by Anmol AhujaMay 27, 2023
An image of the post-war industrial city is often conjured up in billowing smoke, swivelling cranes, and impositions in the Western world’s newfound romance with steel, all powered and shaped by the driver of the 'modern' world, and a spectre in the current – coal. The city of London with the Thames cutting through its rough geometric centre has often found itself at the focus of that conjuring. Amid Britain's famous history with coal, several squabbling private players in the power production canon in the 30s gave way to one of the biggest public undertakings of the time, the Battersea Power Station on the southern bank of the river, albeit not without inciting riotous repose. British architect Giles Gilbert Scott, perhaps most commonly known as the designer of the instantaneous placemaker in the red London telephone booth, birthed the iconic four-chimneyed silhouette for the power station, one that was to at once reassess and outlive a veritable industrial aesthetic and heritage. The coal powered station, an unyielding brick quadrilateral upon first contact with sparingly placed fenestrations, was decommissioned in its fourth decade of service. With the utility stripped away from the utilitarian, what remained was Gilbert Scott’s inimitable architectural statement falling to ruin, but never failing as yet another immobile image for the city of London.
The years between 1983 – the station’s decommissioning – and its reopening as an animated, mixed-use site touted to be a world-class destination for commerce and leisure in the heart of London, in 2022 (ironically a year the UK looks to face a winter energy crisis atop its tumultuous economic forays), have seen myriad proposals – and desires – for the conversion of an institutional industrial edifice into a public avenue, with variances in spatial programming and architectural typologies the now iconic post-industrial monument could lend itself to. The fact that the site was purchased merely four years after first being decommissioned, with proposals ranging from converting the derelict power station into a venue for upscale leisure to an adventure park pouring in quite early on, is testament and inferential, it would appear, of the same desire to transform a spectacle to another spectacle. Proposals for housing, one of the more interesting typologies that the massive 150m x 150m industrial structure could adapt to, came in later. Fellow British architect, Cedric Price, among the first ones to propose social housing on the site, remarked in jest on the supposed non-adaptability of the site, precisely owing to how frozen in public memory the silhouette was.
Interestingly, this also expresses an inherent programmatic desire for reclamation of prime institutional land and the associated inertia I would profess exists in most cities but remains far too inaccessible to the public still to actually devise a theory around it. Price’s statement then would prove to be rather prophetic, with several such proposals seeing the light of day and eventually stagnating owing to unfavourable market speculation, until WilkinsonEyre’s intensive decade-long restoration and intervention to the historic site finally opened to the public this October. A romantical mixed-use vision for the sizeable venue including avenues for offices, residences, retail, and recreation, the opening was accompanied by much fanfare, with posters and announcements lining the streets and concave tunnels of the tube. The significant interest generated in the monumental relic’s second coming was second only to Pink Floyd’s flying pig over the chimneys.
A brisk fall evening I spent at the opening weekend proceedings of the Battersea Power Station was witness to that collective sense of renewal that the city was looking forward to and came to experience in droves - the belonging London felt and a certain hope and anticipation was palpable. Surrounded by food trucks, beer stalls, a crooning Frank Sinatra impersonator, and a swanky deck overlooking the river past the extensively reformed green groundscape that defines the walk to the bricked edge of the building, the structural silhouette of the power station doesn’t seek to inconspicuously coexist – it is simply too powerful and definitive for that despite the outwardly social functions that activate its feet. Consequently, neither do the two super structures flanking it along its eastern and western edges – the undulating Prospect Place by Gehry and Partners, and Battersea Roof Gardens by Foster + Partners, the latter due for 2023 in the development’s third phase, comprising the overall master plan’s high end residential units. In that, while the skyline from the Chelsea Bridge may seem a contradictory congregation, with recognisable attempts at iconicity, the all-but-sacred ground seeks to unite, transforming Battersea into a site for experimentation, and reflective of the city’s vivacious metropolitanism.
