The sad story of Battersea Power Station: a graveyard of architectural visions

Few buildings have been submitted to as many masterplans and schemes as Battersea Power Station. Once again in limbo, the great red brick hulk on the south bank of the Thames has acted as a canvas for the shifting architectural visions of the decades, from fun palace to theme park to science centre to culture park to non-descript icon. In the week that Terry Farrell suggested the building be semi-demolished and returned to parkland (an idea that is fast gaining currency) what follows is an attempt at tracking the many visionary schemes that have attempted to make their mark on this unwieldy object.

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Tracking the recent history of this structure is not easy. There have been so many schemes and counter-schemes and revisions, refusals and submissions that it’s hard to tell who did what and when. The chronology at the Battersea Power Station Community Group stops at the turn of the century. The annotated and extended chronology below is largely taken from this Building Design chronology from 2006 and their ongoing news archive, with bits and pieces added in from the e-architects page on the site and The Spectacle Blog’s long and informative BPG section:


1929-35 Work starts on the power station, designed by J Theo Halliday and Giles Gilbert Scott, the ultimate temple of power


1975 ‘On 17 March, the A Station was closed after being in operation for 40 years’ (wikipedia)

1980 Battersea Power Station is grade II listed, a decision that dictates what will happen in the following decades, ensuring the site’s owners, Central Electricity Generating Board, could not simply sell an empty lot for housing.

1983 ‘On 31 October production of electricity at Station B also ended, after nearly 30 years of operation’ (wikipedia)


1983-85 The CEGB holds an ideas competition, won by Peter Legge & Associates with an industrial heritage museum, including a reconstructed section of Paxton’s Crystal Palace and the Euston Arch and the Great Eastern moored alongside. Displays on Pepys’ London, the Great Fire, Dan Dare and the space age, and the Blitz would fill the cavernous halls. There were also plans by Cedric Price (which could also be this unsigned 1984 funhouse scheme)

1986 Tycoon John Broome, once owner of Alton Towers, buys the entire plot for £1.5m. Fitzroy Robinson designs a theme park at the site, initially costed at £35m.

1989 Work on the Fitzroy Robinson scheme, including demolition that leaves the power station exposed to the elements, is halted due to escalating costs – the budget has risen to £230m. The site is left semi-derelict.

1990 Broome gets permission for another scheme, with hotels, shops and offices. It wins permission but nothing happens.

1993 The power station is bought by Victor Hwang’s Parkview for a reported £10 million (with £70 million debts).



1997 A masterplan for leisure complex by Philip Dowson of Arup Associates wins outline planning permission. Other entrants included John Outram, whose polychromatic wonderland looks fabulous in hindsight.

2000 Nicholas Grimshaw, Benson & Forsyth and Reid Architecture appointed for individual schemes.



2001 The Grimshaw scheme wins planning consent. At its heart is a permanent home for the Cirque de Soleil. Archived website.



2003 Arup’s Cecil Balmond replaces Dowson on masterplan, after Hwang sees Balmond’s collaboration with Toyo Ito on the 2002 Serpentine Pavilion. The pavilion (substantially designed by Balmond) is subsequently dismantled and re-built besides the power station as the developer’s sales and marketing office. UN Studio, West 8, Gustafson Porter and Ron Arad are also assigned to various parts of the project. The plans encompass hotels, retail, offices and even suggestions of an exclusive ‘table for two’ restaurant at the top of one of the chimneys.

2005 Parkview claims the iconic chimneys will have to be demolished and rebuilt, eventually securing permission to do this from English Heritage, despite opposition from conservationists. The scheme is costed by some sources at £1.5bn, then £2bn.


2006 Parkview’s interest stalls and the site is sold to Treasury Holdings’ REO (Real Estate Opportunities) subsidiary for £400 million. The Ito/Balmond pavilion is on the move once again, this time to the grounds of the Hotel Le Beauvallon sur Mer.

2007 Battersea Power Station upgraded to Grade II*. Rafael Viñoly Architects appointed by TH/REO


2008 July, TH/REO reveal Viñoly’s Master Plan, with landmark “Eco-Dome” and “Chimney”. The scheme is costed at £4 billion.


2009 In January, the tower is reduced from 300m to 250m. In February, the tower removed from scheme. A figure of £4.5 billion in mentioned in BD. The redesign is described by the Evening Standard as a ‘last chance‘ for the scheme.


2010 The revised scheme, now priced at £5.5bn, is granted approval in November. Meanwhile, the huge debt burden held by Treasury Holdings threatens to derail the whole scheme, as does the requirement for the developer to contribute to new transport infrastructure for the site. Originally, the Grimshaw scheme had proposed a walkway from Battersea Park Station over to the site as part of the station upgrade. Now the emphasis is on the controversial Northern Line Extension

2011 In February, more architects are added to the mix. The first phase of housing surrounding the structure is to be designed by firms like drmm and Ian Simpson Architects. Despite government support for the tube extension, the developer’s debt burden (over £500m) finally got too much and the site looks set to be sold once again.


