diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 12, 2013

One day, maybe, Battersea Power Station will be reborn. It's had several false starts over the last few years, several developers who said "hey, we have this great idea for the place..." then went bust, or lost interest, or faded away. The latest bunch, a Malaysian consortium, are proving hardier souls. They've got to the planning stage, the accommodation brochure stage, the Prime Ministerial launch stage and the Northern line extension stage. Their plans propose a major mixed use development encompassing the power station and the expanse of land surrounding it, completed in stages over the next twelve years or so. There'll be luxury apartments, shopping malls, office space and yet more luxury apartments, just as you'd expect. Or maybe there won't.

Another round of planning consultation kicked off last week. It had a decent amount of publicity, so you might have noticed, indeed you might even have been along. The owners set up an exhibition in a posh prefab on site and invited the public inside to have their say. Access was via a derelict-looking lane on the Nine Elms riverside, nowhere you'd think of going by accident, where a poster announced the exhibition within. I had to ask the security guard if I was in the right place, because it didn't look promising. He invited me to walk through a gate I'd assumed was locked, then pointed down a run of metal barriers to the main exhibition. It was a smart affair.

On entry a member of staff wanted your name and address, holding out a piece of lined paper with an insistent smile. And then there was quite a lot to see. A complete history of the power station, on nicely produced boards - nothing controversial whatsoever. A properly-old scale model of the power station, which looked like it dated back to the Central Electricity Generating Board. Several boards outlining the proposed development scheme, differentiated by being black on white not white on black. Proposals to demolish the crumbling chimneys and replace them, starting imminently, then adding a lift to a viewing platform at the top of one. And another scale model showing New Battersea Power Station surrounded by curved perspex blocks, clustered on three sides in a rather dense manner. Everything you'd expect really.

Plans are for the Grade I listed power station to have at least three main uses. There'll be a lot of offices in the centre, with a whopping great atrium leading up to a glass roof way above. There'll be high level apartments, the most expensive on the site for those who can afford to live in the actual landmark building. And there'll be shopping malls, two in total, contained accessed via Turbine Hall A and Turbine Hall B. One will be highbrow prestige brands, a bit like a covered version of Bond Street, while the other will feature shops a smidgeon lower down the retail ladder. And it was the artist's impressions of these malls that made me silently weep. They showed a central atrium with shops and balconies and staircases that could have been any major shopping mall anywhere, say Lakeside or Westfield, the very epitome of nothing special. Sure, the bricks and tiles of the great building were still present, and closer inspection revealed soaring walls and windows. But something in the anodyne presentation suggested that the star presence here would be the shops, not the architecture, in faceless pastel tones.

It became apparent partway round that the lady standing next to me was a future tenant. She'd already reserved an apartment in Phase One of the development - that's Circus West, a steel and glass block due shortly to block out views of the power station from the adjacent railway. She was here to check out plans for her local shops, restaurants and cinemas, a completely different point of view to mine. So I was pleased to get the opportunity at the end of the exhibition, when a polite woman dished out questionnaires on clipboards, to offer up an equal voice. "I like the proposal..." "I welcome the variety of uses..." "I support the new plans to regenerate the Power Station building." I ticked 'strongly disagree' for the latter, as you'd anticipate.

And then, once our opinions had been collected, we were allowed outside to view the power station itself. A long line of metal barriers snaked across a vast expanse of nothingness - these 39 acres the true prize for the developers. A stream of Heathrow-bound planes flew almost directly overhead - something you won't read about in the glossy brochures for potential tenants. It was a long walk, but that was great because there was the opportunity to view the chimneys from far away to almost directly underneath. Back in September for Open House the queues to get inside ran round the block, thousands strong. When I visited midweek there were no more than half a dozen of us, and most of those on the walk back, which gave a wholly different (and rather marvellous) experience.

I stood at the entrance to Turbine Hall B and stared, in awe of this vast electric cathedral. A barrier prevented deeper ingress, but to stand within was enough. To one side a row of part-decayed columns allowed view of the central generating space, entirely roofless, where those lucky office workers are going to go. Ahead was a long atrium with lofty roof, a net cast across to catch falling debris. Occasionally a pigeon flapped across from one side to the other, at would-be penthouse level, oh so high above. I tried to picture this as a shopping mall and it was disturbingly easy, with each of the gaps between pillars transforming into showy plate glass windows. And yet it struck me how almost nothing had changed since I was last here in 2006, save a little more dilapidation and yet another change of ownership.

When my one fellow visitor departed, and the security guard wandered off, I suddenly had the entire building to myself. It was a wonderful sensation, both humbling and rare, and I felt very privileged to be here. If the developers get their way this site will never be so empty again, what with shoppers and office workers and long-term residents and security everywhere. It seems the price of saving Gilbert Scott's creation is to transform it utterly, as a generator of wealth rather than of awe. As if to prove the point, my five minutes of silence was ended when a businessman wandered in, jabbering into his mobile phone and trailing a suitcase behind him. He saw Battersea Power Station for what it could be, and I saw it for what it was. We left together, both smiling for entirely different reasons.

The public exhibition closed on Sunday, sorry, so you'll not be following me inside. Detailed plans were supposed to go online yesterday, but I've looked and I can't find them on the site [Thursday update: they're here]. But the Public Exhibition Questionnaire is fully accessible, in case you have any thoughts on the future of Battersea Power station and care to share. This latest scheme might be the most likely yet to succeed, but as past decades have proven, change here is never guaranteed.

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