If you’ve visited London in recent years you’ve likely made a trip to the Tate Modern, the art powerhouse that occupies the former Bankside Power Station on the South Bank of the Thames (and that has proven so popular it recently opened a new extension by architects Herzog and De Meuron.)
Now an even more famous power station by the same original architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, is getting its own makeover, and it lies at the heart of a massive new development that is bringing a smorgasbord of high profile designers and a very American flavor to a rundown borough in London. It also reflects the tensions common to today’s global cities, including L.A., as housing-strapped Londoners ask if this new neighborhood is for them or for international investors.
Battersea Power Station, built in the 1930s, was a magnificent Art Deco-style brick behemoth with four distinctive concrete chimneys that used to pump out “clouds of pure white steam,” recalls London native Jonathan Glancey.
It was decommissioned in the mid-1980s but became a pop culture icon, most famously on the album cover for Pink Floyd’s Animals. In recent years it also became a cool site for parties and concerts, with Elton John among those who performed in the atmospheric industrial space.
But the massive structure couldn’t survive on income from parties and photo shoots, and over the last 30 years there have been multiple efforts to redevelop it.
Finally a Malaysian consortium bought the London landmark. The Power Station is currently being stripped back and restored, at a cost of over a billion pounds.
And around it is growing a massive redevelopment: 42 acres of almost 4,000, mostly luxury apartments for sale, over a million square feet of offices, hundreds of stores, as well as parks, events spaces and a new Tube station — all being designed by a who’s-who of architects including Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Bjarke Ingels.
This vast new neighborhood is part of an even more extensive development called Nine Elms –227 hectares in a rundown part of the borough of Vauxhall now being turned by various developers into clusters of office and residential towers.
And it is all anchored by two American institutions: Apple and the U.S. State Department.
The tech giant has announced it will move its 1,500 London staff into offices in Battersea Power Station when it opens in 2020. A few blocks away, a new U.S. Embassy, designed by Kieran Timberlake, is under construction and set to open on July 4th this year.
The state department’s decision to move out of its longtime embassy in Grosvenor Square in central London’s Mayfair district, where ever-tighter security was causing chaos on the surrounding streets, kickstarted the entire Nine Elms regeneration project, says architect Paul Monaghan. Apple’s commitment has added further impetus.
Around the new Embassy, other new embassies are appearing, drawn by the security measures being put in place by the U.S., explains Monaghan, whose firm Allford Hall Monaghan Morris designed a building next to the U.S. Embassy called Embassy Gardens.
They gave it a distinctly American flavor: “We were inspired by… those brick skyscrapers by people like Louis Sullivan. And our building is built with bricks from America and the landscape and things like the lights are influenced by American cities.”
In other respects the emerging area feels somewhat American. It features blocks of buildings whose scale, height and mix of uses are more typical of East Coast U.S. cities than much of older London. However, the streets are narrower than typical for the U.S. because the dense project is predicated on access to mass transit. Very few of the pricey apartments (a one-bedroom sells for approximately $1 million) have parking spaces and all the developers have had to contribute to the cost of building a new subway station.
Notwithstanding these give-backs, the project has been criticized for its emphasis on luxury housing that has been marketed to overseas investors.
The Battersea Power Station Development Company has targeted the Asian market but says 60% of its buyers are U.K. passport holders.
The project also includes 15% affordable units. (London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan wants future developments to set aside 50% affordable, with priority given to nurses, teachers and the London workforce.)
The development company points out that they are also giving back to Londoners in the form of public open spaces, access to the refurbished power station and its shops, restaurants, events venues and the jobs those will bring, not to mention the new Tube station.
Then there are those who say the master plan — by New York-based Rafael Viñoly — has packed too much development around the station and that its finger-like blocks by designers with very different voices adds up to a petting zoo of architects that lacks unity.
Monaghan says the mix has the potential to be very exciting but that, right now, “it’s quite a hodgepodge when you walk around. And I think it’s going to be hard to know whether or not it would have been better to do a master plan, where everything was more coherent and homogenous, or whether in time it’s going to be rather good making all the buildings rather different. I think the latter.”
He adds, “the thing that should tie it together is the landscaping and the park and the streets. And if they’re good, I think it will work.”
Design critic Jonathan Glancey has reservations. “The scheme overall is glossy, glitzy, bling and it owes as much to old London as a Cadillac,” he told DnA. “This is a slice of America in terms of branding, corporatism, finance, capitalism… What about a city for local people? What about a Battersea power station surrounded by homes for Londoners or people who come to live in London, not billionaires coming to buy apartments as investments?”
For Monaghan, the boost the project gives to a formerly rundown neighborhood should not be underestimated. “I think the opportunity to see the old Palace Station the way it’s been restored beautifully will be very special. You’ve got Battersea Park next to it as well — which is one of London’s great hidden parks. I think it’s going to be a whole new quarter of London. I didn’t think we could have another one. We had the Olympic Village, which happened eight years ago, and now we have got this gigantic area of regeneration. It’s a terribly exciting time to be in London.”