2011 A speculative proposal by Terry Farrell suggests a combination of demolition, restoration and landscaping.

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At this juncture, the odd mix of fantastical and functional that has been associated with Battersea Power Station finally looks it has run its course. No-one really came close to a scheme that satisfied everyone, from financiers to planners to local interest groups. Despite sitting on a 13-acre site, the power station itself was inevitably crowded by great glass cliffs of houses and offices, wrapping around it in an attempt to bolster the financial return. Vinoly’s preposterous tower, a last gasp before recession bit, simply showed the desperate situation that REO was in; having bought at the top of the market in 2006, they stood little to no chance of ever making a return.

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Bits and pieces stand out, like Ron Arad’s Upperworld Hotel, which was to have been part of the Parkview Grimshaw scheme (ditched in 2005), masterplanned by Arup and ditched in 2007. Archiclog’s recent post on the building’s media career, Pigs Have Flown, cites perhaps the only representation that splices past, present and future together – Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, where the building becomes an ‘ark of the arts‘ in a sequence that uses CGI Battersea exteriors, Tate Modern interiors and Pink Floyd’s pig (referenced in the 1984 Legge scheme by replica barrage balloons).

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Similarly, Vinoly’s massive chimney was off the wall in term of the scale of the surrounding area and the longstanding perception of the power station itself as a powerful piece of urban sculpture, viewable from all over London (see Battersea Power Station – a disturbing post-industrial landscape (pdf), a thesis by Emilie Koefoed on the nostalgic value of industrial ruins). Farrell’s proposal explicitly acknowledges this, giving the local community the park it has always wanted, preserving the remnants of the structure that are most important (the chimneys). Bizarrely, though, the renderings show the wholesale demolition of the west flank, home to the amazing – fully restored – control rooms, images of which abound in the internet: Matt Livey, Pridian.net, Ramson, etc. etc.

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This is by no means an exhaustive chronicle of the many, many proposals for Battersea Power Station. For every signature scheme that came and went, there were presumably tens of failed competition entrants, invited or otherwise, amateur schemes, student designs, ideas competitions and speculative masterplans. As an object in the urban landscape, Battersea stands supreme, having swallowed literally 100s of millions of pounds in a quarter century of procrastination, missteps, and thwarted ambition. It looms over the city’s imagination (I, II, III, IV, V). Right now, the Farrell scheme – suitably adapted to retain the industrial heritage at the heart of the site, seems like the most pragmatic way forward.

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12 Responses to The sad story of Battersea Power Station: a graveyard of architectural visions

  1. archiclog says:

    A highly enjoyable post on a fantastic building.
    As far as I know, that ‘funhouse’ section (featuring indoor balloons and all) is from the 1984 competition-winning scheme by the consortium of Peter Legge Associates, Sir David Roche, Leisure and Recreation Concepts and Alton Towers Ltd.
    Cedric Price’s ‘Bathat’ scheme, published in BD around the same time, was his personal response to the official competition – unfortunately that’s the only image I’ve found of it.
    Battersea is dead. Long live Battersea!

    • things magazine says:

      Thanks for the comment. The Legge scheme presented on his website is similar in concept but rather differently presented to the ‘funhouse‘. So Legge’s ideas were ultimately passed over in favour of Fitzroy Robinson? The latter certainly retained the marina in front of the power station. Interesting that all this was happening just a few years before Hewison’s The Heritage Industry really drew attention to industrial nostalgia.

      • archiclog says:

        I’m not sure quite what happened there, it all gets a bit murky.
        Legge’s scheme on their website is, as you say, rather different. That funhouse image is from an article in which Legge pretty much denies any involvement with the proposal illustrated, instead claiming that Leisure and Recreation Concepts (a Texas-based firm) was behind it, and if I remember correctly, hadn’t even seen the building! The article in question is sat in a box somewhere amongst a deep pile of Battersea-related journal-article-goodness. It’d be interesting to find out which of the two sets of drawings came first – did one scheme mutate into the other, or are they entirely unconnected?
        I’m pretty certain John Broome’s ‘Battersea Fun Park’, by Fitzroy Robinson, was a development of the winning scheme of 1984, but this could just be another of the many rumours, myths, speculations and actual occurrences that Battersea’s played host to…

  2. I adore this building. I even wrote about it in a brief blog post in 2007: http://www.aggregat456.com/2007/10/thats-some-pig.html

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  4. This is to me the most famous industrial building in the world. See my photographic report from november 2007: I had the opportunity to enter the building site and to rise up to the chiminey base (text in german only).
    Download PDF:
    http://www.baunetz.de/baunetzwoche/baunetzwoche_ausgabe_90528.html

  5. Havelock says:

    It surely is an iconic building. The images of it are deep in the conscience. However, like us all, mortal, it can’t last forever.

  6. Stuart Clark says:

    I believe the interior was used for filming of the movie RocknRolla? I wonder how many other movies were shot there – maybe they should convert it into a studio?!

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