Designated a Grade II listed building in 1980, Battersea Power Station is a decommissioned power station on the south bank of the River Thames, London. Constructed between 1929 and 1941, the station burned coal to create electricity until it closed in 1983. For many years, the building stood empty while several companies attempted to develop plans for its use. Finally, with the help of Malaysian investors, Battersea Power Station reopened as a combination of apartments, offices and a shopping centre in autumn 2022.
The London Power Company proposed the construction of a new power station in 1927. Many protested against the plan because they feared it would be an eyesore and damage the environment. After reassuring the locals the emissions would be “clean and smokeless”, the company commissioned the industrial architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) to design the building. Scott, famed for developing the iconic red telephone boxes, produced plans for two stations, A and B. The construction of Station A began in 1929, with John Mowlem & Co building the facade.
Scott initially proposed square chimneys, but these were switched to cylindrical chimneys during the construction process. Whilst the chimneys are 50 metres high, they sit on a 51-metre-tall building, meaning they reach 101 metres above ground level. Station A, completed in 1935, comprises the western pair of chimneys and the boiler house. It cost £2,141,550 to build, and 207 accidents occurred during the process, six of which were fatal.
During the Second World War, Battersea Power Station continued running, despite the steam from the chimneys making it visible from the sky. Royal Airforce Pilots benefited from the smoke, particularly on foggy nights, because it helped them determine their location. Similarly, the German Luftwaffe used the smoke for navigation, so they never bombed the power station.
Construction of Station B began in 1944 and gradually started operating between 1953 and 1955. Scott’s design for the second station was the mirror image of Station A, resulting in the iconic four-chimney layout. The final chimney was ready for use in 1955, making Battersea Power Station complete. The boiler room was now so large it could fit the entirety of St Paul’s Cathedral.
With Station B complete, Battersea Power Station could produce up to 509 megawatts (MW), making it the third-largest generating site in the UK. London Power Company initially operated Station A, but by the time Station B came into use, the government had nationalised the UK’s electricity supply, thus transferring the station’s ownership to the British Electricity Authority (BEA).
The station was responsible for powering a fifth of London’s electricity, so when an electrical fire occurred on 20th April 1964, a wide-spread area experienced power outages. Unfortunately, one affected building was the BBC Television Centre which was due to launch BBC 2 that evening. As a result of the fire, BBC 2 could not go on air until 11 am the following morning.
Aside from producing electricity, Battersea Power Station became an iconic structure in popular culture and featured in many films and television programmes. Even before the construction of Station B, the building appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936). In more recent years, it has been a setting in Children of Men (2006) and the 2020 video game Watch Dogs: Legion. Most notably, Battersea Power Station appeared on the album cover of Animals (1977) by Pink Floyd.
Designed by Storm Thorgerson (1944-2013), Pink Floyd’s Animals album cover featured an inflatable pig floating between two chimneys of Battersea Power Station. For the photoshoot and music video, the band tethered a helium-filled 12ft pig called Algie to one of the southern chimneys on 2nd December 1976. A marksman stood nearby with a gun to shoot the pig balloon down in an emergency. The following day, the band returned to the station to add the finishing touches to their video but forgot to inform the marksman. Inevitably, the balloon escaped its moorings and quickly disappeared from view. The pig flew over Heathrow, causing delayed and cancelled flights, while pilots up above panicked about the strange object in their flight path. Eventually, Algie the pig balloon landed in a field on the coast of Kent, frightening a herd of cows.
Before the Pink Floyd fiasco, Station A ceased operating on 17th March 1975 due to increased running costs. Rumours began to spread about Station B following suit, resulting in a campaign to save the building. In 1980, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine (b.1933), awarded the building Grade II listed status, which meant the building could not be demolished, extended, or altered without special permission from the local planning authority. As a result, when Station B ceased operating on 31st October 1983, the building remained standing and empty.
In 1983, the Central Electricity Generating Board, responsible for looking after the building, held a competition for redevelopment ideas. The winning idea proposed a theme park with shops and restaurants. John Broome, the owner of Alton Towers Resort, purchased Battersea Power Station for £1.5 million, but he estimated the development costs at £35 million. The theme park would need to attract 2 million visitors annually to make a profit. Undeterred, Broome started converting the site, and British Rail considered installing a shuttle service between London Victoria and Battersea.
