Rafael Vinoly speaks exclusively to the AJ about Battersea power station
What makes you think this won’t be consigned with the rest of the unsuccessful attempts?
Listen, it would be too presumptuous to think that that’s not on the cards. There is a factor which is that the client is, in short, a real doer. I have a reputation of embarking on projects that have a terrible history, such as with the Kimmel Centre in Philadelphia, which was equally complicated. This is a very rich project with very clear choices to be made and I think that once you understand both sides of the debate it could spark a very interesting discussion.
Was it challenge that made you do it?
In my way of understanding the practice and the discipline, we wouldn’t exist if there’s no challenge. People that think architects are like artists they actually think otherwise. But there is a very important and exciting notion about this question of how do you construct an answer to a problem that you probably have to define by yourself.
How did you come about the design?
The same way you always work in these projects, which is to consider with an absolutely prejudicial approach of how you expedite the project through the planning process. Also it’s contributing to defining, not the architectural mission of the building, but the strategic level at which the project could be completed.
Imagine the following thing, remove all of this, (the bio dome and chimney) what you have you have a number of buildings around a central courtyard that have to have their own environment and all of them with air conditioning. So you have the usual problem
The question is how you deal with this issue. Really addressing in an absolutely, fundamental way and not so much relying on the possibility of a technology to take care of the problem in the future but rather diminishing the consumption of the building.
Is this why the tower should be granted planning?
But it’s not a difficult thing to comprehend. If you’re opposed to it, it would be saying you don’t know what you’re talking about it doesn’t work, but you have to say it doesn’t work. You cannot say I think it’s too tall, it’s not too tall – it’s as tall as it needs to be. So the shift in the discussion goes from being 100 per cent concentrated on a matter of taste on to something that isn’t a matter of taste, and that is a unique quality which I have always tried to bring to the surface in an architectural discussion, which is people don’t understand a quid pro quo.
Aren’t you concerned about overshadowing an icon with an icon of your own?
You have to think of it in this other way. Things that become iconic they usually never have the intent of being iconic. This power station is as high as it is not because Gilbert wanted it, it’s because engineers made it so. To me it was hated to death when it was built, now everyone talks about it as if it was the Taj Mahal or something. So there is that factor.
The second point is that you don’t declare what is an icon, you just hope that the permanence of the form and the logic of the form is capable of overcoming the shifts and swings of the pendulum of fashion. When you look at the Eiffel Tower, it was a project for literally eight months of life and it defined a whole character of a culture. It wasn’t that this guy was thinking about that he was just doing his job
What do you anticipate English Heritage’s reaction will be?
EH is legitimately concerned about a number of issues that I am equally concerned about. This is not an opposition game. It is to try to understand to what extent your own design community accepts the fact that there should be a breakthrough of how you think about buildings. I’m not assuming that every building needs a chimney like this at all, but you need a critical mass to do lots of other things.
But there is the potential of an interesting dialogue. We met with the officers of EH they have to be pleased and they are pleased with the approach to the reconstruction of the power station, because it really reconstructs the west façade that was just recently demolished. And because there is a logical, credible plan financially to support this initial investment of £150 million.
Will the chimneys be staying?
We believe that the life cycle that the station should aspire to, you cannot repair the chimneys. This is all grounded in the same work that was done before and the engineers are the same, so we will be building again the chimneys.
Could it have been a Power station once more?
This is what I thought of right at the very beginning. It’s kind of obvious isn’t it? There are two issues with that. The extraordinary volume of this building is generated by what was a very crude technology. So you have this fuel and if you were old enough to see this working, it was pitiful. But as a sub-product what you end up with is this amazing space. It’s not any different to what happened with the Tate Modern. Who is going to build that space other than to house a machine? So the question is, what do you do with these spaces? So what you do is primarily to leave them in their own innate qualities, which is essentially to become halls of circulation that are taking advantage of a generation of traffic so turning it into a retail centre.
But it couldn’t be 20 storeys of retail. Retail only works maybe one floor up and one floor down so that’s what we’re doing.
One feature of your work is the flow of space how have you deployed this here?
There is an interesting challenge from a design perspective, when you are in this difficult interim between programme design and architecture. You walk, and there is this dynamic perception of space and I have always been interested in the risks involved in transposing one field to the next
When you really consider it, the most important restriction in the site isn’t even the refuse plant that’s smack in the middle of it, it’s basically what kind of elbow room do you give to this building to have a true setting. If you look at the other proposals they didn’t really take too much care of that, for a very good reason. The site in itself has a very limited footprint. It’s a complete cul-de-sac. The western edge of the site is totally impenetrable.
It’s a very complicated site. I for one thought if you had this particular geometry of being so orthogonal and cubical – I’ve done like 25 different schemes for this – that you could not truly compete with it but not because it’s glorious or because it’s listed because it’s always going to win – it is going to win.
Are you falling into the same trap as the previous scheme by trying to push housing onto the site?
I don’t think the previous scheme failed for that particular reason. The previous scheme, as a matter of fact, did not fail because it got planning approval. So it depends where you draw the line. Where it really failed, it wasn’t on design terms, it really failed as it didn’t generate enough business margin to get finance.
That is something that architects are traditionally detached from. When in reality it’s pretty integral
Are you anticipating as big an opposition as with Fenchurch Street?
It’s an important question. I do think there will be opposition, I think there will be even more [than Fenchurch Street] I think the discussion in this particular project is going to be much more difficult because you have to make a choice, a challenge, either the project is sustainable or it’s not there is no middle ground for that.