The extent – and intent – of WilkinsonEyre’s interventive rather than obtrusive approach to the transformation reveals itself upon first contact with the core structure’s entrance threshold. The team at WilkinsonEyre, led by Sebastien Ricard (Project Director) and Jim Eyre (Project Principal), are fully aware of the stature of the architectural object whose adaptive reuse they are dealing with, as an architectural symbiosis comes to light in the inner façade and the atriums of Turbine Halls A and B. Painstakingly restored brick palisades and iron trusses coexist with contemporary floor finishes to the newly added levels, and skeletal glass and steel cables in parallel planes - something the architects term a “box in a box” strategy of volumetric inclusion. The same manifests elaborately in the atrium situated at the entrance of the building as a much more comprehensive reinterpretation of the double skin façade system, with the outer layer being a bricked patina frozen in time, and the inner a reminiscence of an industrial heritage in steel and glass, cosmetically propping it up. The setting is animated and illuminated by theatrical LEDs that up the dramatic quotient of the already grand edifice, but also by carefully devised light wells and sky lights that 'open up' the erstwhile industrial structure.
Some of the most tantalising aspects of the renewed building, especially the new glass lift through the chimney to the top and Apple’s new London office covering six massive floors in the middle of the building, remained closed to the public in the opening weekend, touted to be completed later this year and in the third phase, respectively. Conversely, the new residential blocks on the higher floors, including penthouses on the top and rooftop gardens privy to them, remained chinks in the armour, as impedances in an admittedly romanticised but narratively coherent publicisation of the development, now serviced by an extension to the historical Northern Line of the London tube.
The walk inside the building – through high-end retail and recognisable coffee and food chain outlets – is much defined, owing to the rather cuboidal envelope, but is peppered with industrial relics surviving from the station’s functioning age. The most elaborate among them is Control Room B, a literal control room of the power station’s second phase built in 1955, now transformed into an all-day bar. Boilers, along with an undecipherable array of switches, controls, levers, and control lights, and a platonically suspended gantry crane, appear periodically on the path to the power station’s traversal, dispelling the reductive notions of this being a shopping mall with character as precisely and recurringly as they occur to the discerning. My reminiscence of the evening wasn’t entirely different – akin to watching a contemporary retelling of a classic play, elaborately staged with a vivacious, inimitable scenography. Even so, while the relics and the setting are the character, their presence alludes to a more democratical giving away of such a facility to the public as opposed to the museumization of it, as Ricard strongly suggests later in our conversation on the development, on a vertical shift in perspective to the ground profile, the veracity of a true mixed-use program, efforts to urban renewal, bridging temporality and iconicity, and the responsibility and challenges that come with. What follows are excerpts from the interview, recorded at the WilkinsonEyre office in Farringdon.
Anmol Ahuja: To begin with, I see the project as a bridge between two times and typologies, and as opening up a wider discourse for the adaptive reuse and conservation of historically significant buildings. Would you say you and your team perceived it similarly?
Sebastien Ricard: I think, yes. Probably the biggest and most exciting challenge of the project was exactly that: how do you demonstrate that you can do a sustainable development here? And what I mean by a sustainable development isn’t just from a green perspective, but more as a development which can be successful for years to come, by converting a building which was made for machines – their shape, size, and scale – into a building fit for people to live, recreate, work and shop. Because it was a big box of activity with very little natural light to start with, and very few floor plates, we had to just adapt it to do major intervention work in what is a Grade II* listed building. A major intervention here is not necessarily easy to get approved, and that too was probably one of the most fascinating parts of the project.
Anmol: Did you consider the original design and form of the power station – iconic by all means - as an object of complete reverence during your design process, or did you have some critical thoughts on it?
Sebastien: There is a combination of elements there. The first thing is the external fabric, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, which was built in two phases - half of it in the 30s, and the other half in the 50s. That has a very, very specific ground architecture. The external shape, the material, and the detailing of the facade and its treatment are some things that are very important and very vertical, very grand. Giles Gilbert Scott was actually brought in to beautify the building because a lot of people, especially on north of the river at the time, were very nervous of having a power station facing their building. So there's that - the external aspect.
