Streetscapes: A nostalgic stroll through Battersea Power Station

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 2, 2019 - September 08, 2019.

At the £9 billion BPS site, the original facade of the power station stands tall. Pictures Battersea Power Station Development Co Ltd

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A casual stroll through the regenerated 42-acre Battersea Power Station (BPS) feels like an ode to London in its Art Deco heyday. While the £9 billion (RM47.014 billion) site is being redeveloped and modernised, the emblematic façade of the power station still stands tall and stately, reminding us of its past and its cultural resonance.

To capture the spirit of BPS and its rich history, the Battersea Heritage Trail app was introduced last year. It is a downloadable heritage trail that takes one through the power station’s history via a hot spot audio tour. There are nine checkpoints at all corners of the development’s first phase, Circus West.

At the first checkpoint, near the main entrance to Circus West Village, the app tells us how in 1925, following demands from parliament, 10 private power companies merged to create the London Power Company. Their plan was to build a series of large power stations across London — including Bankside, which is now the home of the Tate Modern. For their first site, the focus was on Battersea.

Upon entering the site and passing by the bike docking station, the second checkpoint overlooks River Thames. According to the app, BPS had to be built on the riverbank because it was a coal-fired power station and the coal was hauled into London via collier boats. Shipped from the coal-

mines of South Wales and the northeast of England, a million tonnes of coal arrived each year. The power station took its water from the Thames, extracting an average of 1.5 gigalitres from the river every single day.

A walk farther up the street to the third checkpoint unveils the lively commercial component of the project, which faces the river. The list of current operators includes Cinnamon Kitchen, Fiume, Mother, Wright Brothers, Paul Edmonds London and Megan’s.

According to the app, the end for Power Station A came in March 1975 and Power Station B was decommissioned in 1983. Attitudes had changed, so coal-fired power stations no longer had a place in the centre of modern London. In 1980, the building received a Grade 2 listing before it closed for good three years later. Since then, many regeneration schemes have come and gone — until today.

BPS is being jointly developed by S P Setia Bhd, the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Sime Darby Property Bhd. It was acquired in 2012. The consortium set up Battersea Power Station Development Co Ltd and plans to capitalise on the site’s historical, iconic status as one of London’s most recognisable landmarks, located near the 200-acre Battersea Park.

As we stroll through the fourth to sixth checkpoints, fronting the Power Station, the app takes us back in time and describes what the power station was like with thousands of workers clocking in for work, from clerks to engineers.

In terms of design, the app highlights its famous architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He was brought into the project in 1933 to remodel the building’s exterior to give it its distinctive look — a cathedral for the industrial age with a striking façade and unmistakable chimneys. Also sharing the credit is J Theo Halliday, who was responsible for the overall external shape and Art Deco interiors.

The app says those working in the turbine hall and Control Room A were surrounded by Art Deco interiors of marble, parquet flooring and bronze sculptures. World War II changed all that. By the time Power Station B was built in 1955, the marble and bronze had made way for stainless steel and a more modern aesthetic.

The four chimneys are one of the main reasons why the power station become a landmark, according to the app. They are the building’s defining feature and were built with reinforced concrete and two layers of steel. Each chimney is 50m tall and sits on a 51m high tower. After half a century in service and discharging 500 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hour, the original chimneys needed to be taken down and rebuilt one by one, according to the exact same specifications and methods as they were first built.

Meanwhile, during the reign of Queen Victoria, a former marshland known as Battersea fields was transformed into Battersea Park. The Blitz during WWII inflicted great damage to the wider area and the land where Nine Elms Station once stood become New Covent Garden in 1974.

At the eighth and ninth checkpoints, a walk through Circus West and Arches Lane, the app gives a general overview of the power station and its next chapter. It is impossible to appreciate the site without fully understanding the story of its past.

Over the years, the site has become a cultural icon, gracing the album cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals. It has also served as a venue for shows and concerts, including an Elton John concert in 2014 and an Alexander McQueen fashion show in 2006. It has also appeared in movies — Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), The Dark Knight (2008) and The King’s Speech (2012).

Since the opening of Phase 1 in 2017, BPS has drawn over two million visitors. It is now home to 1,000 residents with 95% of its commercial units leased out. The mixed-use development will comprise seven phases. Phase 1 (Circus West) has been completed while construction for Phase 2 (the power station), Phase 3A (Electric Boulevard), Phase 3B and the Northern line extension is ongoing. Phases 4 to 7 are still on the drawing board.

Earlier this year, Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB) and the EPF agreed to jointly acquire the commercial assets of the second phase of BPS for £1.58 billion (RM8.197 billion). BPS will comprise three million sq ft of commercial space and more than 4,000 new homes.