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This dire Battersea Power Station development is genuinely dystopian

Owen Hatherley
  • 10 Comments

It follows all the Urban Renaissance precepts, yet this scheme is as grim as the 80s Docklands that Rogers was reacting against, says Owen Hatherley

Battersea will jennings.

Battersea will jennings.

Source: Will Jennings

If you walk along the Thames between Pimlico and Chelsea today, you’ll find something strange: Battersea Power Station has almost disappeared. This gargantuan building, which towered over this part of London for 80 years, is dwarfed, pinched and tucked in by the new apartments that have sprouted up around it. What is happening to the Thames looks increasingly like satire, some sort of activist’s hoarding about the dangers of overdevelopment: ‘they couldn’t possibly really do that, could they?’ Well, they have. And, curiously, as a Guardian report on ‘ghost towers’ suggests, it’s not selling; ‘New London’ is broken.

This might just be the end of an era in London, the point where the new city that has been built along the Thames since the end of the 1990s finally stops; not just because there’s no bit of riverbank left to fill, but because the results are so grotesque they can no longer be ignored or waved away with talk of progress, coffee and section 106 agreements.

Whereas many of the luxury riverside developments have been on industrial wastes, here, it is happening around one of the most recognisable buildings in London

This is where it ends; developers offering cars to investors as incentives to buy flats in what were once meant to be pedestrian-based walkable cities, with empty private cinemas in barely occupied towers, and with what one estate agent describes as ‘empty rooftop bars with no one living at home to buy drinks at them’.

And, whereas many of the luxury riverside developments have been on industrial wastes with few landmarks, here, it is happening around one of the most recognisable and best-loved buildings in London, suffocating it with utterly useless, barely inhabited luxury living solutions, in a city where homelessness has got to the point you can barely move now without walking past people sleeping rough. It is genuinely dystopian. How did things get this bad?

Something of the generic nature of the Linear City that has been built along the Thames in the past 20 years can be garnered from the name given to the new ‘opportunity area’ of which Battersea is the centrepiece – VNEB, short for Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea. The ruthlessly overdeveloped nature of this new district, devoid of planning, intelligence or character, is a genuine nadir.

As always, the politics of it aren’t hard to spot. There have been a dozen or so proposals for the Power Station site, from architects, developers, campaigners and fantasists – it’s telling that the one that finally got built was the first to be based solely on the extraction of maximum profit from the difficult site.

Labour councils in, say, Newham or Southwark have let terrible things happen (encouraged them, in many cases), in the similarly vast ex-industrial lands they’ve redeveloped at Bankside and the Lea Valley, but they do have public things to show for it: a Tate Modern, a new swimming pool, a new park.

Conservative Wandsworth Council’s oversight of this area, though, is pure laissez-faire. It’s a huge new commuter suburb in the centre of the city, a tangle of superfluous skyscrapers around parodies of public spaces, all shunning the council estates and light industry clinging on nearby. Instead of a heart, VNEB has a heavy-security US embassy with a moat around it. 

Among the more prominent parts of VNEB is Rogers Stirk Harbour’s high-rise cluster, Riverlight. This is the final banalisation of the dreams Rogers and his New Labour friends once had for a ‘New London’ along the Thames, where a drizzly Barcelona would emerge on the wharves and sheds of an ex-industrial river, with coffee and culture and apartment living. 

There was nothing wrong with those things per se; there still isn’t. What VNEB reveals is the foolishness of assuming changes in architecture could themselves be a reform, as opposed to changes in the ownership of land and the laws in planning. We now have a place that follows all the Urban Renaissance precepts that is easily as grim as the 80s Docklands that Rogers was reacting against. ‘New London’ is, finally, dead.

This article appears in the Homes issue – click here to buy a copy

  • 10 Comments

Readers' comments (10)

  • Wow, amazing how the Architect's Journal is becoming so biased and useless; it is perfectly fine to point out the faults of the redevelopment; however, I couldn't see any of the benefits.

    Completely useless article.

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  • Great article slightly crazy comment

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  • Go on, Alex, enlighten us as to the benefits, please.

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  • I think there are lot of inaccuracies in this article.
    For a start, all the completed homes around the power station have been sold, and occupancy is around 60% at present but rising steadily, some apartments have only just been completed. If you had visited it, you would see that it's actually a bustling community now and far from a ghost town. The urban planning has also been very good, with retailers given very reasonable long term leases, often free for the first year. They have also made sure that all the retail spaces have gone to small local independent businesses and not big chains.
    Secondly, why does the development in Elephant & Castle not draw the same ire from the author. There a massive amount of social housing was torn down and never replaced, at battersea. Is that less important than spoiling the author's view of a building. What has that development provided to the local community.
    Thirdly, the only way the power station could be regenerated was with a commercial project, so it was inevitable that it would need to be apartments in close proximity. It's simply not realistic to expect land to be utilised. St Pauls, is far more boxed in than Power Station, that's just a fact of life in an overcrowded city. The recent sale of the power station to the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund shows that the power station is going is not going to be a profitable venture for the developers.
    Finally, ask any of the 1000s of people who have good jobs because of this development, be that on the construction site or in the new shops and restaurants and they will give short shrift to articles like these.

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  • Battersea is the true face of post-imperial tristesse, a ruined Goliath of industry covered in a psoriasis of apartments as a global investment opportunity. Amusing that the cure was the application of Brexit. Closing the door to Europe means London is no longer Samarkand on the Silk road between the USA and the EU. The construction industry is drying-up and the long night of the "Brexit Cure" is falling.

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  • Industry Professional

    "For a start, all the completed homes around the power station have been sold"

    Not quite true. Developers will proudly claim this though it is standard practice to sell 5% of the value to investors who then have the option of doubling this to 10% of the new value or flipping it to another investor who takes on that option. This can continue until the full value is paid or an option to pay off the entireity is taken on.