The internal parts of the building have been designed by a local council architect for both phases, what we call Turbine Hall A and B. Those have their own architectural character. There is no doubt that these are iconic and fascinating - the fluted terminals, the Watchtower which has a brick tower supporting the chimney - all these elements are sacrosanct. Additionally, the quality of the brickwork, the texture of the brickwork, the fact that there are upto 12 blends of different kinds of bricks (and thus different colours) because they were built at different times and different brick suppliers got involved. Even this slight difference is a part of the richness of the building, and we really wanted to respect and retain that. There is also quite a lot of major intervention on the facade which you don't see very often on a Grade II* listed building - we have created close to 120 slot windows throughout the building. But every time we did that, we did that by really studying the original architecture, studying where the existing small window were, and trying to create a vertical slot following this alignment.
So, for buildings at listed sites, our first approach typically deals with reflecting the quality and innovation of the building at this time. The best response, therefore, in our mind, if you are going to have to make some intervention for whatever reason, is to give our best shot at doing something very innovative and contemporary. We think that's much more respectful than actually being pastiche and postmodernist or trying to copy the original design. What you are saying is, "let's use technologies which are not innovative, which are not as grand as what the original architect would have used at that time!" So, it’s a combination of understanding what the key elements we want to retain are – the ones make the power station a modern icon, and the need to make it fit for new functions and purposes.
Anmol: While still on the conceptual stage perhaps, how would you say something purpose built like a power station lent itself to more flexible, contemporary commercial usage? Would you say that the extensive exercise perhaps involved repurposing a shell rather than a more conventionally holistic process of building and form giving?
Sebastien: I think it's a very interesting point, and we had a lot of these challenges when we were at the early stages of design. Because the building is about 150 meters long by 150 meters wide, for the residential part of the development, what we call the Switch Houses East and West and the villas on the top, we had to work with a lot of free area. If you'd want to create a corridor to access your residential unit, it would be awful because it could become and endless hotel lobby because of the length and the scale of the building. Additionally, these buildings are too deep to create a nice flat with natural light coming in.
We had to really think outside of the box here. How do you bring residences with the right character in a building which wasn't designed to be that? That's where you bring character, and what I call a certain 'quirkiness' that could make something magical and special. So, we cut out some gaps in the building, for the lack of a better word, to allow light coming in deep - a bit like you have in mainland Europe. We exposed the brickwork on the inside face of the wall so that everyone who lives inside the power station can feel and touch the original brick and be a part of its original character. When they arrive on top, a lens at the base of the chimney shows them the full height of the chimney – that’s something incredible! We used the fact that the building wasn't adapted for all this to actually create something special.
Anmol: The erstwhile power station is located right in between two buildings designed by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster – both statement pieces in close proximity to the power station itself. In that light, what are your views on the overall Battersea development scheme at large?
Sebastien: It's a very interesting arrangement. I mean, there have been so many conversations about that along the years, of people being critical of the density, the height, and the different ‘styles’ of architecture. I think everybody has an opinion on it, which is what is good about the city, and important for it to be ‘alive’.
I come from a French background, and if you go to France or to Paris, it is very beautiful, but very homogenous, especially the centre. There are regulations where the roofscape is capped at a certain height and you can't go beyond that. You even have a profile that you have to follow for it. And then, you could argue that you have got proportion to respect because you are on a listed building like the power station. The way you proceed, you could have those sets of rules around it, or you have a completely different approach, which is what I call the organised mess of London, and I love that. It’s a very lively city where you can have the Gherkin next to a 14th century church. And that's what I call an ‘urban accident’, which I find fascinating, because you don't necessarily have very implied, written rules. It's much more about how you can justify what you want to do on the site, which in turn is more about the kind of pull-apart conversations with local authorities and with planners. I think that variation is what is great about Battersea. We need to remember that we need that kind of density to make the whole development successful.
