Who knows what would have happened to the stretch of the River Thames between Vauxhall and Chelsea Bridge if, shortly before it stopped generating electricity in 1983, Battersea Power Station hadn’t become famous for its starring role on the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. In the days before digitally manipulated artwork, creating the image involved physically making a giant inflatable pig and cautiously floating it between Battersea’s four giant chimneys. The album turned a piece of industrial archaeology—with a spectacular Art Deco interior—into a popular landmark.
If the power station hadn’t been protected from demolition by the government, one idea for the site was to make it a garbage-processing plant. Another was to build a 55,000-seat soccer stadium for Chelsea Football Club. A permanent home for the Cirque du Soleil was also proposed. For better or worse, any of these ideas would have made sure that Vauxhall did not turn into the Dubai-on-the-Thames forest of high-rise apartment towers that are growing at one end of the property, and that Frank Gehry would not get to build his first London residential project under the shadow of the power station at the other.
Battersea was designed in the early 1930s by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who belonged to an architectural dynasty that made an indelible mark on London. His grandfather Sir George Gilbert Scott was responsible for the flamboyant Gothic St. Pancras station. The younger Scott designed Britain’s cast-iron red telephone boxes, Waterloo Bridge, and, most conspicuously, two power stations on the Thames. The one at Bankside with just a single chimney is now the Tate Modern. Battersea, a huge brick cliff, was, after 50 years of working life, a relic of London’s vanishing industrial past. But Pink Floyd demonstrated that Battersea was not just for heritage nerds. It might not have been conventionally beautiful, but it was familiar, and London in those days was very comfortable with the familiar and tended to believe that new meant worse.
Bringing Battersea back to life has not been easy. For 30 years it was the Bermuda Triangle of London’s property market. A succession of developers would sweep in, famous architects in tow, sink fortunes into what they assumed would be a prime riverside site, and then, one after another, disappear without a trace. First up was John Broome, who managed to persuade Mrs. Thatcher to show up for the unveiling of his plan to make it into a theme park—“a little bit Disneyland, in a far more English way,” he suggested in 1988—and produced plans which showed Charles Dickens Street, the Battersea Tavern, and an incongruous colllection of white-knuckle rides. Broome didn’t get much further than taking the roof off and dismantling the turbines before running out of cash. Battersea was left to rot. With no protection from the rain, it turned into a ruin. The power station deteriorated so badly that the chimneys threatened to collapse. (All four will be demolished and rebuilt by 2016.)
Part of the problem was image. Battersea and Vauxhall, for those who weren’t familiar with the area, seemed impossible to get to, and marooned in a tangle of railways and dereliction. It was the wrong side of the Thames. For centuries Londoners went south of the river either to behave badly (the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall were notorious), dump rubbish, or pursue the kinds of trades that were considered too much for the more-refined North.
What turned the tide for this stretch of the waterway was the decision of the U.S. to move its embassy from Grosvenor Square to a new, more security-conscious building midway between the power station and Vauxhall Bridge. Even when it’s fortified against truck bombs, an American embassy is a more upmarket neighbor than the homeless shelters, gay saunas, and parcel depots that characterized the livelier parts of the area in those days. The current ambassador is planning to take the eagle from the façade of the existing embassy, designed by Eero Saarinen, when it opens, in 2017. Still, the embassy wasn’t enough on its own.
Battersea finally took off after the power station was bought out of bankruptcy, in 2012, and a wider plan was drawn up that tried to coordinate all the vacant land between Vauxhall and Battersea. The sites are known collectively by the planners—but not by anybody who actually lives there, in the blocks of prewar public housing and the modest terraced Victorian streets that huddle under the shadow of the chimneys—as VNEB (Vauxhall, Nine Elms, Battersea).
It is a vast area, comprising 481 acres; imagine all of New York’s Central Park south of the Guggenheim Museum all the way to the Plaza Hotel in the hands of 13 different owners. A new pedestrian bridge across the Thames is planned to make it more accessible ,and an extension to the Tube’s Northern Line is under way.
All told, there are 18,000 apartments and enough workspace for 25,000 jobs in the VNEB pipeline. They are being built in three groups. To the east, Vauxhall has already sprouted one 600-foot-tall residential tower, widely held by everyone but the deputy planning minister, who overruled his officials to approve it, to be the wrong building in the wrong place. It crowds in on the view of the Houses of Parliament, and it has acted as a battering ram to secure approval for three more residential towers that will be almost as tall. One is luridly Versace-branded, and the sales pitch concentrates on suggestions of an instant profit when the building is complete, in 2019. All it takes is a deposit of 5 percent now and one can expect a capital increase of $355,000 on a $1.5 million apartment.
The second group, in the zone around the American embassy in Nine Elms, is made up of buildings rising to 18 floors. The section on the river was designed by the 82-year-old Richard Rogers’s firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour (famously behind Paris’s Centre Pompidou), and takes the form of a series of parallel glass and steel slabs, angled to give Thames views to as many flats as possible.
The power station itself, now owned by a Malaysian consortium, is the third group, and packs in nearly 4,000 apartments, 1.6 million square feet of offices, and a retail center. More than 800 flats have already been sold off in a feeding frenzy of buyers from all over the world, attracted by blistering house-price increases in London. Studios started at more than a million dollars. This is not making Londoners priced out of large parts of the city happy. In the power station project, so-called affordable housing will comprise 15 percent of the total.
The first phase was designed to leave plenty of open space in front of the power station to allow it to see and be seen from the river. The next phase, on the other side of the power station from the river, designed by Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, will follow. Foster’s apartments are in a continuous-glass building that forms a barrier around the southeast side of the power station to protect it from the noise of the busy railway tracks that cut the development off from the rest of South London. Gehry’s flats are in five distinct blocks, inside the perimeter formed by Foster's building. Together, they are organized to form a street, with double-height shops at ground level and more than 1,300 apartments.
Due for completion by 2025, London's new neighborhood–if that is what VNEB will be and it does not sit half empty, its apartments bought as investments by, say, Greek airline pilots, Singaporean dentists prevented from speculating on residential property at home, or shady money launderers—will be like nothing the city has ever seen. The boosters are spinning the parks and the upmarket retail as a new Mayfair. But the cluster of skyscraper apartments is exactly what Londoners told themselves they did not want their city to be. While the new architecture around the power station is the most interesting of what’s going up around the city, architecturally, it still presents a question about what life will be like in high-rises. Londoners live in row houses, terraced streets as they’re called, and have traditionally been reluctant to live high. What apartments they do have are so-called mansions, blocks six or seven floors high, spaced well apart. Here they will be three times taller and packed much closer together, creating a series of canyons.
It’s not just London that hasn’t seen anything like it. What we thought of as a basically conservative city has turned out to be the closest thing in Europe to Shanghai, ruthless about sacrificing its skyline to a property bubble. If London had been like that when Battersea Power Station closed, it’s unlikely that there would have been anything left of it now, except as a memory on that Pink Floyd album cover.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Battersea Power Station Development Company