We may be used to it for international cultural buildings, but at Prospect Place, the architect's signature style is unorthodox in the extreme, says Hugh Pearman
‘The Battersea will open in 1990, the culmination of seven years of meticulous planning, to generate excitement, thrills, fun and pleasure in a safe, weatherproof environment – a new Palace of Entertainment for London.’ So boasts the 1988 glossy brochure that I have kept all these years.
The progenitor of The Battersea was John Broome, an entrepreneur and tourism adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He owned the Alton Towers theme park and wanted to make the redundant power station into a southern equivalent. He got no further than removing the roof of the place to take the machinery out before rising costs killed the project. That left it a roofless deteriorating ruin for the succeeding decades as owners and plans came and went. But finally, a deep-pocketed developer and a mixed-use formula stuck and – miracle of miracles – Battersea Power Station is now starting to feel like a proper bit of London.
Of course, I must throw in handfuls of caveats. Because of London’s insane land values and the need to cross-subsidise the immense cost of restoring the crumbling brick-clad power station with its carefully reconstructed chimneys, a lot of high-end new building had to fill the site. Although there is a decent amount of ‘affordable’ housing for locals by London standards, this is not on the main site, rather shunted to the separate New Mansion Square development across the busy road to the south.
So there’s no getting away from the fact that the main event is for the international wealthy property-investment market. Then again, we can all go there – something made easy by the opening of the Northern Line extension through Nine Elms with its Grimshaw-designed stations. The Battersea Power Station site is open, permeable through to and along the river bank, with shops, cafes, restaurants, entertainment venues, the usual. Of course, it is all private really, but the illusion is agreeable. They need us there for our trade and the place overall is unusual enough not to be the formulaic London developer fare.
Which brings us to the Gehry Partners-designed apartment and townhouse complex known as Prospect Place, immediately south of the power station. The modelling is classic Gehry, most signature of signature styles, love it or hate it. The first pair of 15-floor blocks, now complete, is arranged either side of a raised residents’ garden. A skirt of beefy steel-and-glass canopies shelters retail units at street level – single-storey on the higher eastern roadway, double-height on the lower Electric Boulevard, which will be the principal pedestrian approach and ‘high street’ to the whole site.
This is Gehry’s first large development in the UK, and he and partner Craig Webb have paid close attention to the project, outside and in. The first thing they did was to break down their part of the Rafael Vinoly masterplan, from an indicated vast crescent into five separate pieces, three yet to be built. For comparison, there are just two Foster-designed buildings flanking Gehry’s domain on the other side of Electric Boulevard: Foster’s is a long, snaking residential megastructure with roof garden, including a hotel and a smaller office building, separated out because of its greater slab-to-slab heights.
This Gehry/Foster quarter is Phase 3 of the Battersea development, with renovation of the actual power station being Phase 2, though both are coming to fruition at the same time. The risk in pulling apart an indicated large block into smaller pieces as Gehry has done in this way is that the whole thing becomes sub-phaseable. One hopes that the other three Gehry blocks will be built – and soon. All five are designed to work as an overall composition, with a central, more vertically-arranged ‘star’ building.
Talking to Craig Webb in Gehry's Los Angeles office, the origin of the design becomes clear. Firstly, they wanted it to contrast clearly with the great brick mass of the power station. Their point of reference was London’s Nash terraces with their cream-painted facades. Gehry noted – as Cedric Price had done years before – that these terraces are at their best on a dull, foggy London winter’s day. ‘They glow in the diffuse light of London’, as Webb puts it. Similarly, they rejected the fully-glazed curtain wall approach as represented by Phase 1 (‘Circus West Village’ by SimpsonHaugh), preferring the more domestic feel of punched and bay windows. Meanwhile, the private raised garden between the two blocks is a modern interpretation of the keyholder gardens of London’s Georgian and Victorian squares.
They did consider painted render á la Nash, only to rule it out on maintenance grounds – repainting every four or five years was not an option. Finally, they plumped for an aluminium cladding system coated in a stippled soft white – semi-matt, not too shiny. They worked with a favoured cladding contractor, Italy-based Permasteelisa, used to working with the mighty computer power of the Gehry office to produce the multitude of non-standard panels required. The staggered stacks of bay windows (‘winter gardens’) are in a contrasting pale grey.
In a similar way, no two floorplans of the Prospect Place apartments are alike, though as Webb points out, while the perimeter squirms this way and that, there is more standardisation than you might think at the centre of the plan, in kitchens and bathrooms especially. The deep modelling of the facades provides scope for a number of roof terraces on the upper levels, with balconies below. Structurally the blocks are concrete-framed, though not orthogonal: columns pass through the apartments at sometimes unexpected angles and, rather than being hidden or boxed in, are celebrated. At the ends, roof terraces for the penthouses make an appearance.
This is part of Gehry’s insistence that the architecture must run all the way through. Battersea’s development director, Tom Cazalet, confirms that there were intense levels of dialogue about the interiors. These eventually boiled down to two main palettes: a darker (perhaps smokier) ‘London’ one and a lighter, brighter ‘LA’ one. There are some chunky timber Gehry touches such as the kitchen tables, and rough-sawn timber finishes to cabinet doors and elsewhere in the common areas, plus shapely spiral stairs in the duplexes, but nothing to frighten the horses. I was amused to see that – even here – the apartments have the standard London developer cover-up detail of little skirting boards: I’d have expected something more exaggerated.
Cazalet says that the overall construction costs for the Foster and Gehry buildings are comparable, despite the greater external complexity of Gehry’s – something he ascribes to the famous computer power Gehry brings to bear.
Overall? We may be used to it for cultural buildings internationally, but in the London residential market, Gehry’s sculptural approach is unorthodox in the extreme. I don’t find it strident as some do. It is characterfully and intelligently planned, and the power station, towards which it and its gardens are aligned, remains the centre of gravity of everything here. I like the fact that people will be able to identify their home from outside with ease. Given the money, would I choose to live here? Lured by the tube station, and somewhat to my surprise, yes. As a little pied-à-terre, you understand.
Blocks 5, two built to date
Shops and restaurants on Electric Boulevard 40
Total site area 17ha
Eventual population (entire site) 25,000
Client Battersea Power Station
Architect Gehry Partners
Structural engineer Robert Bird Group
Construction manager Sir Robert McAlpine
Landscape architect LDA Design
Quantity surveyor AECOM
MEP consultants Chapmans/Cundalls
Cladding contractor Permasteelisa