The great news for me is that it’s a real mixed-use scheme. The development started as a mainly residential scheme, but the latest figures are about a 50-50 on the commercial and residential aspects. I believe that makes it a very good masterplan. It’s very important to the groundscape, and the relationship between the building and the public ground, and how it’s all set out to run the building. I don’t know if that answers your question, but at this time, I don’t want to judge because it’s too easy. My opinion is not better than somebody else's, and I truly think style doesn’t matter. What constitutes a successful development is if you have ‘life’ at the ground level that makes people excited to walk through there, and that life doesn’t detract from the activity – both complement each other. You know, sometimes as architects, we are a bit too selfish or self-centred thinking about the shape of a building. I think the other element which should be important and makes the development successful is how well it responds to the need of the site.
Anmol: The original brick structure's façade isn’t entirely a porous one, while a number of elements in the new design facilitate ‘revealing’ a number of the plant’s machinations – including the control stations, switch rooms, and the chimneys – to the public. Is this contrast, this dichotomy intentional, or was it more along the lines of ‘museum-ising’ the old machinery?
Sebastien: I don't think it's really museumising because firstly, the building was always very well known by Londoners and beyond for its silhouette in the skyline of London. But very, very few people have been inside the building. The first thing, therefore, is opening it up to the public - it's a great thing for people to be able to walk in the turbine hall simply because very few people have been able to do that before. As I mentioned early on, we were keen that people see this building for what it was, and not just as a new retail development. So, it was very important that they could read the feel of what the building was because it's part of its beauty. The main part of this beauty is really the function and the question of the architecture relating to this original function. So, yes, we have exposed its industrial heritage and created some subtle interventions - like on the floor of the turbine room, for instance, we set down the footprint of the original turbine so people could have just a very subtle reminder of what it was used for. The attempt wasn’t to museumise; it's more about trying to make sure there are bits where you turn a corner and someone suddenly says, "Oh yes, now I know it was a power station!”
You can see that it used to be controlling all the equipment in there and producing electricity. In our mind, that’s more interesting if it's elements like that, rather than, putting up signs. That way, it's more alive basically, rather than being a sterilised room that people can access but can't do anything with.
Anmol: The renewed power station received a much-hyped launch; there were posters and advertisements all over the city – much like a spectacle. Can you comment on the kind of longevity you think the intervention has?
Sebastien: This is exactly a question that architects and clients are asking themselves at the moment. What do we build for? How long do we build for? The big conversation here is, if you look at the cycle of commercial projects until very recently, a lot of developers in the city or in central London were getting a return on their buildings in 25-30 or even 40 years, and then starting again. I think there's a very real understanding now that we can't function that way anymore. From a purely sustainable point of view, it's not viable to keep going that way. The embodied carbon of keeping doing that, scratching a building and redoing it again with a small life span is not what we should all be looking for.
Obviously, when you entertain a restoration project of the scale and expanse of the power station, you can't think short term. It's a monument. It's an iconic building. You don't do that for 50 years or 60 years. The aim is that it’s going to be there for a long, long time to come. And that comes down to both – the quality of the fabric itself, which hopefully suffices for it to stand for a long time, even if it would require restoration work nominally, and the kind of flexibility of space you can create inside and how it evolves with time.
The reality is whatever may seem like the right approach for a specific function right now might be slightly different in a few years' time. So, hopefully, we have created a set of components with relatively simple grids and simple systems which can be adaptable. For instance, the shops in the retail ecosystem are effectively curved out within the turbine hall, but their exact footprint can evolve. The office space is the same - it's very much like a vast studio space typology where the fit out is a layer you put on top of a very strong and simple, solid infrastructure, for the lack of a better world, which can evolve with time. It's been given a new life, but we have some very strong framework to enable evolution and flexibility, which hopefully can justify that it will be there for a long, long time.
Additionally, I think that kind of modularity too can be bespoke. The big difference between this and the post Second World War kind of industrial-modular system, which a lot of people like Jean Prouvé were very interested in, is that it was built at the time to improve the quality of individual components rather than having everything manually done and having 'imperfections' everywhere. And that is why there was naturally a lot of repetition. Now, we have the technology to create a prefabricated component which is very bespoke. So actually, I do believe that debate has evolved too.
