Battersea project needs a single creative vision

What better time for the design industry to put forward plans for a new centre, at London’s Battersea Power Station, to promote design. The creative industries enjoy a high standing in the capital, thanks largely to the interest shown by Culture Secretary Chris Smith, and there is no evidence that this position is set to change.

Meanwhile, the Tate Modern at Bankside has rekindled interest in riverside schemes. Its outstanding success has also shown that what appears to be an ambitious vision can be realised, as long as it has a strong champion and financial commitment from public and private sector backers. Then there is the fact that the existing Design Museum in London Docklands desperately needs a boost, in terms of space and resources, if it is to compete as a visitor attraction for the 21st century.

Though both were created by the same architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the Battersea building has had a more chequered history than its Bankside sibling as redevelopment plans have come and gone. The cost factor has been a big issue and the sheer scale of the site demands a mixed-use complex rather than a single gallery, or, as in the case of Islington’s former Agricultural Hall – converted by the Morris family into the Business Design Centre – a single commercial venue.

That cost factor will not go away, even for a design centre within Parkway’s £500m overall plan. Terence Conran, a veteran of riverside conversion projects through his work at Butlers Wharf, has cautioned that this latest scheme has a long way to go.

There is also the fact that a “consortium” of design industry bodies is involved. This marks a big step forward, in line with the vision for a more single-minded approach that underpins Design Unity – the loose association between bodies born of the Halifax Initiative of the late 1990s. But it can also be a stumbling block in that the outcome of the project may rest on a committee decision by diverse factions rather than the clear, sustainable objective of one guiding force.

To succeed, which we hope it will, the Battersea venture needs a single champion, in the way the Design Museum has had Conran from the outset, the BDC had Sam Morris and Tate Modern has Sir Nicholas Serota. Politicians rarely make enduring champions, but at this stage it would be helpful if the backers could at least tempt London mayor Ken Livingstone to lend his support. It would give him a cultural focus for his time in office, to run alongside key functional issues such as improving London’s transport system, and the project would get the high media profile it deserves.

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