started.”
The owner’s interests may yet have to be resolved but the public’s interests are obvious. “People like the feeling of connection to an earlier London,” says Tim Edensor, professor at Manchester University and author of Industrial Ruins. “They want to walk through the gates and imagine what it was like to turn up for work there, when London was the workshop of the world.”