London’s Famed Battersea Power Station Is Officially Reborn

After four decades of development starts and stops, the London landmark has been painstakingly restored into an entertainment destination that pays homage to its industrial origins.

Battersea Power Station in London. Photography by Hufton + Crow

Few buildings in London are more storied than the Battersea Power Station. Commissioned in 1933, the hulking structure burnt coal and generated 20 percent of the city’s electricity, keeping the lights on in Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. It’s rumored that World War II pilots even used the thick plumes of smoke billowing from its four giant chimneys to guide them home in misty conditions. One of the world’s largest brick buildings, the power station was decommissioned in 1975 and has sat empty ever since. Its lavish Art Deco interior fittings, prominent site along the Thames, and appearances in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage and on Pink Floyd’s 1977 album cover for Animals earned the structure Grade II status in 1980, saving it from demolition. 

Since then, multiple developers have hatched ill-fated plans to reimagine Battersea as London’s next great entertainment amenity. First up was John Broome, who acquired the site in 1987 with plans to transform it into a theme park fitted out with rollercoasters, an aquarium, an ice rink, 4D cinemas, and a botanical garden. Costly renovations and a looming recession doomed it to failure. City planner Sir Terry Farrell proposed the structure be converted into the centerpiece of a sprawling park. Chelsea FC envisioned it as a 60,000-seat stadium designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox. Battersea’s owners ultimately sold the site for $10 billion to a Malaysian consortium, who had other plans: thousands of condo units surrounding the red-brick behemoth, which would now house a mall and office space.

The interior mall. Photography by Backdrop Productions

The first phase of Battersea’s revamp, which took local firm Wilkinson Eyre ten years, opened this past week. The long-decaying interior needed some serious TLC—dismantling and rebuilding the corroded chimneys and updating its distinctive brickwork. “That’s the fascinating challenge for us as architects,” Sebastian Ricard, the project manager for Wilkinson Eyre, told the BBC, noting how Battersea is three times the size of Tate Modern. “Dealing with that amazing structure, wanting to retain the sense of scale, the sense of history, and industrial history, and at the same time to make sure we were creating some pockets of space within the building which make you feel comfortable if you’re going to live there, work there, or shop there.”

Inside the cavernous turbine halls are hundreds of restaurants and shops such as Ralph Lauren, Uniqlo, and Levi’s, which line corridors clad in ceramic tiles and fitted out with three times the quantity of steel used for the Eiffel Tower. Two restored control rooms, which feature breathtaking floor-to-ceiling displays of machinery, were meticulously preserved in their Brutalist and Art Deco styles, and now serve as a 1,400-person event space and an all-day bar that promises to transport patrons back to the ‘50s. 

One of the control rooms. Photography by James Budgen

Helping bankroll the venture are swaths of luxury condos, designed by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster, that snake around the building and create a new neighborhood called Nine Elms. These have been Battersea’s biggest point of contention: only nine percent of the condos, which cost $970,000 for a studio, were earmarked as affordable. (The Malaysian group’s original proposal, critics note, called for 50 percent.) Developers were also supposed to fund The Tube’s costly Northern Line extension, which terminates at Battersea, but ultimately relied on public funds. Others simply think a mall doesn’t do the building justice. “Forty years to create a shopping mall,” local architect Keith Garner tells the BBC. “The thrill of seeing the building has gone forever. It’s no longer a landmark if you surround it with other massive buildings. What they’ve done is spiritually desolate.”

Shopping is only part of the equation. Apple is relocating more than 1,500 employees from its offices scattered around London to its newly christened UK headquarters inside the boiler room, which longtime collaborator Foster + Partners revamped into six floors of workspaces. Among the site’s amenities are a boxing gym, cinema, private members club, and an observation deck accessed by a cylindrical glass elevator that scales one of the chimneys so passengers can marvel at 360-degree views of London. 

Apartment blocks designed by Frank Gehry and Norman Foster in the neighboring area. Photography by Jason Hawkes
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