Is Battersea rechargeable?

Next week, Wandsworth Council decides on revised plans for Battersea Power Station in London.

Despite being closed since 1983 and enjoying numerous false dawns, Battersea Power Station – still one of London’s best-known landmarks – is set for a new incarnation. And, if high-level talks now underway are successful, the design industry could be at the heart of the project.

Seven years ago, the 12.2ha site was purchased by the Hong Kong-based Hwang brothers – Victor and George – through their UK subsidiary Parkview International London. The company subsequently unveiled plans in 1997 for a £500m redevelopment of the area as a leisure and entertainment complex, submitting a revised masterplan earlier this year. Under the proposal, which was originally granted outline planning permission by Wandsworth Council, the redeveloped power station and surrounding land would include hotels, theatres, residential flats, retail space, showcase pavilions, a railway station, jetty and 3500 car parking spaces.

The updated masterplan submitted in April is set to be decided on by the council on Thursday.

Sir Philip Dowson, design director for the regeneration project, claims Parkview’s plans “provide the details for a project that can rekindle the life of this landmark site and the surrounding area. Battersea Power Station has the footprint of Trafalgar Square, so its rehabilitation has the scale of a piece of city.

“The design implies the construction of a place which will provide a setting for a range of human activities and events which will animate both the interior of the power station as well as the rest of the site. There are linked landscapes between the external and internal places which will create a unique light garden to embrace the whole site,” says Dowson.

However, an informal consortium of design industry representatives has ambitious plans of its own to establish a venue for design and the creative industries as part of the redevelopment. The group includes Terence Conran and leading figures from the Design Council, British Design & Art Direction and the Design Business Association.

Design Council director of communications Steven Blackman says informal talks have got underway between the leading design bodies, but he is still “trying to gain a steer from all organisations” on what any design venue at the redeveloped power station would involve. He is confident that any such centre would easily sit alongside Parkview’s phase one proposals.

“There’s quite a lot of flexibility in terms of the rest of the site and clearly there is potential for having a place in London that is seen as a home and centre for design. In practice, we are a long way from gaining the finance, sorting out building issues and deciding which organisations will be involved,” explains Blackman.

Among issues discussed so far are plans to include permanent and temporary exhibition areas, conference venues and training facilities, together with provisions for the general public. Blackman acknowledges the positive input of the Business Design Centre in Islington and the Design Museum on Shad Thames, but believes there are things that neither currently provides.

“We don’t know yet what demand for facilities there is going to be,” he says. “Neither the BDC or Design Museum provide facilities for business seminars, or that could hold a design awards ceremony.”

However, BDC managing director Dominic Jones welcomes plans for a new venue dedicated to design, but says the BDC could easily hold up to 2000 people, as it did for a recent awards event.

“The more centres like ourselves that spring up, the better,” claims Jones. “We have our own particular niche within the industry and another design centre can only strengthen London’s position as one of the design capitals of the world.”

Design Museum director Paul Thompson is equally enthusiastic about the design industry’s plan, describing it as “a great visionary scheme”. But he maintains all discussions are at a very early stage.

“If we could bring all the design and creative industries together under one roof it would be very exciting. It’s the ultimate marriage – creating a powerhouse of design in the same way that Tate Modern has become a powerhouse of modern art,” he says.

With regard to the Design Museum’s future, Thompson says it would relocate if the Battersea venue was to come to fruition. “The Design Museum would be absolutely central to it, but any move to Battersea would be a very long-term plan. Our immediate short-term goal is to extend the existing premises by converting the second floor into a contemporary design gallery which will be completed next year, and adding a third floor in the medium term.”

DBA chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill describes his organisation’s current role in the discussions as “a humble but enthusiastic player”, adding that such a venue would further complement existing places dedicated to design.

“The Design Museum, Design Council and Victoria & Albert Museum all do fantastic jobs in different ways. Therefore a new venue has got to add value rather than subtract, and I’m positive that there can be something that does add value. But there are a lot of practical issues that need to be addressed,” he explains.

“Some might say a website is the best place for such a showcase, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for a physical site. There’s a huge number of uses we would make from a world class venue to serve as a magnet and platform for promoting the world class-ness of UK design businesses. But it needs more than just a building. It needs to use all the means of communication from paper base to digital.

“Design businesses don’t have a sense of place at the moment which a world class venue provides. London is becoming a fantastic showcase for world class everything – restaurants, galleries, design – and it’s getting better. Can anything showcasing design in its broadest sense be adequately reflected in one venue? That’s the challenge and one that we are very enthusiastic about.”

Although Rowland-Hill is wholly supportive of any venue dedicated to design, Battersea Power Station Community Group chairman Brian Barnes says his group is firmly against Parkview’s existing proposals.

“We are totally opposed to Parkview’s scheme and have submitted a four- to five-page objection to the council on the nature of the need to create a venue for millions of people with no traffic infrastructure,” says Barnes, who originally approached Terence Conran about developing a design concept.

“We have been in touch with Conran about a design museum. There could definitely be a museum of energy based on the switch rooms, and the water-pumping station could house a site for design excellence, featuring all kinds of design,” adds Barnes.

“We felt Parkview was coming up with an Americanised plastic theme park and we want some sort of cultural relevance, a bit like Tate Modern, which is a good model for any future design venue. It’s not just about the arts, but the building and surrounding area. This is what we want to see in Battersea.”

With discussions at an extremely early stage, and any redevelopment work not likely to start for several years, plans for an initiative encompassing the design and creative industries have a long way to go.

But with the backing of all the major bodies for a “great visionary scheme”, as Thompson describes it, the entire UK design industry could take a giant leap in firmly establishing itself as the leading and most flourishing centre of design in the world.

History of Battersea Power Station

1930 Sir Giles Gilbert Scott appointed to design power station

1933 exterior of Battersea A completed

1944 building starts on Battersea B

1975 Battersea A closed

1980 power station made a Grade II listed building for its architectural and historical interest

1983 Battersea B closed

1983 Central Electricity Generating Board holds seven-way competition to decide future of the power station, which is won by Roche Consortium, beating the likes of Alton Towers

1986 John Broome’s Battersea Leisure company subsequently takes over ownership of power station from CEGB and announces plans for a £34m Disneyland-style theme park

1989 January roof and west wall removed

1989 March work on power station is halted as a result of problems with foundations and escalating costs, leaving it in a semi-derelict and exposed state, in which it has remained ever since

1993 Parkview International London, the UK arm of Hong Kong-based development group, gains control of power station in a £10m deal, taking over Broome’s £70m debts

1996 May Parkview wins freehold of site

1997 May outline planning permission granted by Wandsworth Council for Parkview’s plans to turn power station site into leisure and entertainment complex including hotels, theatres, residential flats, retail space, offices, product showcase pavilions, railway station, jetty and 3500 car parking spaces

1997 Warner Village Cinemas unveils its £35m plans for a 32-screen, 8200-seat Megaplex cinema complex with catering and retail facilities

2000 Parkview announces revised masterplan of 1997 plans for £500m redevelopment of entire site as ‘an urban quarter with a wide range of activities’, including an 18-screen Warner Village Cinema complex and custom-designed theatre for Cirque du Soleil

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