Anmol: The Battersea Development has been a massive undertaking with a considerable amount of investment of capital and resources. Do you find it possible to remove yourself as the architect of the new development, and assess its larger intent and programmatic success? This is especially contextual given the current scenario in the UK, with a looming recession and a housing and energy crisis amid recent political turmoil.
Sebastien: It's quite difficult for me because I have been so close to the project for so many years. If anything, I think one thing that I am specifically proud of for the project, which is not an architectural element, is the fact that it's a real mixed-use scheme in the most noble sense of the term. Under one roof you have got an enormous quantum of offices, retail, and residential apartments in one building. I think the future is mixed use, but not the kind of mixed-use which is a trend of the moment, where effectively 80 per cent or 90 per cent is residential, and there are just one or two shops on the ground. It’s about creating a place where you have ‘life’ at day and at night, through the week, during the weekend, during the summer months, and when people are on holiday. You can, within a very small radius, do everything that you need to do. I think it's a good way of thinking, going forwards, to be forced to avoid using a car, and being able to work, recreate, and live in the same place or in a small radius - I think it’s a very interesting typology!
Of course, Battersea is unique. The investment there is enormous. You can't replicate that scenario somewhere else. But I think you can replicate the idea of a mixed use, a real mixed use, and create quick, central pockets of places that can essentially create a mini centre. We come from years of purely residential pockets, office pockets, and big retail centres. I think those are hopefully gone, because I think they were big urban mistakes on our part. Taking myself away from the Power Station itself, I think if we can help create these kinds of developments which have all these ingredients, then it's hopefully a very positive thing. It's very interesting to try to develop that as a typology in general in the urban fabric. And wherever we are, London or New Delhi, I think that creating this mix can only be beneficial. Density is not something we should be frightened of; we should embrace it because for me, density also means a social mix of cultures and thinking. As soon as you share experiences, you share different modes of thinking. We all get richer out of this.
Anmol: Something I found really interesting while studying the building is how many films have been shot either inside the power station or using the rather imposing structure as a backdrop to reflect a desolate, post-industrial landscape – 1984, The Dark Knight, Children of Men, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – to name a few. That is what lends itself so aptly to the above-mentioned mostly dystopian representations.
These images are in direct contrast with the images on display currently, which I suppose opens up the question of architectural representation in media. What do you think about that?
Sebastien: I think it's interesting, because when we are doing a website or when we were briefing the photographer for the building a few years back, it was all about getting ‘the most iconic image’, which often used to be a very calm black and white image. We actually had the building on its own and very few people in there. What we want, right now, is to demonstrate that the building works well. We want very lively, colourful images with a lot of people in there. There is a very different relationship or perception of architecture from postmodernism where it was all about the pure object 20-30 years ago, to a scenario now wherein it's actually much more organic - the relationship with art and with a building. And I think it's interesting what you say, because I don't think the building will ever be used exactly in the same manner as it used to be.
What made it special for these movies is the fact that it was a derelict building for many years, and that’s what created this kind of magical, romantic aspect around it. It used to be this kind of amazing, ‘dirty’ building in the middle of an active city. And that's part of the romanticism. But at the same time, it was romanticised like that because it was a failure. Having this amazing, enormous site that nobody could access, that was enclosed, and you needed to go above fences if you wanted to get into it. It wasn't engaging with the city; it wasn’t related to the lives of the city. So yes, as a film set, it was great to create those kinds of amazing, romanticised moments on film. I believe now that it's fully reformed and open, is working well and will work well, it's not going to be regarded in the same manner. It will hopefully be regarded very positively, but for different reasons.
You can already see things which for me are interesting setting up in the power station at the moment, including two electric car company showrooms, and a pop-up shop for electric motorbikes. So, you have quite innovative, high-tech people and companies who want to be seen there. I think that’s quite cool, and I hope that can stay.
In musings post the illuminating conversation, the question on whether the iconicity of the Battersea Power Station persists, is transient, or is periodically renewed by the stimulus of such interventions is an interesting one to ponder upon, discursively looking at heritage and history as neither ephemeral nor instantaneous, but only continually evolving and perceptively altered by the user-spectator.