A national landmark that has been immortalised in British pop culture, London’s Battersea Power Station gets an electrifying makeover as a mixed use development, 40 years after it ceased operation – due in part to the vision of a Malaysian consortium
When the monumental Thames-side brick cathedral of London’s Battersea Power Station opened to the public after almost 40 years in October 2022, the king of Malaysia was the guest of honour. He was invited to unveil a commemorative plaque, in recognition that the power station’s rebirth would never haver happened without Malaysian intervention. Battersea Power Station is a four-chimneyed brick building on the Thames that was built to generate London’s electricity in the 1930s. It’s a national landmark, featuring in films, album covers, music videos and during the 2012 London Olympics. But after shutting down in 1983, the power station became the city’s most distinctive ruin. Developers arrived with bold dreams and fanciful promises – theatres! Theme parks! Football stadiums! – before departing, defeated by the scale, expense and complexity of the project.
That changed when a Malaysian consortium made up of Sime Darby Property, SP Setia and the Employees’ Provident Fund bought the 40-acre site in 2012. Sarah Banham, Head of Communities and Sustainability, who has worked on the development since 2006 praises the shareholders “resilience and vision” in the uncertain climate of Brexit and Covid. Under their guidance, Battersea Power Station has become the centrepiece of one of London’s most exciting developments.
“Battersea Power Station holds a special place in people’s hearts both in London, the UK and around the globe”
says Malaysian Dato’ Jagan Sabapathy, Chairman of Battersea Project Holding Company. “Visitors to Battersea Power Station from Malaysia can expect to experience something truly unique. Nowhere else in the world can people shop, eat, drink, play and work inside a former coal-fired power station that is steeped in history, culture and has an overarching sense of place and community. The opening of Battersea Power Station is a turning point for this riverside neighbourhood and the pinnacle of ten years of hard work and dedication.”
It has been a remarkable transformation. Abandoned and roofless, the mouldering power station was home to nothing more than a pair of roosting peregrine falcons in 2012; now it welcomes tens of thousands of daily visitors – and the falcons have their own specially built penthouse nest. The hard work of restoration was overseen by architects Wilkinson Eyre. Walls had to be rebuilt, six million bricks cleaned and repointed, and 1.75 million bricks sourced and replaced. All four chimneys, corroded by decades of chemicals, were demolished and rebuilt. One chimney has now been converted into a lift – a glass capsule that pops out the top with views across the Thames.
In the huge central boiler house, where workers once stoked furnaces as hot as the sun, offices have been built for Apple, a blue-chip tenant that signifies the calibre of the development. The boiler house is flanked on either side by two turbine halls, filled with shops, restaurants and a cinema. More than 250 apartments have been built into the upper floors, where residents have access to splendid roof gardens. But it’s the shops that have been attracting visitors since October, with the power station offering a unique retail experience for Londoners. Retailers include Royal Selangor, Malaysian pewterware specialists, whose collection includes items inspired the power station. “The idea is to have a brand for everybody,” explains Will Emery, a member of the communications team.
“Affordable high street brands, some premium brand and then smaller brands such as Creative Makers, who work with around 40 local artists”
Overlooking the western turbine hall is Control Room A, a fabulous art deco space with parquet flooring and gorgeous finishing and detail. This will be used for events, while Control Room B has been converted into a space age cocktail bar. There are two control rooms because Battersea was originally two power stations, built side-by-side: Battersea A opened in 1933, while Battersea B, delayed because of the Second World War, entered service in 1944. It wasn’t finished until 1955, when the fourth chimney went up.
The building was designed with immense care by architect Giles Gilbert Scott, partly because of its prominent location on the Thames close to Westminster.
Indeed, when the building was first proposed in 1930, campaigners including King George V were concerned about the impact it would have on the homes and residents of central London. Scott’s beautiful building helped alleviate those concerns, and the detail has been retained by Wilkinson Eyre, with exposed brickwork and old crane gantries kept in place. This industrial heritage is present in the flats – most of which have been sold – and the shops. “We have ship containers full of things from the power station and can give retailers things like old safes and parquet flooring to enhance their environment,” says Banham. “There’s a sense of fun and informality about it.”
The once empty land around the power station has been converted into shops, restaurants, hotels and apartments, creating a new town centre with buildings designed by acclaimed architects such as Norman Foster and Frank Gehry. There’s a new Tube station and public spaces, including Malaysia Square, which has a design inspired by the Mulu caves. Malaysia Square will be the focal point of regular events as part of a carefully curated events programme. One particularly popular area of the development is Arches Lane, which utilises the old railway arches and includes a cinema and theatre as Roti King, a hugely successful Malaysian restaurant. “Half of our office go there every lunchtime,” admits Banham.
Battersea is already buzzing but the development is only half completed, with further buildings planned for the eastern side of the site to provide even more homes, shops and offices. The completed development will bring 20,000 jobs to the region, and there’s huge demand for existing apartments through the in-house leasing agents. The responsibility now for the shareholders is to ensure the development maintains the mix of retailers and events that have already proved so successful.
“Malaysia has played an important role in restoring a piece of the UK’s industrial heritage so it can be enjoyed by all for generations to come”
says Sabapathy. “Battersea Power Station demonstrates what can be achieved by the Malaysian people working collaboratively with partners from across the world, to deliver inspirational projects and reinforces the close and longstanding relationship between the UK and Malaysia. We can be extremely proud.”
Words by Peter Watts