After removing the roof to extract the old machinery, Broome halted the project in 1989. Costs had escalated to an unaffordable £230 million, so Broome ditched the theme park proposal. New ideas flooded in, such as a mixture of offices, shops and a hotel, but the building remained stationary and open to the elements for several years.
In 1993, Parkview International, a Hong Kong-based development company, purchased Battersea Power Station for £10,000. The building came with £70,000 of debt and significant damage from bad weather and flooding. Ten years later, Parkview International began a £1.1 billion project to restore the building and develop it into a retail, leisure and housing complex. Various architects submitted plans for the interior of the complex and extra buildings surrounding the area. The local Battersea Power Station Community Group actively campaigned against these schemes, stating the housing would be unaffordable and “If you surround it with buildings 15 storeys high, you don’t have a landmark any more.”
Further problems arose after construction workers discovered that parts of the chimneys had corroded. Impossible to save, Parkview International sought permission from English Heritage and the London Borough of Wandsworth to demolish and replace the chimneys of the Grade II-listed building. Unfortunately, this unexpected cost put an end to Parkview’s redevelopment plans.
In 2006, Real Estate Opportunities (REO) purchased the site for £400 million, intending to create a 980-foot-high “eco tower” and reopen the building as a power station. The plan included using the chimneys as vents for the biomass and waste fuelled station, while the interior of the building housed a shopping centre and museum. Rather than replacing the roof over the boiler house, REO proposed developing an open-air park in the space. REO claimed the materials used would reduce energy consumption in the buildings by 67%.
REO’s plans were due to go ahead in 2011, but the failure to secure a financial backer put an end to the proceedings, and REO went into administration. New proposals for Battersea Power Station came flooding in, including Sir Terry Farrell’s (b.1938) urban park and a new stadium for Chelsea Football Club. Finally, on 7th June 2012, Ernst & Young Global Limited (EY), partnered with Malaysian developers SP Setia and Sime Darby, won the bid. They proposed to restore the power station, create a riverside park and high street and construct 800 homes.
Construction commenced in 2013 on phase one of the latest project. The entire scheme comprises six phases, three of which are complete as of writing. Phase one involved the development of Circus West Village, a complex to one side of the power station. Completed in 2017, the village contains 23 restaurants, cafes and retailers, and houses over 1500 residents.
Phase two also commenced in 2013. It involved the restoration of the Art Deco power station and the reconstruction of the chimneys. Although the majority of the building work was completed by 2017, the interior required more work. Eventually, the main body of the power station opened to the public on 14th October 2022. Where the engine room once stood, shops, bars, and restaurants fill the space. There are also 254 apartments and a cinema.
To make Battersea Power Station more accessible, the London Underground agreed to create a new branch of the Northern Line. Branching off at Kennington Station, the 1.9-mile-long track serves two new stations: Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station. The construction cost £1.1 billion and opened on 20th September 2021.
Since the opening of the main shopping centre, phase three reached completion. Known as the Electric Boulevard, it contains 1,300 sustainable (and supposedly affordable) homes and a handful of shops, cafes and restaurants. Phase four promises more housing and an NHS medical centre. Phases five and six will also provide housing as well as outdoor areas.
Despite the promises of affordable houses, the Battersea Power Station shopping centre feels like a rich person’s playground. Upmarket shops and brands fill the various levels of the building, including Calvin Klein, Mulberry, Omega, Ralph Lauren and Rolex. Similarly, restaurants cater for those with extra cash to spend, notably Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen. The successful businesses will help pay for the £10 billion restoration project, but it is currently only targeting a niche clientele.
A unique highlight at Battersea Power Station is Lift 109, which carries visitors 109 metres to the top of the northwest chimney. At the top, tourists are treated to a 360-degree view of London. The (overpriced) experience allows people to watch planes landing at Heathrow Airport in the distance and gaze down at the many significant buildings that make up London’s skyline.
It is too early to say if Battersea Power Station’s make-over is a success. It is not yet reaching its target footfall, but it promises many events and exhibitions in the future, which will help attract much-needed visitors.
Whilst Battersea Power Station features parking facilities, it is easy to get to on the underground. Battersea Power Station underground station is situated next to the shopping centre; alternatively, the River Boat service provides regular transport into central London. Tickets for Lift 109 start at £15.50 when purchased online but are considerably more expensive at weekends or if purchased on-site.
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