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How London's Battersea power station will become luxury living hub

Iconic building to be transformed into mixed-use 'village' of homes, retail and office space, and more. Wilkinson Eyre is behind its dramatic renovation. The wider site includes housing schemes by architects Frank Gehry and Norman Foster

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 July, 2015, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 5:50pm

It shot to international fame after appearing on Pink Floyd's Animals album cover in 1977 but its imposing hulk and elegant chimneys were an indelible part of the London skyline long before that. For 30 years, however, Battersea power station - Europe's largest brick building - stood abandoned as developer after developer took flight, mostly because of the cost of bringing a colossal decommissioned power station back to life.

But the 1930s Grade II listed coal-fired power station's fortunes seem finally to have been reversed. Current owners, a Malaysian consortium that includes the country's leading property developer SP Setia, came on board in 2012 at a time when there was increasing talk of demolition of the red-brick beast. They would cover the £750 million cost of the plant's revamp and transformation into offices, shops, restaurants and flats through the sale of 254 upmarket residential units within the power station building and of many more high-end homes in apartment blocks scattered across the wider 19-hectare Battersea Power Station development, some designed by Frank Gehry and Foster + Partners.

Given the scale and condition of the power station, its transformation is an unusual and complex architectural project, says Jim Eyre, a director at Wilkinson Eyre, the practice in charge of its restoration and redesign. The most important consideration was not to overfill the cathedral-like structure. "You need to have a sense of the building's volume and drama as you walk in," he says. "Otherwise you could be anywhere." A series of super-tall atriums, halls and lobbies have been designed to offer imposing views of the building's brickwork and, in some cases, vistas through glazing to the chimneys and 0.6 hectare of roof gardens.

The juxtaposition of new and old, crisp modern elements and distressed original ones, is also a theme. Brick walls covered in graffiti and the imprints of staircases past are being kept as they are, with space left between the original building and the contemporary insertions, where possible. "It's about expressing the full height and fabric of the existing building," says Eyre. The all-important concrete chimneys were so badly corroded, however, that they are being demolished and rebuilt.

When the repurposed power station is completed - 2019 is the scheduled date - there will be much else to contemplate, including two three-storey retail galleries in the former plant's turbine halls, with shops arranged on balconies and pedestrian bridges and suspended walkways. The contrasting styles of the halls - one ornate and one more functional - are testament to their completion dates in 1933 and 1955. "People see the power station as this single building with four chimneys but actually it was built in two halves and has very different interiors," says Eyre. "Art deco on the right-hand side and pared-back austerity Britain on the left."

Above the shops will be an events space, an arthouse cinema and a 60-room hotel and, above that, in the station's former Boiler House, six floors of office space served by an 80-metre glass-roofed atrium with glass lifts, bridges and pop-out balcony boxes.

Media focus so far has been on the power station's residential price tags and lightning-quick sales. But the residential offering in the historic building is more interesting for reasons not related to London's seemingly ever-upward spiralling property market.

For one thing, there are 108 different apartment and house types and their raw-luxe interiors come courtesy of Soho House designers Michaelis Boyd and reflect the building's industrial heritage and ornate metalwork.

For another, some of the apartments are in the existing building while others are new-build flats on top of the "switch houses" that used to contain banks of transformers and circuit-breakers, or new or glazed two-storey villas built on the roof of the central Boiler House. Rooftop residents will arrive by lift to a lobby in the chimneys' bases and enjoy views out of their glass "ceilings" 49 metres up. One of the chimneys will have a public glass lift that emerges at the top, providing 100-metre-high panoramas of the river and London.

Elsewhere, the power station will contain cafes and eateries, including a food market designed by New York firm Rockwell Group. The station's two atmospheric control rooms are virtually the only spaces where the plant's original machinery has survived intact. Both will be open to the public as rotating events spaces.

"It would have been cheaper to knock Battersea power station down and build something new," Eyre says. "But it would have been a mistake. It's this building's monumental and strong presence that makes the rest of the development work." Not to mention that London would have lost a statuesque landmark whose four-chimneyed outline is as familiar as the city it stands in.