Inside Battersea Power Station’s Lift 109 experience

Ralph Appelbaum Associates designs immersive exhibition and visitor experience for Battersea Power Station’s new chimney lift, reflecting on the power station’s history and cultural impact.

In the latest part of a phased reopening of Battersea Power Station, one of the building’s recognisable chimneys now contains a glass lift, offering visitors a panoramic viewing point over London.

The building – which once provided a fifth of the city’s energy and is a recognisable part of the London skyline – has been restored by WilkinsonEyre from a derelict state following its decommissioning from 1975-83.

While it has reopened as a mixed-use development of retail, events space, offices for Apple and luxury flats, one chimney hosts the Lift 109 experience with an exhibition designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates incorporating media design input and production from Squint/Opera.

“The chimneys are the icon of the Power Station, so we always wanted to make sure they were in proper use”, explains Chris Davies, associate at Wilkinson Eyre.

“Two of them are used for flumes from the energy centre so are still used as chimneys, but the northwest chimney has such a good vantage point over the river that we wanted to find a way that you could take the public up there.”

Lift 109, designed and built by Otis, is named after the height of the chimney tops and the point at which its glass lift rises above them to give visitors a 360-degree outlook over London. Located within the 1930s Turbine Hall A, the experience and exhibition introduce the power station’s history and a notion of it as a generative force – not only of electricity, but of culture and community.

RAA director Phillip Tefft says that as “narrative designers” for a time-based experience such as this, a score was produced, comprising three parts: “an idea of powering up, and telling the story of Battersea; fully charged, amazing people with the view; and then descending, and motivating people to enjoy Battersea and take a bit of it home with them in the shop”.

RAA project lead Mirko Cerami adds that there were two types of narrative: “One we call the cinematic, and the other that we call the up-close.”

As visitors approach through the Art Deco faience walls of the turbine hall, the cinematic narrative creates “a dialogue with the entirety of the turbine hall, catches the eye of visitors and works as a beacon for the installation”, says Cerami. A “celebration of the facts” of the power station’s history unfolds across three screens flanking a large-scale light installation inspired by a turbine.

The centre point of the exhibition is a large interactive table focused on “Powering London”. Its touch screen surface allows visitors to learn about how energy was generated, with interaction prompting visuals of burning coal and swirling steam. The more interaction, the more energy is collectively “generated”, causing the lighting installation above to glow and whirl.

The further two sections are “Powering Design”, introducing the design of the Power Station and “Powering Culture”, which documents the building’s role as both inspiration and location for music videos, concerts, films and other cultural events.

Squint/Opera says that the digital toolkit created with RAA includes AR apps, the interactive table, LED screens and lighting sculptures working “cohesively to tell a compelling story”.

While the exhibition features circular motifs, inspired by the chimney, for the graphics “text emerges out of block colour in the same way the elevator emerges out of the chimney,” and other graphics and icons are “drawn in the style of technical drawings and animated with energy flowing along circuit diagrams”, Squint/Opera adds.

Visitors then pass into a “360-degree” media space where graphics of energy particles changing state can be interacted with by touching the walls. A first lift reaches the base of the chimney – soundscaped with the memories of people who once worked at the Power Station – before visitors are ready to enter the circular glass lift.

Ascending at 1m per second, rings of light on the chimney’s walls illuminate the journey while exposing the structure of the chimney and the mechanism of the lift. The lighting is choreographed to a soundscape to “evoke rising energy”, RAA says.

While the intellectual part is the exhibition at its base, Tefft says, the real “emotional crescendo” is the rise to the top of the lift, “and then you pop out on top of London”.

The unusual glass structure and system of the lift requires the machinery to be contained in the bottom, with a ring around the chimney supporting 100 tonnes of equipment. “An amazing piece of engineering”, Tefft says, “but also it’s augmented by the sound of birds”.

All images by Joshua Atkins

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