    I understand that a very high amount of these 5% investors are abandoning their investment, selling the option on at a lower value than they paid for it to speculators who are willing on the higher risk. It also seems to be the case that other developments are being postponed so developers don't have to release embarrassing press releases about lack of sales.

    "If you had visited it, you would see that it's actually a bustling community now and far from a ghost town. "
    I have, it isn't.

    "Secondly, why does the development in Elephant & Castle not draw the same ire from the author."
    The author is not writing about the Heygate/Elephant Park scheme. It would be odd for him to mention it in this article. However, anyone who is aware of the current conversations would totally realise that Elephant Park, Lendlease, Delancey, UAL and Southwark are taking LOTS of fair criticism and direct action. I am not sure why you think the author doesn't like what's happening there.

    "Finally, ask any of the 1000s of people who have good jobs because of this development, be that on the construction site or in the new shops and restaurants and they will give short shrift to articles like these."
    Silly statement. A well designed, ethical and considerate development would still require the same number and type of employees.

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  • Battersea is a vivid example of everything that could go wrong in big scale development: social benefits, aesthetic and urban innovation, governance. The way the main building has been patiently dismantled bit after bit over the last 40 years... On heritage related issues ref Battersea Power Station may I drive your attention to "Battersea Power Station: selling an icon". It's a World Monuments Fund funded documentary on the impact of the development on the preservation of the Power Station. Link here https://vimeo.com/ondemand/batterseapowerstation

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  • Winter gardens & train lines..it's neo Victorian?!

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  • For a start, all the completed homes around the power station have been sold"
    'Not quite true. Developers will proudly claim this though it is standard practice to sell 5% of the value to investors who then have the option of doubling this to 10% of the new value or flipping it to another investor who takes on that option. This can continue until the full value is paid or an option to pay off the entireity is taken on.
    I understand that a very high amount of these 5% investors are abandoning their investment, selling the option on at a lower value than they paid for it to speculators who are willing on the higher risk. It also seems to be the case that other developments are being postponed so developers don't have to release embarrassing press releases about lack of sales.'

    - All the completed homes around the power station HAVE been sold. Buyers had to pay a 5% deposit at point of purchase back in 2013, they then had to pay a further 10% back in 2015. As a result there are a very small number of investors likely to be trying to flip the option for these homes.

    "If you had visited it, you would see that it's actually a bustling community now and far from a ghost town. "
    'I have, it isn't.'

    - It's not quite a bustling community yet given that they are gradually opening shops, restaurants etc. rather than aiming for a big bang approach of opening everything at once. This works well for residents and the power station itself will remain a tourist landmark that people want to visit as the re-fit is completed over the next few years.

    "Secondly, why does the development in Elephant & Castle not draw the same ire from the author."
    'The author is not writing about the Heygate/Elephant Park scheme. It would be odd for him to mention it in this article. However, anyone who is aware of the current conversations would totally realise that Elephant Park, Lendlease, Delancey, UAL and Southwark are taking LOTS of fair criticism and direct action. I am not sure why you think the author doesn't like what's happening there.'

    - It wouldn't be odd. I find it more odd that it's not referenced.

    "Finally, ask any of the 1000s of people who have good jobs because of this development, be that on the construction site or in the new shops and restaurants and they will give short shrift to articles like these."
    'Silly statement. A well designed, ethical and considerate development would still require the same number and type of employees.'

    - Why is this a silly statement? Is it because you don't agree? The development is well designed, and whilst they have decreased the number of affordable homes they've pulled the delivery date for these homes forward and they've maintained the view of the power station from most angles (just not the one conveniently chosen by the photographer in this instance). Another development might indeed require the same 'number and type of employees' but you're conveniently ignoring that the power station languished derelict for almost 30 years before somebody had the ambition and drive to do something with the site that creates all of these jobs and retains the original structure of the power station. I'd like to congratulate those involved. Written as a resident bored of people griping and whining.

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  • Some really interesting points made here.

    The discussion around the off-plan investments (with buyers investing 5 - 10% of value before properties fully complete) is worthy of further investigation. I personally am finding it difficult to settle on what the actual figures around this are, as different sources state various levels of resales/abandonment. Perhaps commentators here can specify where they are sourcing their statistics?

    I've come across a number of positives attributed to this development scheme, such as strategic investments made to the local community (example. grant made to Battersea Arts Centre to open the Scratch Hub, a new co-working space for local businesses). Then there is the inclusion of the Village Hall in the scheme, to host local events, performances and community use, and a £6.8 million cultural programme to go along with it.

    Sure, this exciting cultural programming sounds great, along with the diverse offering of leisure spaces such as dining and shopping. But I read an article somewhere (I think City Metric although not certain) in which the writer asked, "what, or who, is London for?" I think this is an applicable consideration here. The high-end cultural activity on offer at the new Battersea Power Station certainly caters to a very specific urban audience of leisure seekers and tourists, and offers little to support the everyday needs of the average London citizen.

    This, in itself, is not necessarily a problem as cities of course contain a range of different spaces catering for various audiences and purposes. The problem, as I see it, is the profusion of this specific type of space (Battersea Power Station) throughout the city, catering to this specific audience. I also can't help feeling these community investments and programmes are drawing attention from the issues around affordable housing. In 2017, Wandsworth Council permitted the development to cut its proposed affordable housing down to 9%. I personally believe that high-end developers should carry a responsibility to contribute to affordable housing schemes. Does the fact that the space provides a strong public-facing programme to engage communities and visitors to the city (albeit a very niche and wealthy pocket of said community) take away from this responsibility? I am not sure...

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